Reading Roxane Gay and talking about fat

This week a couple of projects came to a close and my body took one look at a potential day off and came down with a stinking cold, so I snuggled down with a book.

I chose Hunger by Roxane Gay. 

I first read Gay’s work back in 2010, in lit zines and at Fictionaut. Much of it included beautiful women having sex — in empowered (His Name Is), overwhelmed (Problems Pretty Girls With Pretty Faces Face), mystical (The Weight of Water) or painful (Requiem for a Glass Heart) ways. Female ‘beauty’ in fiction is usually described as tall, petite, golden, brown, black-haired, blonde, slender, rangy or a whole list of other things I am not. Sexy MCs aren’t short, mousy, freckled women, so I read as an outsider, enjoying the torn complexity of Men Don’t Leave Me, or Ever. Happily. After‘s contrariness and humour. As a body of work, her writing struck me as angry.

Then this week I picked up Hunger.

The story goes: Gay was attacked as a young girl, ate a lot, and didn’t starve it all off. The book charts her reaction to childhood trauma with restraint; this is not a misery memoir, and we’re not given gratuitous details. We’re told that she had a tough time, ate, topped 500 lbs, and doesn’t like flimsy chairs with arms. Then we’re invited to consider the society we live in, including attitudes to body size, and to understand the effect we have on people when we assume that those in our life will all exist within our personal ‘normal’ size range, or that those who overeat do so for fun.

Many of the issues in the book could apply equally to anyone with a need for control, the need for safety, a hunger for self-acceptance, fear and tiredness of being judged, and running from pain. Still, although it warns otherwise, this feels like a relative success story: a woman who is overcoming trauma, who carved out a life and career and held onto a lovely family.  Although the pain, restraint and discomfort come through, it’s a warm narrative which invites us to consider what’s been left unsaid.

It also made me think about fat.

Fat.

Fat’s an enormous issue for us right now, and one of my soapboxes. We have an obesity epidemic. We also have a marketing epidemic which I might argue is the more pervasive: the ‘diet’ industry is a parasitic machine that ultimately does not want us to reach peak health and happiness, because if we all did, the industry would die.

What is fat?

I’m a scientist. Fat is an energy reserve. It’s fuel and protection: warmth, energy, and bilipid membranes. It is necessary, we evolved to use it as winter sustenance, a source of survival and power. When Gay says she ate to be strong, to build herself a fortress, on a fundamental, biological level this makes sense.

Fat is stored food. In days gone by, fat was survival.

Is fat ugly?

Beauty is in the eye – we may or may not like the aesthetic – but why is ‘ugly’ even a word?

I’m not overweight but I’ve been called fat and ugly many times. (I’ve had that relationship.) I’ve spent a long time pondering the relevance of ‘ugly’.

Why is there not a word (*is there?) for that gorgeous, tingling, freeing feeling when you take off your shoes and socks at the end of a hard day? And yet instead we have created a word that means we personally don’t like the look of something and we’d like to share our negative view, even at the expense of others?

Why?

Some of the things we say, and don’t say, are the result of crap linguists. History is full of people who didn’t get everything right, and our language reflects this. We should know this when we speak.

In any case, to me, fat is mainly functional. On my own body, I like to keep a small cushion (reserve, hormone balance), but not enough to weigh down my joints. I like to be agile rather than a particular size. Aesthetically, e.g. if choosing a lover, I like the way people move rather than a particular weight or shape. If someone’s relatively fit, that’s a good thing – but let’s talk about eyes, smiles and intelligence as well, please. And my platonic friends can be any shape at all; I really don’t think of it as being my business.

(* Was half-expecting some sort of German kenning for ‘happy feet’. Fußglück, vielleicht? Is that a word already? Can we get to the end of a long day on our feet, prise off our shoes and socks, flex our feet and sigh, “Aaaah, Fußglück!”)

Is fat a healthcare issue?

Yes. Maintaining one’s weight at some sort of median mid-range level means you are statistically (population stats) less likely to suffer from various conditions, e.g. Type II diabetes, various heart disorders, joint disorders etc. As a population, being very overweight carries some health risks, which in the UK means a burden on the NHS. Not all fat people are unhealthy, but excessive fat will cause issues in many people.

The same can be said of not eating a balanced diet, not taking exercise, not getting enough sleep, substance abuse including drugs and alcohol, dangerous hobbies, fighting, having children in your early teens or late forties, cycling without a helmet, blah, blah, blah. You’re with me. And you know the person who never drinks, never stays up late, never strokes strange dogs, never… yeah, them.

