memoir

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

After reading “Shrill“, it seemed like a logical next step to read Roxane Gay’s new book “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.” Again, I wanted to dedicate one post to the book review. 

“This is not a weight-loss memoir. There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across the book’s cover, with me standing in one leg of my former, fatter self’s jeans.”

That quote sums up the book pretty well. This was not a weight loss memoir. It was also a very heavy, dark book and her pain and anguish is palpable throughout the book.

 

“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.”

She considered weight loss surgery as a teen. Her dad said, “You’re not at this point yet, a little more self-control. Exercising twice a day.That’s all you need.”

Her parents, her father especially, we really wonderful. I wish she had trusted them and talked to them when she was a kid. Maybe things would have worked out differently for her…

“This book, Hunger, is a book about living in the world when you are not a few or even forty pounds overweight. This is a book about living in the world when you are three or four hundred pounds overweight.”

She talks about the terms “morbidly obese” and how the medical community treats them. “The cultural measure for obesity often seems to be anyone who appears to be larger than a size 6.”

Truth! Two years ago, before I got pregnant, I was 7 pounds over my goal weight, worked out 5 days a week, ate well and had a healthy lifestyle. Yet, according to doctors, I was overweight. Their scale for “obesity” is absurd. And doctors can be total assholes to fat people. She then shared a story about going to the doctor for strep throat and “watched as the doctor wrote in the diagnosis section first ‘morbid obesity’ and second ‘strep throat.'”

Ugh! That pissed me off so much! I could relate to it, though. There were many times when I went to the doctor for something completely unrelated and they just started criticizing my weight. Go to the doctor for pink eye and get lectured on losing weight. It makes me so angry that the medical community apparently has no compassion or bedside manner when it comes to obesity.

“I have presence, I am told. I take up space. I intimidate.  I do not want to take up space. I want to go unnoticed. I want to hide. I want to disappear until I gain control of my body.”

“I began eating to change my body. I was willful in this. Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to endure another such violation, and so I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away…if I was undesirable I could keep more hurt away.”

“He said/she said is why so many victims (or survivors, if you prefer that terminology) don’t come forward. All too often, what ‘he said’ matters more, so we just swallow the truth. We swallow it, and more often than not, that truth turns rancid. It spreads through the body like an infection. It becomes depression, or addiction or obsession or some other physical manifestation of the silence of what she would have said, needed to say, couldn’t say.”

That quote above sums up the book pretty well. At 12 Roxane was gang raped in the woods. One of her attackers was someone she thought was a friend, a boy she liked. It was brutal and savage and she spent the rest of her life eating — trying to silence the pain of the event, of not speaking up, of telling herself it was all her fault.

“I do not know why I turned to food. Or I do. I was lonely and scared and food offered an immediate satisfaction. Food offered comfort when I needed to be comforted and did not know how to ask for what I needed from those who loved me. Food tasted good and made me feel better. Food was the one thing within my reach.”

“My body is a cage. My body is a cage of my own making. I am still trying to figure my way out of it. I have been trying to figure a way out of it for more than twenty years.”

“In too many ways, the past is still with me. The past is written on my body. I carry it every single day.”

Her parents were concerned about her weight and health. They tried everything they could. She even went to “fat camps.” She’d lose weight then come home and gain it all back and more. She goes on to say that she only tried to lose weight when her parents made her. Eventually she went to boarding school. The flood gates were open: she was on her own and ate herself into obesity. During the four years of high school she said she gained 120 pounds.

“I was presented with an orgy of food and I indulged in all of it. I reveled in eating whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted…I was swallowing my secrets and making my body expand and explode. I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied–the hunger to stop hurting. I made myself bigger. I made myself safer. I created a distinct boundary between myself and anyone who dared to approach me.”

I think this is a very common thing with sex abuse survivors. There is the aspect of getting comfort from food, as well as protecting your body from unwanted advances or attacks by just getting fat.

“In some ways, it feels like the weight just appeared on my body one day. I was a size 8 and then I was a size 16 and then I was a size 28 and then I was a size 42.”

I could so relate to that statement. I remember in my early 20’s when I was really gaining all my weight–due to emotional eating and trying to feed the sadness I was experiencing–that I didn’t think I was “that big.” And I truly did wake up one day and all of a sudden I was a size 18. It really did feel like it happened overnight.

“When you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects. Your body is constantly and prominently on display. People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body, whatever that truth might be. Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes.”

