On Tuesday, June 16th, Bethlehem community members worked through the brutally honest reflections in Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger. The Queer Memoir Reading Group discussion was hosted by Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, and supported by Lehigh University Humanities Center, the South Side Initiative, and Let’s Play Books. Delving into themes such as obesity, society’s definition of an “out of control body,” trauma, and sexism, Gay’s book provided the large group of community members powerful topics to work through. The group examined our own and societies’ ingrained biases against fat people, illuminated the ways that capitalism exploits and regulates bodies it deems “unruly,” and allowed the text to guide a shift in our thinking and behavior in order to change those unjust realities. In this article, I will use the word “fat” instead of “obese” in order to parallel Gay’s own language preferences.
Gay’s memoir Hunger explores the rape she survived when she was young, and how the trauma of that horrific event caused her to eat more and more, until she could build a “fortress” around herself and protect herself by being “undesirable” and gaining weight. While largely a reflection on her personal journey of coping with trauma, Hunger is also a poignant commentary on our weight-obsessed society, that does incredible harm by construing fat—and female—bodies as public property and open to public comment. Gay’s engagement with these topics is complicated, and she doesn’t shy away from her own contradictions, noting how she has been shaped by our society: “I have been accused of being full of self-loathing and being fat-phobic. There is truth to the former accusation and I reject the latter. I do, however, live in a world where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged. I am a product of my environment.” Gay’s memoir ultimately debunks the narrative of laziness and ineptitude that our society hurls at fat people, and emphasizes the pain of being made invisible because of her size, race, sexuality, and gender.
The reading group’s discussion, led by Lehigh English Professor Mary Foltz, was energized by the group’s clear investment in this topic. Participants recognized the issue of fat-shaming as another manifestation of society constructing norms about behavior and identity in order to control people and their bodies. The construction of norms—and its exclusionary and harmful consequences—is all too familiar for LGBTQ+ communities and Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. Yet participants thoughtfully reflected on our own complicity in getting entangled in these destructive narratives.
For example, some participants reflected on how young people in the LGBTQ+ community have often gotten caught up in thin-obsession, despite fighting off other types of regulation of their bodies and behavior. Other individuals reflected on the ways that their own attitudes about wanting to “fix” fat people is hurtful and unhelpful, just as Gay argues. In several moments of her memoir, Gay relates tales of how her body seems to be read as an invitation to others to make comments and offer unsolicited nutritional advice any time she’s out grocery shopping. For her, the attitude that she needs to be “fixed is hurtful and devaluing.” Other community members examined how gender plays a role in the way society thinks and talks about eating, no matter your size. If you are a woman, participants observed, that slice of pizza must necessarily come with a comment, either as a pat on the back for being “one of the boys” and not caring about her figure, or as a warning about the ways she can better regulate her weight. Others noted the destructive ways society makes value judgements, labeling “good fat people” and “bad fat people.” Participants explored how someone who is constantly trying to lose weight, and denigrates themselves for not doing so, is “good” because they are essentially seeking to regulate their own body to reflect society’s expectations. Alternatively, a “bad fat person” is okay with their body as it is. Such self-assurance is threatening to a society that wants to dictate what a body should look like. Being a “bad fat” person, according to Gay, involves expressing self-love and acceptance rather than consistently loathing a body that does not conform to standards of thinness.
In one passage of the memoir, Gay tells an anecdote about the ways that airplane seats, like most other infrastructure, does not accommodate her body. Back when she could only afford one seat on flights, Gay would purposefully buy a ticket in the exit row, because those seats did not have arm rests that would make her uncomfortable. On one particular flight, a man nearby loudly accused her of risking everyone’s life by being unable to carry out exit row responsibilities, even though Gay was, and still is, very strong and capable of such actions. This incident was so hurtful and humiliating that from then on, Gay would buy two airplane tickets for her own comfort and sanity. Even as she tried to ensure her own comfort in a world not designed for her, she still faced challenges from other passengers:
Even when you’ve bought two economy seats, travel is rife with humiliations. Few airline employees have any sense of how to deal with two boarding passes and the empty seat once a plane is fully boarded. It becomes a big production....The person on the other side of the empty seat often tries to commandeer some of that space for themselves, though if any part of your body were touching them, they would raise hell.
While reflecting on these passages, one participant brought up the difficulty of purchasing chairs that could support diverse bodies. They revealed that most of the corporate chairs on the market were rated for holding only 220 pounds, except for one design, which was of course considerably more expensive. Self-reported polling data suggests that over 28% of the U.S. is over 200 pounds. Something as simple as a chair, or an airplane seat, isn’t designed to accommodate nearly a third of our population.
Towards the end of the discussion, participants thought through the significance of the title, and how the theme of hunger can be helpful in tying up the many topics we had explored as a group. One participant had read the book as a call to value humanity and diverse bodies and therefore to reject bodily standards. In this way, the participant saw “hunger” to refer to Gay’s hunger for a better world, where the built environment and societal factors don’t hinder her from being at peace with, and loving, her body the way it is.
The discussion left the group asking, how can we accommodate diverse bodies in all of the spaces we live and work? How can we change infrastructure and opinion to support all bodies? While these questions help us think through the question of size that Gay had presented to us in order to combat ableism and fatphobia, it is also a useful question to apply to diverse bodies of every type. We know already—even if we do not act to change it—that cars are designed to protect male bodies. We know, also, how frequently places like the suburbs are designed to be white-only spaces, through redlining, gentrification, and other racist policies. If we are having the discussion about equity and inclusion in those instances, it is just as important to consider the way airplanes and chairs are excluding particular sized bodies as well.
While much of our conversation was guided by Gay’s focus on attitudes and damaging narratives, it is imperative to note the structures that she sees underlying and perpetuating these attitudes. Ultimately, the book conversation left participants with a new understanding of how fatphobia operates in our society, and how damaging it is. Group members began answering the questions laid out to us in Gay’s memoir by challenging their own biases and thinking through concrete ways that infrastructure could be changed to support diverse bodies. In this way, Gay’s powerful memoir called participants to not only experience empathy for others, but also to imagine how we might be a part of social change as we work for more inclusive spaces within and outside of LGBTQ communities.