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There's So Much More To 'Hunger' Than Food

I had no intention of reading Roxane Gay's book, but I'm so glad I did.

30/06/2017 10:08 AM AEST | Updated 30/06/2017 10:13 AM AEST
Pat Scala
Photo: Pat Scala.

I had absolutely no intention of reading Roxane Gay's book 'Hunger', which I (mistakenly) thought was just about an American woman's issues with her weight.

I think and worry about food and my weight enough as it is, I don't want to spend any of my leisure time on it. On a cold winter's night, I'd prefer to go to bed with Stephen King (and one of his books, lol) than anything that reminds me of my personal concerns, or that makes me want to venture back into the kitchen at midnight and contemplate the contents of my fridge.

Title of the book aside, I was also put off by the furore that erupted after Mia Freedman's insensitive (putting it mildly) written introduction to her podcast with the author. Gay's horrified reaction and the ensuing backlash brought up a lot of issues that I had worked hard to forget -- my countless experiences of people's comments about my size, which, when I was very unhappily married, reached the heights of 20kg above my recommended BMI.

'Hunger' is an insight into how the world is tailored to the majority -- not minorities.

I know what it's been like for me at this end of the literal and proverbial scale, so I could predict that the pain inflicted on Gay in her lifetime would be significant. I know what it feels like to have your size consumed for public discussion, and I caught a glimpse of Gay's experience of that during the Mamamia debacle. I was certain I wouldn't cope reading her book.

I didn't want to open the door on Young-Nama, the woman who would demand to always sit with her back against a wall in a restaurant, so that her relatively pleasant face might distract people from judging her broad shoulders and big arms. The woman who learnt to insist on full length photos that gave her some proportion, rather than close-ups that made her look like a kitted-out American football player in comparison to the other women she was pictured with.

Young-Nama, who for two decades listened in stunned silence as family, friends and strangers repeatedly made it clear that they noticed her size, forcing her to jokingly explain and excuse her body for being 'built like a man' with broad shoulders, muscly legs and narrow hips -- AKA 'no ass' as she was often reminded. You seriously can't win.

Young-Nama is now no longer. I grew up and embraced my 'assets', even though I also learnt that showing them, a bit of cleavage and a bit of leg, would draw just as much scrutiny, especially as I aged.

And that's why this 'attention-seeking', 'mutton-dressed-as-lamb' 40-year-old didn't want to read 'Hunger'.

But that's also why I knew I had to. And I'm so glad I did.

I should have known better. I should have known that Gay wouldn't write a whingy, 'Eat Pray Love' naval-gazing story with a narrow audience.

'Hunger' is definitely about food, weight, body image, fat-shaming, and the media's role in all of that. Gay intimately details her relationship with food. She lays bare how her size makes her feel, and how it is received. But there is, actually, so much more to 'Hunger' than food.

'Hunger' is a love story in many ways, as it explores Gay's relationships with family, men, women and herself. Love manifests itself throughout the book, in ways we can all relate, and it ultimately triumphs.

Gay's narrative breaks some tired but very entrenched stereotypes. This is not the story of an overweight black woman from a 'poverty-stricken broken home', as the cliché often goes, and as an acquaintance cited as a reason why she wouldn't be able to relate to Gay's life. Gay is from a solid, loving, educated family and she attended elite private schools. We don't often get to hear the journeys of successful, non-white families.

Gay suffers a vicious sexual assault as a child, which shapes her future. Her relationship with food is deeply connected to the rape, and Gay's frankness about that will speak to anyone who has endured any kind of trauma and turned to self-destructive behaviours to cope.

A proud feminist, Gay discusses gender inequality and double-standards that pervade society, in relationships, and in the rules about how women are expected to present themselves to be aesthetically appealing. She voices the conflict most women feel about society's beauty standards and their own personal expression and comfort, and she details how there's a completely different set of rules for overweight women.

Gay is comfortable talking about sex. She's open and frank about her sex life as a sexually active and sexually interested woman. She has relationships and encounters with both genders. Gay speaks about sex matter-of-factly, because that's exactly what it is, not something to be defined by weight, or preference.

'Hunger' is an insight into how the world is tailored to the majority -- not minorities. According to Gay, "I don't know if fat is a disability, but my size certainly compromises my ability to be in certain spaces." Her experiences open your mind to how narrow the world is.

Gay talks very openly about loneliness, frustration, uncertainty, money, employment and habitat. These are universal concerns, that transcend background, status, education and colour. "It is unbearable to want something so little and need it so much," she heartbreakingly confesses at one point. In one way or another, we all know exactly what she means.

'Hunger' has some moments of levity and wit. Gay is funny. There are times when you will literally LOL through your tears.

Finally, as a middle-aged woman, a year younger than Gay, 'Hunger' was inspirational.

"I have a lot of life left, and my god, I want to do something different than what I have done for the last twenty years. I want to move freely. I want to be free."

No matter who you are, or what life you've lived, read 'Hunger' -- it will make you want more.

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