The first time I saw Roxane Gay, at a reading in Philadelphia for her book An Untamed State, I felt like I’d been pinched. Here was a woman I admired so acutely, in a body I wasn’t expecting, a body that in some ways looked like mine. The intersection of these realizations—that I hadn’t expected her to be fat, that I was so moved and excited that she was, that internalized fatphobia has such incredible power—surprised and disturbed me.
As a fat writer, I have always been aware of how rarely I see other fat writers. As with so many other categories of identity—race, gender, sexual orientation—that lack of visibility is very much at odds with the makeup of the general population. Folks are often surprised when I make this point. They express disbelief that fatness (a word they seem uncomfortable saying, or even alluding to) is any kind of obstacle to being a writer. On the surface, this makes sense: Pages look the same no matter what the author weighs, right? Why should it matter?
Yet we see, all the time, the ways it does matter. Last summer, Claudia Herr, then an editor at Knopf, casually told Entertainment Weekly that publishers think about certain factors unrelated to talent before they drop comically massive advances on debut authors. Discussing Knopf’s acquisition of Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter, Herr acknowledged that the way an author looks can affect an advance. “We look at all of that stuff,” she said. But: “We would have paid her the same money if she weighed five hundred pounds and was really hard to look at. That’s my firm belief.”
There’s so much in that comment: the fact that an editor at a major house felt comfortable saying that out loud, the fact that she thinks a very fat person would be “hard to look at,” her confessing that publishers consider an author’s appearance before hastily contradicting herself with what she presents as a hyperbolic scenario. (As Mallory Ortberg wrote in response at The Toast, “‘We’d have bought this book EVEN IF—I don’t know—the writer were 500 pounds, as if that could ever happen.’ But that could, and does, happen! People of that size both exist and write. They sometimes write tremendous and valuable things.”)
Roxane Gay’s new book, Hunger, is a tremendous and valuable thing: a relentless, shattering exploration of Gay’s appetite for both food and control. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, it reads like a thematically linked essay collection that someone took a fist to. But while the book’s form is fragmented, as a work it is utterly complete. In short, stinging chapters, Gay traces her fatness back to a childhood gang rape and the resulting emotional aftermath, and meditates on themes of trauma, fear, and power.
When she’s not reflecting on her own life, Gay is pointing at broader uncomfortable truths about bodies: That society openly prefers one kind of eating disorder (anorexia) over another (binge eating) because we value thinness over all things. That there are stratums of privilege even within fat communities. (If you didn’t know the expression “Lane Bryant fat” before, you will now.) That even famous, wealthy women don’t get to just be in their bodies. She explores the taxonomy of fatness, the way it creates fear and anxiety in thin people, and addresses the fat body as liminal state: both a reflection of the past and something to be corrected in the future, never permitting its owner to simply exist. Even Gay’s publicity tour for her book about her fat body simply existing in the world has been met with obliviousness and insult. The host of a podcast in Australia wondered if Gay, on her way to be interviewed, would be able to fit into an elevator.
Gay is the New York Times bestselling author of several books, including the story collections Ayiti and Difficult Women, the essay collection Bad Feminist, and the novel An Untamed State. With the poet Yona Harvey, she co-authored the World of Wakanda series (a spin-off of Black Panther) for Marvel. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and an associate professor at Purdue University.
Fat writing has been undergoing a kind of renaissance over the past few years, but Gay’s profile shoots her latest book, and all its uneasy truths and contradictions, straight into the center of the conversation. Maybe it will make fat writers that much harder to ignore. In early June, she and I talked on the phone about the beauty of unruly bodies, overlapping oppressions, and why everyone thinks they’re a health expert when it comes to fat people.
—Carmen Maria Machado for Guernica
Guernica: I’ve read Hunger twice now, and I’m just blown away and devastated by it. You’ve described the process of writing it as the most difficult of your life, and more challenging than you could have imagined. I’m wondering why you chose this time in your life and career to work on this book in particular. What made you arrive at this finished project?
Roxane Gay: My agent and I proposed and sold the book just before Bad Feminist came out, so it’s been in the works for a while. At the time, I was thinking about what my next nonfiction project was going to be and I thought, “The thing I want to write about the least is fatness.” In that moment I knew the thing I needed to write about the most was fatness. Because it was something I was dreading.
