23 July 2017 @ 02:47 pm
Hunger, Bodies, and Power  
I just read Roxane Gay’s Hunger and it resonated with me very deeply.

Discussion of sexual assault, suicidal ideation, and body image under the cut. Please read (or don't!) with your own self-care in mind.

While you might expect that a book titled Hunger would be in large part about eating and the body, it’s important to know that the first half (and a little of the end) of the book is about rape. Gay was gang-raped at age twelve by a group of boys with whom she went to school. Eating became her comfort, and a way to try and prevent herself from being hurt ever again. If she could just put on extra pounds no one would find her attractive, she reasoned, and she’d be protected. (The second half of the book is then about what it’s like to live as a fat woman in a world that judges, humiliates, and shames anyone who’s fat.)

Gay weighs over 400lbs; I weigh 230. I’m overweight for my height, although not terribly so – I say this only because there’s not total equivalency between my experience and hers, and I recognize that many of the awful things she’s been put through by others are things I have not had to suffer. But there are parallels between us, and they’ve given me a lot to think about.

I don’t know exactly when my father stopped abusing me, but I know it was done by the time I was fourteen. That’s also when – in family lore – I “got fat.” My friend J, who had money and used it to control her also very unstable world, would take me to KFC every night, and despite my having eaten dinner already, I would eat again. It felt comforting; it felt like a secret that was good instead of damaging; it felt like protection. I don’t remember what I weighed before or after, only that my body changed and other people noticed. There was a whole year of high school where no matter what else I was wearing I would top it with a large, oversized, black sweater I had taken from my father’s clothes. It came down to just above my knees, and I was sure I could escape notice by wearing it. Eventually the trips to KFC stopped, but eating had become an act of defiance and comfort and risk as well as sustenance.

The next time I remember my weight changing was when I was 29, and I had my first stint in therapy. I had gone because the cacophony of self-hatred in my head was so loud that I finally understood why a person might choose suicide. I never mentioned my abuse in session, however, and after six weeks the therapist pronounced me well. Right afterwards I went on a carb-free diet that required utterly ridiculous levels of control over what I was eating. (I particularly remember the diligence with which I baked egg and soy flour muffins to eat for breakfast each day.) I lost somewhere between thirty and forty pounds. I have photos of me the following year from a wedding that I went to, and they fascinate me, because I can see that it’s me but it doesn’t look like me in any way I recognize. I was thin, and yet still thought I was not.

My mental health grew steadily worse after that, and I started to eat for comfort again. I remember being acutely aware of how “big” my body was, when in fact (if, again, I look at photos) it was anything but. And then I started to date a guy who was controlling and abusive. I remember so clearly him questioning the things I ate, the way I looked, especially when we were in bed together. That was all part of a pattern of him problematizing absolutely everything I did from the words I said to the political opinions I held to the way I slept. (On his first night at my home he asked me where I tended to sleep in my bed and I told him the left side. He then proceeded to lie there every night for the rest of our relationship.) He raped me, and I continued to date him afterwards, because I couldn’t name what he’d done, and I couldn’t claim the identity of victim. I was so sure I was messed up and damaged from my father that it didn’t occur to me that what had happened was not okay until years after the event.

I had a breakdown about two months after we broke up, and went into therapy again. This time I did talk about the abuse. This time there was a whole year where I ate very little but Lays potato chips and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why I’d do that after a rapist told me my body was too big. Making it bigger was a facile way of trying to keep rapists away.

As I’ve done more and more therapy, I’ve grown more and more comfortable with my body. I don’t think that’s artifice – I genuinely enjoy my body and how bendy it is in yoga and how good it looks in my clothes and how it’s set off with the right pair of shoes. But my body has also grown in size, to the point where I’m presently the biggest I’ve ever been. I have no urge to do anything about it. Yet I’m not altogether happy being this size.

What Gay’s book did was show me the story of a woman who has also reacted to sexual assault through her body, through food, through consumption and denial. And one of the things Gay wrestles with throughout is to what degree does her safety rest on her being fat? To what degree does she move through the world with confidence because she feels like she repels sexual interest? And I have to admit to wondering the same thing about myself.

I should clarify – I don’t think that my body is repulsive, or that I’m unattractive. The fact that I’m not in sexual relationships is very much my choice, reflective of both my identity and my trauma. But my body is not the stuff of which movie stars are made, for whatever that’s worth. I’m wondering if that is a choice I’m making, too – if I feel protected and comforted by opting out of that rat race in some ways. I’m confident for a big girl. I’m attractive for a big girl. I’m adding qualifiers to the end of my sentences in my head, all the time.

