sheafrotherdon: (Default)
sheafrotherdon ([personal profile] sheafrotherdon) wrote on July 23rd, 2017 at 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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