That last statement made me chuckle because it’s funny and it’s so true. I can’t tell you how much I could understand that! I used to pick my clothes with the precise desire to hide my body and how big I was. I wore a lot of black. I didn’t wear patterns or stripes. I also bought clothes that were large and rather ill-fitting because I thought it hid how big I was–wrong. It just made me look bigger.

“Your body is subject to commentary when you gain weight, lose weight, or maintain your unacceptable weight.”

Yep. Yep. Yep. When you are a fat person for some reason that means that anyone–even complete strangers–are free to make comments to you about your weight, your body, whether or not you are pregnant, etc. etc. I got all sorts of nasty, rude, inappropriate comments from complete strangers that left me feeling baffled–would they have said that to their sister? No. So why was it ok to say it to me, a complete stranger??

“…food is not something I can enjoy around most people. To be seen while I am eating feels like being on trial.”

Roaxane goes on to tell a story that I could relate to, and that in the last book I read, “Shrill” that author also described in a similar way. The process of going out to a restaurant: obsessively checking restaurant websites, yelp, Google images, etc to make sure that the chairs were sturdy, that Roxane could fit into the chairs, that she could fit in the booths, could she fit walking between the tables in the restaurant?

Also like “Shrill,” she shared an airline story. I think every fat person has at least one airline horror story. 🙁 It really is an awful experience when you are fat.

Roxane talks a little bit about feminism and how it relates to obesity. She shares some stories and opinions and also comments on the diet culture:

“In yet another commercial, Oprah somberly says, ‘Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.’ This is a popular notion, the idea that the fat among us are carrying a thin woman inside.”

She comments on celebrity women who get pregnant and how their “bodies are intensely monitored during and after–from baby bumps to post-baby bodies.” And how her body is tracked and documented until she “once again resembles the extraordinarily thin woman we once knew.”

There is SO much pressure for women to IMMEDIATELY bounce back to their pre-baby weight. Celebrity or not, it’s expected to lose the baby weight right away.

“I recognize that, despite what certain weight-loss system commercials would have me believe, I cannot eat everything and anything I want. And that is one of the cruelties of our cultural obsession with weight loss. We’re supposed to restrict our eating while indulging in the fantasy that we can, indeed, indulge. When you’re trying to lose weight, you cannot have anything you want…having anything you want is likely what contributed to your weight gain.”

The older I get, the more I struggle with weight loss, I realize now that I was lucky 10+ years ago when I was losing my weight. I was focused and determined and it worked–but I wasn’t TRULY having “anything” I wanted. I had some things I wanted, in moderation, but it was still restricted.

“I know what it means to hunger without being hungry. My father believes hunger is in the mind. I know differently. I know that hunger is in the mind and the body and the heart and the soul.”

So powerful. 🙁

“Intellectually, I do not equate thinness with happiness. I could wake up thin tomorrow and I would still carry the same baggage I have been hauling around for almost thirty years. I would still bear the scar tissue of many of those years as a fat person in a cruel world.”

“I am learning to care less what other people think. I am learning that the measure of my happiness is not weight loss but, rather, feeling more comfortable in my body.”

I compare this book to “Shrill” because it’s a similar subject matter and I read the books back to back. But that’s really where the similarities end. Same subject matter, similar stories, but with “Shrill” I finished the book and felt like the author was in a good place emotionally. She used humor to help her deal with a lot of the issues she encountered in her life and I was just left with feeling more upbeat (? if that’s the right word?) but with “Hunger”….

Damn, the entire book, I felt like a dark, sad blanket was covering me. It was difficult to read. I could relate to a lot of stuff, I can see where this book could be very triggering for some people. And when I finished the book, I didn’t have that “upbeat” feeling…I had the same feeling I had when I started the book: “poor Roxane was really, really broken.” That might sound critical, and I don’t mean it that way, it just didn’t seem like she ever healed from her tragedy. I wanted to read about some growth at the end, I wanted her to overcome the horrific thing that happened to her, and it just felt like she was still stuck back there in the woods and will probably always use food to fill that hole.

Don’t let my feelings discourage you from reading this book, though. It was very, very well-written and I loved her writing style. I want to read her other books. She’s definitely a talented writer with a story to tell that I think a LOT of women can relate to. Just go into it being prepared.

Blood, Bones and Butter

blood-bones-bombshells

If you’re looking for a really good memoir, I recommend Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. Gabrielle opened the critically acclaimed restaurant in New York, Prune, but the book is about the rocky road she took to get to that success. She writes about her upbringings on a farm in New Jersey with a bunch of siblings and an exotic mother who spent her day cooking.