I’m not going on a diet. I have seen nothing that suggests that diets are healthy or sustainable in the long term, and I’ve seen a lot of people succumb to eating disorders because of dieting. But I definitely could move more, and I suspect if I did I would lose weight. It’s 90F outside, and I can’t afford a gym membership, which are both good reasons for not moving a lot of late. I also know my depression and PTSD rob me of energy and I literally do not have the spoons to move some days.

But I’m really curious as to whether that’s the only story. I don’t think it is. I think I’m capable of being kind and loving to my body when it’s heavy because I feel safe when it’s that way. I think part of my aversion to moving is an aversion to feeling at risk.

Much to sort through. But I’m grateful for Gay for being vulnerable enough to talk about all of this, for putting her story out there and allowing others, like me, to start to tease apart their own stories because of it.
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lexstar29[personal profile] lexstar29 on July 23rd, 2017 08:44 pm (UTC)
I don't know if I told you, or if you saw photos of me before. Up till about 6 years ago I weighed anywhere from 190 to 220 pounds. For me weight was protection from many things for many reasons. I tried so many ridiculous diets. I would lose 40 pounds then gain it back. I veered between hating my body and being indifferent to it. Then one day when I was at my highest weight, for some random reason, I started to talk out loud to my body. I would put my hands on my stomach and tell it that I loved it, regardless of the size and shape. I would thank it for housing my soul, for allowing me to move and do the things I wanted to. If I had a negative thought about my body, I would apologize to it. After a while I would look at my naked form, and tell my body that I loved it. Somehow, in treating it like a part of me, but one that deserved love from me, rather than hate or indifference I grew to love it as it was. I had managed over time to shift my thinking from feeling like my body was at war with me, to realising that we were on the same team and in thins life together.

As part of that I started wanting my body to feel as good as it could. I started to pay attention to what foods made it feel good and what made it feel uncomfortable. Going round the supermarket I'd talk to my body in my head, asking it if it wanted this or that to eat today. I'd visualise eating something and see how I felt about it. I also stopped judging myself for what I did or didn't eat. I reminded myself that I could eat anything I wanted, whenever I wanted, no guilt, no judgement, no punishment after the fact. I just had to take a moment to stop, think about why I wanted to eat the thing, and ask my body, 'Do you want to eat this? Or is this craving coming from my mind or emotions?'

I also stopped dieting. I said goodbye to them forever. I promised myself and my body that I would focus on eating in the best way I could on a day to day basis, taking it each meal, each day at a time, and in a way that was sustainable for life. Never again would I fall into a trap of eating in a set way for a short time to achieve a goal then switching back to an old pattern afterwards. Only long term, livable, enjoyable and sustainable changes were welcome. Food was meant to make my body feel good and energised. It was fuel for my beautiful body. Not a tool to punish myself with.

A funny thing happened when I started living this way. I started to enjoy food again. I was suddenly able to have portion control. I ate consciously, mindfully, not blindly. When the food I wanted was cake, I was able to stop at a slice, rather than eat half, or the whole thing. I found myself moving more, just gentle walking, dancing around my living room. Suddenly, I looked one day and realised I had lost weight, then it kept coming off. I was careful not to give myself a weight loss goal, either a weekly one to hit, or an ultimate goal. I refused to pick a number that I wanted to hit. I told my body that I knew it would stop when it was at the point that was optimum for it. Surely, steadily. It kept coming off, until I had lost 80 pounds in just under a year, when it came to a natural halt.

Nowadays my weight fluctuates by about 7 pounds through the month, depending on the cycle of my body and hormones, and what food choices I've made in a given week, but as those few pounds cycle on, they also naturally come back off again. I have never put that 80 pounds back on and it has not been hard to keep off. I've not sacrificed anything. Just kept asking those questions of my body, and on the days where I have overloaded it with too large a portion of triple cooked chips with cheese sauce, I have thanked it for digesting all that, and for still doing its thing to keep me going. I have kept telling it I love it, and thanking it for being so wonderful.

It was never my goal to lose weight. I just wanted to feel well and to love my body, losing weight was a by product of that. It was simultaneously easier and harder that I thought. Someone asked me once what I did to lose weight and how I changed my diet and body. I said, 'I didn't change my body, I changed my mind' I still believe that 6 years later.

I guess on one hand, doing this may sound like I separate myself from my body, but in an odd way the reverse is true. Being this way has united me with my body, it has allowed me to fall in love with it. It reminds me that we are on the same team. My body is not something to be looked at with disgust, hatred or indifferent, or something to be ignored.

