obesity

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.

Shrill

I recently read a book that I had too much to say about to just include it in my usual book posts. This one deserved it’s own post.

I first heard about the book, Shrill by Lindy West, on a podcast: This American Life #589: Tell Me I’m Fat. It was really interesting, sometimes sad and disappointing, but it was an excellent podcast that I recommend highly! And it lead to me checking out “Shrill” at the library.

I read it in a few days. It took me a little longer than usual to read because I wanted to take my time. I could relate to so much of the book, it was sometimes hard and painful to read. So many of her stories were MY stories.

The book is a sort of memoir, but not really, and she touches on a lot of topics. She of course talks about being fat, but she also talks a lot about feminism and current events. She touches, briefly, in the beginning of the book about the election and Hillary Clinton. It’s funny–during the election stuff last year I heard that word a LOT when people (usually men) talked about Hillary. She was “shrill”. It was kind of grating. I couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly, but Lindy explained it pretty well:

“To be shrill is to reach above your station; to abandon your duty to soothe and please; in short, to be heard. I know from experience that shrill bitches get punished. I did not anticipate that millions of Americans would be so repulsed by the hubris of female ambition that they would elect a self-professed sexual predator with zero qualifications and fewer scruples. But I should have anticipated it. They’d been warning me for years. [pg v]”

“Trump was a Twitter troll himself, and he promised to ‘Make America Great Again,’ that is, drag us back a half century to a time when black men didn’t tell white men what to do and girls kept their mouths shut about rape…Internet trolls were a symptom of the slow death and rising panic of male privilege–one last, snarling grasp at power by white men who could feel diversity winning and their supremacy waning. [pg v]”

Hillary being labeled as SHRILL was putting her in her place. Reminding her and everyone interested in voting for her, that she was less than because she was a woman. (Sometimes she got a little preachy in the book, but it wasn’t overt or obnoxious.)

If you’re burned out on politics (like me), don’t worry, the book isn’t about that. She goes on to talk about how she’s treated as an obese woman.

“Fat people are helpless babies enslaved to their most capricious cravings. [pg 14]”

“Please don’t forget; I am my body. When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside of me, awaiting excavation. [pg 15]”

It was funny how she described her love of accessories:

“I insisted that shoes and accessories were just ‘my thing,’ because my friends didn’t realize I couldn’t shop for clothes at a regular store and I was too mortified to explain it to them. I backed out of dinner plans if I remembered the restaurant had particularly narrow aisles or rickety chairs. [pg 16]”

I could totally relate to that. I didn’t have great (or nice) plus sized clothes when I was fat. But I bought a lot of jewelry, I did my nails every week –these were things I could control to look “nice” and not fret about how the sizes didn’t fit.

She then told a story that I could totally relate to. She was at an event for work and went to the outdoor food area for lunch. She was sitting on a picnic bench to eat her lunch and moved in a certain way and tipped everything over:

“I fell in the dirt. The pizza fell on top of me. The Diet Pepsi tipped over and glugged out all over my dress. The table fell on top of the Pepsi on top of the pizza on top of me. The napkin fluttered away. EVERYONE LOOKED AT ME. The music journalists looked at me. The band Yacht looked at me. In an attempt at damage control, I yelled, ‘I’m really drunk, so it’s ok!’ which wasn’t even true, but apparently it’s better to be a drunk at ten in the morning than it is to be a human being who weighs something? All that anxiety about trying not to be a gross, gluttonous fat lady eating a ‘bad’ food in public, and I wound up being the fat lady who was so excited about pizza that she threw herself to the ground and rolled around in it like a dog with a raccoon carcass. Nailed it. [pg 46]”

I have a similar story. Well, several. There were many times when I was 250 pounds and I would never ever sit on a picnic bench. Why? Because of the fear and anxiety of tipping it over. Even if there were people on the other side of the bench–you never knew. And I never stood up too quickly or sat down too quickly just in case I tipped it over with my weight–with people sitting on it!

My other story was at my family reunion many years ago. It was dinner time and I’d filled my plate (reasonably, not heaping or anything) and with my cousin Anna sat down on the porch swing to eat dinner. Except the porch swing was old, probably loose, and the weight caused it to crash and we both fell. It was humiliating and my first thought was “everyone is staring because I’m the fat chick who broke the swing”. It was probably one of the most humiliating experiences as a plus sized girl I had.

She talked about bad relationships. She had a lot of relationships where she settled (so did I back in the day) where she put up with shit because she was fat.

“Despite having nearly nothing in common (his top interests included cross-country running, fantasy cross-country running [he invented it], New England the place, New England the idea, and going outside on Saint Patrick’s Day; mine were candy, naps, hugging, and wizards), we spent a staggering amount of time together. [pg53]”

“…reverse body dysmorphia: When I looked in the mirror, I could never understand what was supposedly so disgusting. I knew I was smart, funny, talented, social, kind—why wasn’t that enough? By all the metrics I cared about, I was a home run. [pg 68]”

“Lots of men wanted to have sex with me–I dated casually, I got texts in the night–they just didn’t want to go to a restaurant with me, or bring me to their office party, or open Christmas presents with me. [pg 73]”

Ugh. Dating and navigating that stuff when you are overweight or obese is brutal. You never know if it’s because of your size…or something else…and it’s easy to fat-shame yourself.