“She took me to the farm to get our milk. As only a Frenchwoman can — in a heel, a silk scarf, and a cashmere skirt–she’d pull up the long driveway of the dairy farm in her chocolate brown antique Mercedes-Benz, and without a single awkward gesture, get down and fill four rinsed-out gallon plastic jugs with raw milk…That milk was so thick and shitty that the cream separated and rose to the top and we siphoned off three inches from every gallon on milk we brought home. [pg 23]”

I loved her descriptions in the book. It was poetic and vivid and kept me glued to the page. I could picture everything she wrote about like I was watching it in a movie. Her mother was a huge influence on her life and yet the mother wasn’t in the book very much after the beginning. That above quote is an example of her gorgeous writing. Can’t you just picture that woman in the 1960’s? And she goes on to describe her mother who always cooked wearing heels, a dress, and full makeup.

Her parents divorced when she was about 14 and her mother moved to Vermont. Gabrielle started a life of drugs and crime (and even got arrested for larceny in New York). She was 17 when she went to New York on her own with little to no money and became a waitress. This was her entry into the culinary world. She worked as a short order cook, worked as the chef of a rich kids’ summer camp, she was even an assistant chef for a catering company.

She goes on to describe the dark side of wedding catering. The bride and groom go to a private tasting for just the two of them, months in advance. Each ingredient hand-selected by the chef and prepared that day.

“But by the time the bride and groom, now bethrothed, and their three hundred guests were enjoying the same meal on a beautiful June evening, we were now on a very different scale of production. [pg74]”

She describes the large scale production of how thousands of portions are prepared.

“The wedding meal itself, a sit-down dinner for three hundred that followed the butler-ed hors d’oevres hour, had sat in the warehouse kitchen refrigerator, some components of it for days, and then in the back of the cargo van in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the LIE. [pg76]”

Sure does take the magic out of the moment, huh? That’s why wedding cake is so awful–it was prepared probably a week in advance (especially for those opulent ones) and sat in a fridge somewhere drying out. Gross.

At one point she takes off to Europe and bums around, doing odd cooking jobs here and there. She describes her time in Greece where she worked in a restaurant on an Island only known to locals. Her description transported me there and I read with envy her time there:

“I made my home in a little hut I had built on the beach. I showered in the ocean, shat behind the rocks, slept under the stars, and spent those early days in Serifos wandering the mountainside. Chamomile, mint, capers, oregano, thyme, figs, lemons, oranges — these grew so rampantly that when you walked, the herbs crushed underfoot and released their scent into the air. [pg 132]”

“Three months in India, seven months in Turkey, six months in Greece–during which I came to understand the differences and eventually to even have preferences between the milk from a certain wallah in Delhi and one in Rajasthan, the cooking of eggplant in Turkey over the cooking of eggplant in Greece, the sugar derived from beets in Romania and from cane in Cuba –that would become part of my education as a cook. [pg 128]”

I loved that she basically fell into cooking because she had no skills as a teenager, grew to love it, and then decide to teach herself how to do it. Traveling the world and exploring different foods instead of going to some fancy chef school sounds like such a better education–and definitely more fun.

RV-AB826_PRUNE_G_20110224234505

She spends some time in the middle of the book describing her path to opening her first restaurant, the struggles she went through that I’m sure all chefs encounter, and how she became successful. The grassroots method of her opening her restaurant was fascinating to read about.

The last 1/4 of the book, however, wasn’t as great as the first half. I felt like she was a really unhappy person and a lot of that unhappiness was of her own making. For example, she married an Italian doctor who immediately lost interest in courting her pretty much the second they signed the marriage license. She describes their relationship as essentially being buddies who got together a few times to have two kids and then go home to Italy once a year to see his family. They didn’t live together (separate apartments) and had no loving relationship whatsoever. It was such a turn off for me. The whole book she was painting herself as a strong feminist and then she signs up for (and stays in) a loveless marriage? It was just so odd.

Despite that disappointing part of the book, I enjoyed the rest of it. I loved her writing style and the words she chose to describe things painted a picture for me so vivid I felt like I was there. The grittiness, the apathy, the happiness…all present in her words.

If you’re nervous about descriptions of animal butchering (the title kind of made me nervous) don’t worry. There was really only one paragraph in the book that was too much for me to read. It was more about the rest of the story and not the actual act of butchering and cooking animals. If you’re interested in reading memoirs or memoirs about chefs in particular, I’d recommend this book. Just be prepared for it to not be a “and they lived happily ever after” kind of book.

QUESTION: Have you read this book? What did you think?