Sorry for the long and rambling comment but I have spent so much time over my years thinking about this. I just found it so interesting that once I poured love into my body, it seemed to have that by product of opening the space for me to be as healthy as possible and fall back to a weight that was natural and optimum for it. I do think that the thoughts in our mind, can have as much, if not more influence over our weight than the food we put into our body.

Edited 2017-07-23 08:49 pm (UTC)
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sheafrotherdon[personal profile] sheafrotherdon on July 23rd, 2017 09:05 pm (UTC)
Please don't apologize for this! It's beautiful, and I love hearing your stories. And this is a particularly wise and lovely one and I found myself nodding along as I read. I think I'm going to give this a try - it's such a great way of reuniting body and soul, and especially given my history, telling my body I love it is a radical act. Thank you for this, my dear, so, so much!
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lexstar29[personal profile] lexstar29 on July 27th, 2017 12:39 pm (UTC)
I hope it can be as transformative for you as it was for me. Loving my body just as it is, was a huge step for me
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kass[personal profile] kass on July 24th, 2017 12:31 pm (UTC)
Gay's book is incredibly powerful. And reading your reactions to it here is also incredibly powerful for me.

I'm caught on this sentence that you wrote: I think part of my aversion to moving is an aversion to feeling at risk.

I am not a survivor of sexual assault or violence. (Only of a relationship that got manipulative and toxic by the end.) But that sentence of yours really resonates with me, in a way that makes me uncomfortable and kind of scared. I have noticed that I avoid yoga classes not only because they cost money and take time, but because I'm afraid I will burst into tears if I am doing something with my body. My asthma has been atrocious lately and I've noticed that when I climb stairs or hills I very quickly cannot breathe -- which I think has always been true, and I've always shamed myself for it (imagining that if I were just "in shape" I wouldn't huff and puff so) -- so I'm trying to learn to treat it as an actual breathing problem instead of as a sign of my poor willpower or something. But I think my aversion to exercise isn't just about my breathing; it's also something else, having to do with not wanting to cry in public, and knowing that if I am gentle with my body I will weep.
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sheafrotherdon[personal profile] sheafrotherdon on July 24th, 2017 12:38 pm (UTC)
That makes so much sense to me. I find massage difficult for the same reason - it's always a battle of wills with myself about whether I will sink into it and risk weeping, or whether I will hold myself aloof somewhat and not do that.

Probably, for both of us, the thing to do is to do the thing we fear - to do the yoga, to sink into the massage - because those tears are necessary to our healing. What's locked in our bodies needs to come out, lest we do ourselves further damage. But oh, how I hear you.

I have asthma too, although it's been a lot better since I moved to rural areas. When I was a kid, I would wheeze and wheeze and I was always told - most prominently by gym teachers - that I was out of shape and more or less a disgrace. It took a catastrophic asthma attack for anyone to realize nope, I had a genuine breathing problem. It took more time after that for me to take hold of my own situation and ask for a maintenance inhaler instead of just a reliever one. But I totally believed people when they told me I was out of shape and that the solution was MORE walking and running, not less, or medical intervention. It's so insidious, isn't it?

I'm sending you big love, and if you want to make a yoga/massage pact, just let me know ♥
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sheafrotherdon[personal profile] sheafrotherdon on July 24th, 2017 12:43 pm (UTC)
Oh - and! - I wrote to Roxane Gay to thank her for the book yesterday, and got the most lovely reply. There's a beautiful circle of kindness there.
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celli: anime Celli[personal profile] celli on July 25th, 2017 04:26 am (UTC)
I have one of those stories too. The month after I was assaulted I gained 30 pounds. (Partly medically related, partly not.) I find it much safer to be fat, although I feel like at a certain point I became visibly fat - emphasis on the visible - and suddenly uncomfortable again.

I've done a lot to get more comfortable with my body. I also talk to my body parts, especially my stomach, and thank them for doing their job. I take a lot of selfies. I work out, in a routine designed to build strength regardless of my weight.

But oh MAN I think about doing anything to change my body - especially changing the way I eat - and I start panicking. It's such a huge struggle.
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sheafrotherdon[personal profile] sheafrotherdon on July 26th, 2017 05:58 pm (UTC)
I totally, totally hear you. I think for me there's also an element of control about it, as in, I get to eat what I want, you can't take this one thing away from me, it's mine. Which is not a smart way for me to think, but it's definitely in the mix.

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celli[personal profile] celli on July 27th, 2017 02:21 am (UTC)
yes, there's some defiance in the mix for me too!
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