I went to A&E the other day and saw a grown man in there with a mouse bite on his toe. “It was a wild mouse, a WILD mouse,” he said, looking at my face. “Wild…”

A wild mouse.

Societal panic

“Fat!”
“I am not!” 

We don’t want to be fat. We’d rather be thin, even though starvation can kill you faster than overeating. This is marketing. Whoever came up with the diet industry was a business genius – let’s tell people they should be what their bodies will constantly rebel against, and then when they fail, let’s market a lifelong solution that can never work. Kudos on the financial front but zero points for morals.

Be thin! Lose weight! Flat tummy! This does not mean ‘be happy, be active, be strong!’

I personally would like all ‘diet’ foods to be banned. Saccharin-rich, processed foods that only fill you up if you skew your portion sizes. We could grow a generation that does not know how to eat normally.

Meanwhile, I know that if someone’s calling me fat, they’re not giving me a compliment – they’re being rude. My wish to be accepted, to be liked, to be included in a wide, warm human circle (and not ostracised or criticised) makes me want to be thinner until I recall the winters of old.

Gay’s book made me consider how I view my own body and others’. It made me wonder whether I cater for large or small people in my home. (My chairs wobble.) It made me wonder, what would it be like to weigh 500 lbs? Given how I reacted (with brevity) when strangers opined all over my pregnancies, how would I welcome their opinions on my weight? Yeah, right.

It brings me back to a moment when I was twelve – the same age as Gay when she was attacked. I sat in a class and the teacher, Mr B, asked, “What right do you have to be here?” – and none of us could answer. (I have blogged separately about the full story of Mr B because it underpins a lot of what I write.)

We have every right to be here. To live, breathe, and be safe. We do not owe anyone an explanation, or justification, for the space we use.

I hope Gay wanted to write that book. Because now she has.

7 comments

  1. claireking9 says:

    Thought provoking post, thanks. Last night I discovered both my girls know how many calories they ‘should’ be eating. This has not come from our house, where we focus on hungry or not, and balanced diet. I’m angry with whoever put that in their heads to mess with their natural ability to satisfy themselves with a variety of enjoyable foods. Separately, your comment made me look up the etymology of ugly, which it turns out comes from old Norse for something inspiring fear or dread. Pretty apposite, actually. What are people afraid of?

    • TU says:

      Yes, I find talk of calories annoying too. We fend off comments about “diets” and “fat” (the boys hear it too) and mine have already asked if they are the right weight. I ask how they feel. I’ve spent my life hooked up to weights and calories, it’s a hard habit to break. With the children I have faith that we can manage it without weighing them. Myself? Still hooked, for now.

  2. Chris Galvin says:

    A serious and well-thought-out post full of strong points. The obsession people have with appearance drives me nuts. No matter what you look like, someone will find something to deride. Why can’t we just rejoice in all the differences. It bothers me too that once in a while, I catch myself thinking “that person is_____.” Fill in the blank with whatever…the adjective doesn’t matter; what does matter is that I don’t want to think these things, but oh, how hard it is to break habits that are shaped from an early age. Just like the habits of checking calories, weighing ourselves and so on.

    I’m just going to wiggle my toes now and pronounce “Aaaah, Fußglück!” That’s the kind of thinking I need to do more of.

    • TU says:

      Yes to this. I even find myself getting annoyed at a friend who always describes people as ‘lovely’ – I mean, almost always when she mentions someone, she’ll say ‘they’re lovely’ – because I’m sick of people being described. ‘Lovely’ buys into that. It seeks approval. I don’t want to seek approval, don’t want to assess people for approval.

  3. pjlazos says:

    Thanks for this. I will pick up the book. I am incensed by not only the diet industry, but by companies by Monsanto which, by their very existence turns every nutritious piece of food into a chemical-laden health hazard, and Kelloggs who not only adds terrible preservatives to their cereals (TBHQ, for e.g.), but use up all our natural resources (like Nestle and water). The system is rigged against health and mainly for profit and until everyone starts opting out and voting with their wallets in the checkout line at he grocery, nothing will change. Even the opioid epidemic in the U.S. Can be traced back to corporate greed and asvertising.
    Sad that our mentality has to be check and double check everything because it could be detrimental to our health and wellbeing.😩

    • TU says:

      It would be eye-opening if the food shops were all filled only with unprocessed foods. Fruit, veg, chunks of meat, and grains or maybe we could go for flours etc. Checking the ingredients of e.g. manufactured breads, cakes and yoghurts etc is no mean feat because all ingredients could be detrimental at a certain dose, so fitting a perspective to some of the more obscure chemicals without details of quantity is impossible.

Fling your veg: