Hunger Read online
for you, my sunshine, showing me what I no longer need and finding the way to my warm
About the Author
Also by Roxane Gay
About the Publisher
Every body has a story and a history. Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger.
The story of my body is not a story of triumph. This is not a weight-loss memoir. There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across this book’s cover, with me standing in one leg of my former, fatter self’s jeans. This is not a book that will offer motivation. I don’t have any powerful insight into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites. Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.
I wish, so very much, that I could write a book about triumphant weight loss and how I learned how to live more effectively with my demons. I wish I could write a book about being at peace and loving myself wholly, at any size. Instead, I have written this book, which has been the most difficult writing experience of my life, one far more challenging than I could have ever imagined. When I set out to write Hunger, I was certain the words would come easily, the way they usually do. And what could be easier to write about than the body I have lived in for more than forty years? But I soon realized I was not only writing a memoir of my body; I was forcing myself to look at what my body has endured, the weight I gained, and how hard it has been to both live with and lose that weight. I’ve been forced to look at my guiltiest secrets. I’ve cut myself wide open. I am exposed. That is not comfortable. That is not easy.
I wish I had the kind of strength and willpower to tell you a triumphant story. I am in search of that kind of strength and willpower. I am determined to be more than my body—what my body has endured, what my body has become. Determination, though, has not gotten me very far.
Writing this book is a confession. These are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me. This is my truth. This is a memoir of (my) body because, more often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided. People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know the why of my body. They do not. This is not a story of triumph, but this is a story that demands to be told and deserves to be heard.
This is a book about my body, about my hunger, and ultimately, this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood. This is a book about learning, however slowly, to allow myself to be seen and understood.
To tell you the story of my body, do I tell you how much I weighed at my heaviest? Do I tell you that number, the shameful truth of it always strangling me? Do I tell you I know I should not consider the truth of my body shameful? Or do I just tell you the truth while holding my breath and awaiting your judgment?
At my heaviest, I weighed 577 pounds at six feet, three inches tall. That is a staggering number, one I can hardly believe, but at one point, that was the truth of my body. I learned of the number at a Cleveland Clinic in Weston, Florida. I don’t know how I let things get so out of control, but I do.
My father went with me to Cleveland Clinic. I was in my late twenties. It was July. Outside, it was hot and muggy and lushly green. In the clinic, the air was frigid and antiseptic. Everything was slick, expensive wood, marble. I thought, This is how I am spending my summer vacation.
There were seven other people in the meeting room—an orientation session for gastric bypass surgery—two fat guys, a slightly overweight woman and her thin husband, two people in lab coats, and another large woman. As I surveyed my surroundings, I did that thing fat people tend to do around other fat people—I measured myself in relation to their size. I was bigger than five, smaller than two. At least, that is what I told myself. For $270, I spent a good portion of my day listening to the benefits of having my anatomy drastically altered to lose weight. It was, the doctors said, “the only effective therapy for obesity.” They were doctors. They were supposed to know what was best for me. I wanted to believe them.
A psychiatrist talked to those of us assembled about how to prepare for the surgery, how to deal with food once our stomachs became the size of a thumb, how to accept that the “normal people” (his words, not mine) in our lives might try to sabotage our weight loss because they were invested in the idea of us as fat people. We learned how our bodies would be nutrient-deprived for the rest of our lives, how we would never be able to eat or drink within half an hour of doing one or the other. Our hair would thin, maybe fall out. Our bodies could be prone to dumping syndrome, a condition whose name doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to decipher. And of course, there were the surgical risks. We could die on the operating table or succumb to infection in the days following the procedure.
It was a good news/bad news scenario. Bad news: our lives and bodies would never be the same (if we even survived the surgery). Good news: we would be thin. We would lose 75 percent of our excess weight within the first year. We would become next to normal.
What those doctors offered was so tempting, so seductive: this notion that we could fall asleep for a few hours, and within a year of waking up, most of our problems would be solved, at least according to the medical establishment. That is, of course, if we continued to delude ourselves that our bodies were our biggest problem.
After the presentation there was a question-and-answer session. I had neither questions nor answers, but the woman to my right, the woman who clearly did not need to be there because she was no more than forty or so pounds overweight, dominated the session, asking intimate, personal questions that broke my heart. As she interrogated the doctors, her husband sat next to her, smirking. It became clear why she was there. It was all about him and how he saw her body. There is nothing sadder, I thought, choosing to ignore why I was sitting in that same r