Hunger by Roxane Gay: A Memoir Review
TWs: discussion of eating disorders, sexual assault
When I was looking through my TBR trying to figure out what to read next, I discovered that Hunger was available on audiobook from my library and immediately dove in without reading any kind of summary. It was a book I needed to read for a project, and all I really knew was that this book had been a big deal when it had first come out. I was re-reminded of it as Roxane Gay announced she was pulling her podcast from Spotify as not to share airspace with Joe Rogan. Over the years, I've seen Tweets or heard random podcast episodes with Gay, so I was curious to finally read her writing.
This book is quite heavy and does not hold back when it comes to a multitude of potentially harmful or triggering topics, so proceed with caution. Still, that's the only approach that would allow any substance in a book like this. Hunger is comprised of a multitude of short essays that follow a narrative arc generally starting in her childhood and ending in her present thoughts, feelings, and realities around her size and relationship with food. There are few people for which food isn't at least a somewhat fraught topic, but it's so rarely honestly and boldly discussed, and that's likely why this book became so popular. Even though you likely won't be able to relate to most of the specifics of her story in one way or another, she writes in a sense that invites the reader to connect with the essential truths beyond the details and reflect on the gross, unfortunate, humiliating, and demoralizing ways that we frame bodies and the people who inhabit those bodies in our society.
Another huge part of the book revolves around responding to the trauma of being sexually assaulted in her childhood and how that became the impetus for seeing food as safety and food as refuge. While an intense part of the narrative, I found it to be an extremely important thread to draw together an impact of a trauma like that on people's relationships with food, whether that leads to something like binge eating or another kind of disordered eating behavior, those are very real and not uncommon reactions. This part of the story sort of runs in dual narrative to the one in which she reconciles what it means to live with what she dubs a "unruly" body.
From discussing the added layers of anxiety about finding a suitable place to sit when going out to having more limited physical mobility to facing a lack of care and respect when seeing medical providers, each essay discusses a new hurdle to not perfectly conforming to societal expectations of size. Those stories, in conversation with but also isolated from the particularly more obvious implications around attractiveness and self-esteem, show how much extra mental strain it takes to live in a world that was not designed for you in one or many ways.
This book was a quick read. I finished the audiobook in a day and enjoyed the performance as the book was read by Gay herself. It was thought provoking and frustrating and comforting at different times and in different ways and it does manage to hold up well five years after publication. It feels as relevant and true as ever.
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