Early on in New York Times-bestselling author Roxane Gay’s powerful, must-read book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, she acknowledges that writing it has been the most difficult process of her career.
Branding it a “true story,” rather than a “success story,” Gay notes that rather than following the reality TV trajectory of triumphant weight loss overcoming her demons, it is more a request to consider the harm done by ignoring the reality faced by women who do not fit the body-beautiful mould.
“More often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided,” she writes.
“People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know ‘the why’ of my body. They do not.”
Sadly, as the furore surrounding a podcast interview for Mia Friedman’s Mamamia underlined, too often others do not stop to listen, to understand.
Hunger is a vital treatise about being seen and heard. About showing empathy for the stories that go untold, including those of people of colour and queer people. It’s also about brutal truths.
When she was 12, the boy Gay was dating led her to an abandoned cottage where she was gang-raped by him and his friends.
It is a horrifying fact that Gay struggles to share and one that destroyed her confidence and ability to be loved, something she wrestles with to this day.
Eating as a means to survive that pain wasn’t simply about the immediate comfort food offered, but also about building her body into a fortress that would dissuade men from hurting her again.
The rapid growth of Gay’s profile as one of the go-to voices of contemporary feminism gives her a platform, however personally difficult, to tackle the damage done by onerous and unrealistic ideals, those propagated by reality TV and celebrity gossip magazines.
Initially drawn to The Biggest Loser, even toying with the idea of auditioning, Gay now says she sees it in a very different light.
“The Biggest Loser is a show about fat as an enemy that must be destroyed, a contagion that must be eradicated,” she writes.
“It is a show about unruly bodies that must be disciplined by any means necessary, so that through that discipline, the obese might become more acceptable members of society.”
And the goal posts keep moving. Gay refers to the 2004 season of the US iteration of The Biggest Loser and the backlash when contestant Rachel Frederickson dropped from around 118kg to 48kg in a few months.
“What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?”
Gay also takes to task the obsessive culture of celebrity watching.
“These weight fluctuations of famous women are tracked like stocks because their bodies are, in their line of work, their personal stock, the physical embodiment of market value… Celebrity bodies provide the unachievable standard toward which we must nonetheless strive.”
Hunger should be mandatory reading for all, including men.