I thought a lot about how so many memoirs about fatness focus on weight loss; they don’t focus on living with weight in a world that is rather inhospitable to it. So I knew that was the idea that was going to be most interesting and most challenging, and I like to be challenged as a writer.
Guernica: You use the term “unruly bodies” a lot in this book. It’s almost an incantation. There is something very tender about that phrase; it’s exasperated but affectionate. How did you happen upon that idea? What does it really means to have an “unruly body”?
Roxane Gay: One of the things I was trying to do was define a more generous and positive way to talk about fat bodies. And I have an affection for unruliness and rule-breaking.
I did not originate the phrase. I first got it from a writer named Hanne Blank. I liked it because in a world that is always trying to discipline our bodies, as a fat person you are being unruly. And there’s definitely tenderness there, absolutely. Because Lord knows our bodies do not get discussed with a lot of tenderness.
Guernica: Throughout the book, hunger is a sort of wandering metaphor—a kind of hollowness that can be satisfied in some ways and not others, and is both created and fulfilled. Do you think hunger is a natural state of being for some people? For certain types of people?
Roxane Gay: I think hunger is a natural state of being for most people. I mean, hunger is a desire—and you don’t only have physical hunger, you have emotional hunger. A lot of my hungers are, in fact, emotional. I think a lot of fat people’s hungers are emotional. There are things we very much want, and it can be so difficult to satisfy those hungers. Yet we try. We try so hard.
Guernica: You write, “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.” Later, you talk about how people are afraid to become fat because they know how fat people are treated and how they perceive fat people themselves. It made me think about the ways people’s privilege can shift when it comes to things like disability or fatness, allowing them to enter places and leave others, depending on their circumstances—and on what’s visible. I’m wondering how you think about the way that fatness and race, for example, are tied together in this way: they’re both visible, but you can theoretically transition in and out of fatness, while race is more fixed.
Roxane Gay: That’s the thing about oppressions. Some of them are permanent and some of them are not. And yet, many of them are highly visible: gender, race and ethnicity, body size, disability. The visibly queer body is always treated as spectacle. For fat bodies, it can be quite a challenge to deal with both the systemic issues and the cultural issues, and to have people projecting narratives onto your body from the moment you leave your house until the moment you return. People see you, and all of a sudden they’re medical experts.
Guernica: Trauma is the source of the reality of part of your body, and you write about it vividly. A lot of the experience of reading this book was like being physically shaken.
Roxane Gay: When you live in the world in a fat body, you are always wary of violence. Mostly emotional violence, but sometimes physical violence, because people just have such utter disregard for our bodies. That has certainly shaped most of my interactions with other human beings. At this point in my life, I wouldn’t know someone was threatening me unless they were holding a fucking hammer, because I am just so accustomed to thinking no one is going to approach my body with kindness. I see other human beings as threats before I can ever see them as potential lovers.
Guernica: Toward the end, you write about looking up your rapist online and the things you learned about him. There was something really intense and unexpected about how you took the exposure and violence you experienced and turned it back on him. How did it feel to look this guy up, and also wield this experience as an essay?
Roxane Gay: What it provided was not closure, but knowledge. Like, where is he? What is he doing? I didn’t learn everything I wanted to learn, but I learned enough. In many ways it felt like a little bit of an obsession. Having that obsession was satisfying, to a certain extent.
Guernica: You write, “The more successful I get, the more I am reminded that in the minds of a great many people I will never be anything more than my body. No matter what I accomplish, I will be fat, first and foremost.” I think a lot about the concept and language around brilliance and genius, and how it relates to the body—how fat people, especially fat women, especially fat women of color, are robbed of these labels because people think about fatness as equal to bumbling and stupid, and we don’t have the ability to separate those things. There was this horrible quote in the recent Shirley Jackson biography where a friend of hers said something to the effect of, “Oh yes, Shirley was so fat, but she was brilliant.” She couldn’t reconcile those things.
Roxane Gay: It’s a very weird cultural perception that if you’re fat you’re dumb, that you’re lazy or a loser. Clearly, those are the preconditions for fatness. You’re a failure, because only a lazy person, only a dumb person, would allow themselves to get into this situation. It’s appalling that this is the mindset. People generally treat fat people like we don’t know anything about anything. It’s incredibly demeaning. And incredibly frustrating.
