A reading of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

The spaces our body occupies.

Some months ago when I was on a plane, I saw a big, round fat guy walking down the aisle, and I thought, “Oh no, I’m going to be squished if he sits here,“ and then “Oh no, not here.” His seat ended up being right next to mine. He gave me a small smile and adjusted himself, covering the whole seat and a little more. I noticed he had an extra seat belt that he attached to the regular one. He lifted the armrest. I still had space and I could always use the left armrest. “I hope you don’t mind if I put this up,” he said. “No, I don’t mind,” I said. “The last guy got mad at me for lifting it up.” “It’s no problem,” I assured him. He turned on the AC, because I imagine he was hot. I turned mine on too. His forehead was sweating. We talked for a bit about where we were going and how frustrating it was getting on a busy plane. I always felt like you weren’t safe until you sat down. I could tell there was a feeling of awkwardness, as if the guy didn’t know how I would react because he had been treated unfairly in the past, and I also noticed his bigness was a contradiction to my small frame and the plane in general. I don’t remember if I fell asleep or started reading, but I remember he was a nice guy and seemed happy that he did not have to fight for extra space. I felt guilty about my first thoughts, being greedy about the space I occupied, when in reality I had plenty of space leftover. He helped us remove our bags from the top compartment, and we thanked him. “I’m in the last seat, I might as well,” he said. I thought about how hard it must be for a big person to get on a plane when you have to squeeze into an already crowded space with no leg room.

After reading Hunger, by Roxane Gay I started thinking about how people perceive us in the spaces our body occupies, and how we are openly judged based on the shape of our body. In my case, it often relates to my height, which makes me seem younger than I really am; it gives people a chance to question my authority or role. Much can be said from how we physically present ourselves, but at the end of the day it’s an incomplete picture of who we are. Our likeness is not revealed solely through our body shape, height or size, but also through our personality, and other characteristics that make us unique. But society has always put a larger value on appearance. Our bodies reveal a history about us, and that history is different for everyone, and we should be able to express that truth and find a body shape that makes the most sense for us.

We are the product of a narrow-minded society that sees the ideal body shape as skinny or slender. We have been conditioned to hate our bodies if they do not somehow resemble the ones on commercials or magazines. We often do more harm to ourselves than necessary, as a result of comparing ourselves to unrealistic body types.

​Gay writes that she gained weight as a way to create a fortress, so no one could trespass her, which at the same time made her ashamed because she could not forget her past. Whenever she occupied a space, she was seen for how much fat she carried and not for her abilities or who she was beyond the exterior. She viewed her body through the lens of what she had been taught: that fat bodies were not beautiful or sexy; they needed to be tamed and subject to forced exercise. In a lot of ways her bigness restricted her from doing the normal things skinnier, more slender individuals take for granted. For example, when you’re fat the idea of femininity is often dictated by what one considers safe, so as not to let your guard down and give people a chance to ridicule you if you wear something risqué for example. In Gay’s case she chose to hide her body under masculine shirts or dark clothing. For her, being girly or sexy did not correlate with being fat.

I sobbed because the world cannot accommodate a body like mine and because I hate being confronted by my limitations and because I felt utterly alone and because I no longer need the layers of protection I built around myself but pulling those layers is harder than i could have ever imagined. -Roxane Gay

​Gay’s experience is illuminating, as to what a big person goes through. She puts her heart out there, in an honest way, explaining why she gained weight, and the reasons why it is difficult to loose it, which is not just a matter of working out and eating right. For years, people have constantly reminded her why it’s important to diet or the ways she can lose weight, repeating to her that she must change, which does more harm than good. The cycle of eating, losing and gaining weight can have its own harmful effects, especially if you believe you owe something to the people around you, and if you don’t lose that weight you will inevitably let them down. Most people forget about the emotional aspect of being told over and over that you have to lose weight so others can love you. With that kind of pressure, failure seems inevitable.

I start to crave foods, any foods. I get uncontrollable urges to binge, satisfy the growing ache, to fill the hallowness of feeling alone around the people who are supposed to love me the most, to soothe the pain of having the same painful conversations year after year after year after year. -Roxane Gay

At the end of the day, you can only answer to yourself. The best way to love yourself is doing what your bodies needs, and it’s likely that path is not the one other people envisioned for you, but as Gay acknowledged, she was worthy of love and being taken care of long before she realized it.

Cooking reminds me that I am capable of taking care of myself and worthy of taking care of and nourishing myself. -Roxane Gay

Learning about Gay’s experience was eye opening to the experience of big people and the humiliations they face. Often we cannot empathize, since we’re on the other side of the spectrum, and we think that fat people owe something to society because they’re taking up space and immediately want them to feel guilty for not following what we deem as normal behavior. Despite not knowing their story, it’s common for people to throw an unfair judgment, based on how we have been conditioned to think about our own bodies.

People who are considered of normal weight are invisible within a crowd. No one will think you are unhealthy. When you are skinny, eating fast food comes with little guilt since you know it won’t be difficult to lose whatever fat it added to your body. You do feel guilty once it starts showing on your stomach thighs or other places, and then you can’t but help but feel sorry for yourself that you had pizza again, and someone will invariably tell you that’s unhealthy. We know. Sometimes forcing a strict diet doesn’t work either, because items that are labeled off-limits are the ones you will secretly end up eating. It’s natural to want to indulge yourself once in a while, depending what foods and to what degree, and it helps working out every so often out of habit, but not solely as a tool of recourse to combat whatever fatty foods you ate.

Exercise should not only be seen as a way to lose weight, but also as a way your body energizes itself and becomes stronger. In order to survive you need food and movement, and that movement can be a variety of things; it doesn’t solely mean going to the gym and working our for hours. (I secretly dislike the gym since it makes me feel like a hamster.) The idea of exercise has been hijacked by those obsessed with perfect bodies and gadgets, which presents a limiting picture for the rest us who are trying to lose weight or gain muscle in a healthy way. Exercise should be about one’s livelihood, health and spirituality. It should not be tied to a narcissistic attempt at perfect body or the “right body type.”