I Am (Not) Hungry
After two aborted attempts at reading Bad Feminist, I decided it was time to tackle Roxane Gay's Hunger. I'd heard her read portions of it on NPR and it sounded wonderful. Although there is a lot of white space on the page, and each chapter is short--some no more than a page long--this is a difficult, time-consuming read. It's not something you can zing through and tick it off of your TBR.
And yet, I don't see why everyone loves Hunger. Gay's story of being gang-raped at thirteen and eating to protect herself from pain punches you in the kidneys. I do not deny that. My heart aches for her. But the writing in the book is spare and repetitive and repetitive and spare. Gay circles back to points, even entire stories, several times over the course of the book. This is a style that you either like or you don't; I do not enjoy it.
But even so, I can discount differences in style and a sort of slogging pacing if the content resonates. Here is where I hesitate to write any more, because surely there will be judgment and backlash because I don't love this. I fully recognize that my privilege as a thin white straight woman is much more than Gay's. I am not saying that being black or being fat or being bi and surviving the resulting backlash from society is easy; quite the opposite. When she discusses how the world does not welcome bodies like hers and the pain--physical and emotional--that it causes, she makes important points about body shaming and the culture of thinness in society. But I will not give her a pass on the chapters discussing eating disorders.
If Roxane Gay's intention in writing the way she did about eating disorders was to wound sufferers deeply, then she has succeeded. Perhaps this is a sort of revenge for the way society unjustly and cruelly treat's Gay's own body. But revenge does not bring peace, only more pain.
I tried to justify what Gay was saying--she's being facetious. She's being sarcastic. This is all one big joke. Except it's not. And so as soon as I finished the book I brought it back to the library. I wanted it out of my possession. I didn't want to look at a book whose author thought anorexics and bulimics were strong and powerful for their "self-control." But I did photograph those pages so I can quote them here.
There is something about the gaunt faces and sharply angled bodies of anorexic girls that at once attracts and repulses me ... I am envious because these girls have willpower. They have the commitment to do what it takes to have the bodies they want. I ignore their thinning hair, rotting teeth, internal organs dissolving into mushy nothing. I prefer, instead, to obsess over their bodies the way others obsess over mine.
Make no mistake: eating disorders are not about willpower, self-control, or mental strength. They are mental illnesses. In therapy now, I'm trying to work through how thought that "controlling" my eating and my weight would make me feel more in control of my life. But guess what? I was completely out of control. My compulsions controlled me. For many men and women, those compulsions are deadly. Anorexia kills one out of five sufferers if they don't get treatment. One out of five. This is not behavior to envy or to emulate. It's a fatal illness. Anorexia and bulimia and OSFED and BED and their parasitic, cruel siblings have nothing to do with willpower. That is an illusion. This has nothing to do with commitment. That's delusion. Only recently have I begun to believe that who and what I see when I look in the mirror is not who and what everyone else sees when they see me. That my mind is lying to me because it's sick and I have to work really, really hard to make myself even a little bit better.
This comment about obsessing over anorexics' bodies frightens me, too. I know the title of her first essay collection is Bad Feminist. But even if you are a "bad" feminist in some ways, you should know that objectifying anyone is not acceptable. If you argue that people have no right to discuss your fatness, how does vengefully obsessing over someone else's body--a thin body, yes, but a body that belongs to another human and a body that is none of your freaking business--help this situation? It's nice to know that someone who argues that we are more than our size takes secret delight in analyzing the bodies of girls who are dying because they will not eat. Nice.
"Okay," readers may respond. "But look at the end of that essay."
And then I hate myself for wanting something so terrible and I rage and the world that hates me for my body and how it is so markedly visible and the same world that forces too many girls and women to try their best to disappear.
Yes, society sucks. The world is a flaming, pustulent boil of lethal misogyny. That does not excuse envying an anorexic's "willpower" or a bulimic's "talent" for purging. All of this strange fetishization contributes to mental health stigma. By saying that a symptom of a person's mental illness is desirable, a person reinforces the concept that the symptom is a chosen behavior rather than an unwanted, uncontrollable symptom of a disease. No one says things like "Gee, I wish my cells would multiply abnormally, just like someone with cancer!" Or if they do, please don't tell me.
Let's talk about bulimia!
Once upon a time, I began to purge because I wanted to feel empty. I wanted to feel empty but I also wanted to fill myself. I was not a teenager or even in my twenties. I was in my thirties, and finally, I found the discipline to have an eating disorder.
Wow, it's nice to know that all you need in order to have an eating disorder is a little discipline! You, too, can coat your esophagus with stomach acid so often that the cells boil and disintegrate, if only you show a little discipline! You, too, can starve your heart to the point where it simply stops, if only you show a little discipline! The implication, then, is that to recover, all you have to do is show a little discipline. Thanks. I'll tell my therapist that when I see her next week. Imagine--you've discovered what makes eating disorders tick. Discipline. Willpower. Not trauma or chemical imbalance or genetic predisposition. Just good ol' fashioned discipline. That word twists and sours in my mouth. My fingers are trembling with rage as I write this, as I consider how cavalierly these illnesses are seen and how much--how hungrily--these deadly symptoms are coveted.
I looked at a lot of reviews after I read these passages, wondering if other readers had seen what I had seen and felt what I had felt. If they had, they weren't letting on. Most of the reviews for Hunger are overwhelmingly positive. "Glowing," I think, would be appropriate to describe their tone. The negative reviews were far fewer. Most readers who didn't like this found it repetitive, not the "right" kind of memoir (I had no idea there were rules for memoirs, but then I'm no English major), or they hated fat people. These last ones I discarded like the trash they were, because writing "This book sucks because she should just lose weight duh" misses basically the entire point. But no one pointed out how harmful it was that she saw purging as the result of finally building up enough inner strength. That the people who died from these diseases were entertainment to her. Or worse, they were a hated inspiration.
Other reviews told me that if I didn't like this book, then I condoned her rapists and I have no empathy. Hm. Really. But I suppose no matter how much I tell you that I do have empathy for her and that I hate the way the world treats fat people, it will never matter, because I am not fat. And that makes me the privileged enemy. Even though also in my head, I hate my body because I can't control it, and there were times I was willing to do anything--anything--to get that control. Even if it meant dying from what my head told me I had to do to be pretty and in control.
Slightly ironically, and perhaps a touch hypocritically, this review comes on the heels of my post about why I love not writing book reviews. But I couldn't read this book and be quiet. Even if it's just in my own little corner of the internet, I needed to be on record saying that it is Not Okay to talk about eating disorders and mental illness this way. It hurts. There's nothing else to it.