Guernica: I was really interested in your discussion of language and euphemism, what you call the “taxonomy” of fatness: the labels we use to talk about the fat body, how they’re used by people who are hostile, how if they’re uncomfortable they’ll use a word like “voluptuous” because they’re trying to sugarcoat their language. You also describe the word “obese” as an accusation. How does language figure into our discussion and framing of the fat body?
Roxane Gay: Generally, the ways we discuss the fat body pathologize it; we treat it as a medical problem and/or a social problem that must be solved. “Morbid obesity” is in many ways saying we are the walking dead. Or walking to our death. And that is no way to live, with that sort of moniker hanging over your head at all times. I think it forces fat people to internalize a lot of unnecessary self-loathing.
Guernica: You write about Oprah, who literally appears on the cover of her own magazine every month, but is constantly performing this self-flagellation about her weight. What do you make of public figures who grapple with this idea about their own bodies?
Roxane Gay: It shows how pervasive fatphobia is, that even when a woman like Oprah—who’s a billionaire, and is sixty years old—achieves incredible success she’s still like, “There’s a skinny woman inside of me, dying to get out.” First of all, you’re not fat. Second of all: What? It breaks my heart, and it makes me feel kind of hopeless, and it makes me wonder if I will ever get to a place of peace with my own body. If Oprah can’t come to peace with her body, what chance do the rest of us have?
Guernica: I want to talk about the “Tell Me I’m Fat” episode of This American Life. I loved the fact that you talked about fatness, and its intersection with race, and the nuances of privilege within fatness. But your interview was relatively short within the episode, which overall I thought was framed weirdly—like how Ira Glass said, “Grab a Twinkie,” at the transition. What was your experience of having this conversation about fatness in a very public way?
Roxane Gay: That was actually one of the more frustrating interviews I’ve ever done. I mean, I’m sure Ira Glass is a nice person and all, and I know he’s well-respected, and that’s wonderful. But he clearly had no clue how to talk to a fat black woman about fatness, and his questions were just offensive. I felt aggravated and defensive, as if I was explaining “Different Bodies 101” to someone who’s never ever worried about his weight, and who’s just never considered what it’s like to be in a different kind of body.
I was actually surprised that the cut of the interview turned out the way it did, because the interview was such a disaster. Then I heard the show and the Twinkie comment, and I just thought, “He talked to three women about fat and learned nothing.” That Twinkie comment was so unnecessary and so cruel. Why would you say that? It just shows that even so-called evolved, liberal people are not that evolved about some things. That this person who is supposed to get it didn’t learn a damn thing—it just shows how much work there is to be done in terms of talking about fat positivity and fat acceptance.
Guernica: You talk in Hunger about your struggle with accepting your body and also your struggle with the so-called “fat-positive movement.” I think it’s obvious why the fat-positive movement is important—in one interview you called it a “necessary corrective.” What sort of changes would you want to see in it, as a movement?
Roxane Gay: I don’t know if I want to see any changes; I think it’s a wonderful movement. What I want to see are additions. I want it to be more inclusive. The other day I saw something on Twitter that referred to people as “small fat” and “large fat,” and I would love to see people be more inclusive of the concerns of larger fat people.
This is a memoir, not a polemic, and I’m not a spokesperson for the fat community by any stretch, nor would they want me to be. But I would love to see more acknowledgement of how challenging it is to feel positive about fatness when you can’t find clothing. When there literally is not something made for your body. Nobody ever talks about that; all those fat girl clothes swaps and stuff are for a very specific kind of fat girl.
If I was Lane Bryant fat, I would be joyful about fatness. I’m fat positive, in that I don’t see fat as a bad thing. But what I do see as a bad thing is how I’m treated. I can have the most positive outlook in the world, but that is not going to change how hecklers and people walking down the street are yelling at me.
Guernica: Do you have any hope that the conversation about fat bodies will change or evolve?
Roxane Gay: I have to, of course. Of course. I don’t have a lot of hope, because I think this is one of those final frontiers of open discrimination, but, yes, I absolutely do have hope that we are going to include body diversity as we are thinking about diversity, and get better about fatness. And I very much hope we do, because so many people have fat bodies and deserve to live full lives, and deserve to be emotionally healthy. Part of that will come from societal acceptance.