One of the good things about this book is that Lindy is really funny. She writes well and is pretty hilarious, witty and biting in her comments and writing style. It added levity to some of the heavy topics. (And I kind of wish she had addressed that because I know a lot of fat men and women who use comedy as a shield–and that’s kind of a “thing” too.)

“As a woman, my body is scrutinized, policed, and treated as a public commodity. As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure. My body limits my job prospects, access to medical care and fair trials. [pg 67]”

“I hate being fat. I hate the way people look at me, or don’t. I hate being a joke…I hate the disorientating limbo between too visible and invisible. [pg 77]”

Ok, that was super hard for me to read. It brought up a lot of ghosts and feelings from when I was obese. The feeling of being invisible. I felt that way for so long and then when I started to lose weight I got a ton of attention and it was very weird for me to suddenly be SEEN. I’d get encouragement from people everywhere–people, sometimes people I barely knew–watched me lose weight and congratulated me, told me how amazing I looked, etc. That positive feedback was very motivating and helped me.

Then…the positive feedback ended. I lost the weight, the “newness” of it wore off and I maintained my 110 pound weight loss for almost 10 years. I rarely got comments about my body or how I looked. Sometimes that was hard because the positive comments were a nice self-esteem booster.

Then…something else happened. I got pregnant. I got tons of positive feedback and well-wishes from people because people are always so excited about pregnancy and babies. Except…afterward? The mom kind of disappears. I was back to being invisible, but for different reasons and that was very weird (and hard) for me.

Anyways, back to the book. I thought this passage was particular relateable:

“Like most fat people who’ve been lectured about diet and exercise since childhood, I actually know an inordinate amount about nutrition and fitness. The number of nutrition classes and hospital-sponsored weight loss programs and individual dietitian consultations and tear-filled therapy sessions I’ve poured money into over the years makes me grind my teeth…I can rattle off how many calories are in a banana or an egg or six almonds or a Lean Cuisine Santa Fe Style Rice and Beans. I know the difference between spelt bread and Ezekiel bread, and I know that lemon juice makes a great ‘sauce’! I could teach you the proper form for squats and lunges and kettle bell swings, if you want. I can diagnose your shin splints.

“The level of restriction that I was told, by professionals, was necessary for me to ‘fix’ my body essentially precluded any semblance of joyous, fulfilling human life. It was about learning to live with hunger–with feeling ‘light’. [pg 74]”

I can relate to all of that. After over a decade of counting calories and restricting and losing weight, keeping it off, trying to eat in moderation, I can spout out the calories in almost anything without having to look it up. All of that becomes part of your regular thinking, which can be both good and bad.

Lindy shared a horrible story about flying and having a really bad experience with the guy sitting next to her on the plane. Here are a few excerpts from that:

“One time, I flew first class on an airplane, because when I checked in they offered me a fifty-dollar upgrade, and when you are a fat person with fifty dollars and someday offers you a 21-inch recliner instead of a 17-inch trash compacter, you say YES. [pg 134]”

“This is the subtext of my life: ‘You’re bigger than I’d like you to be.’ ‘I dread being near you.’ ‘Your body itself is a breach of etiquette.’ ‘You are clearly a fucking food who thinks that cheesecake is a vegetable.’ Nobody wants to sit next to a fat person on a plane. Don’t think we don’t know. [pg 141]”

“The dude next to me didn’t call me fat to my face. I don’t even know if that’s what was bothering him, although I recognized the way he looked at my body (my body, not my face, not once, not ever). [pg 142]”

Reading her story and how that guy talked to her and treated her made my blood boil–because I had also had similar experiences flying, or taking public transportation, or pretty much doing anything out in the world as a fat girl.

The book wasn’t all negative, though. She did find the love of her life and shared their happy story. This quote stuck out for me:

“‘One time when you were drunk you told me, ‘If you ever propose to me, don’t do it in the bullshit way that dudes usually treat fat girls. Like it’s a secret, or you’re just trying to keep me from leaving you. Thin girls get public proposals, like those dudes are winning a fucking prize. Fat chicks deserve that, too.’ [pg 238]”

How true is that statement?? I fucking loved it. YES. How many times are fat girls treated differently? ALL THE TIME. Her public proposal was awesome and brought tears to my eyes. Her man did it right! He remembered, even if she hadn’t remembered making that statement!

The book was really good and worth a read. It is definitely hard to read some of it. Some of it touched a little too close to home for me, and brought up some not so great memories and feelings, but at the same time it was kinda cool to read about someone else experiencing things in a similar way as me.

I hope you check it out!