Running from My Body
In Hunger Roxane Gay describes being trapped inside her body; I am running from mine. One time, I ran so far from my body it almost killed me.
I was sitting on a rock, staring at the new line that had appeared just an inch or so above my knee, on the inside of my thigh when I bent it. I was the only child I knew who had one; it was a mark of fatness, and nearly as painful to touch as a freshly burned branding. I took on the persona of a doctor and spoke to myself out loud: “It’s unfortunate. But she is still the fastest runner, nothing to be too concerned about yet.” I had dissociated, turned into someone else. And that somebody told me my body could be justified by the things it could do.
As long as I can remember, I have used my physical power to soothe my anxieties about my body. I worked for five years as a professional mover. At another job, I spent years hefting 50, 75 pounds in repetitive motions for hours on end. I completed an Olympic distance triathlon. I won shorter triathlons. I can swim a mile in 23 minutes, power a bike through traffic, run hilly trails picking my way over complexes of roots. On one incredible day, I summited four mountains, including two of the highest in the Appalachians, in the space of a morning. I tell people this power satisfies me. For most of my life, I could not admit – even to myself – the pain that lay beneath it.
Then I discovered Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which crystallized for me the discomfort I have felt with and in my own body and the mechanisms I have developed to conceal it. Physical power had become so central to my identity because, as Gay writes, we believe that “strong people don’t find themselves in the vulnerable situations I have found myself in,” and we invest a great deal of effort “in appearing invulnerable, unbreakable, stone-cold, a fortress.” I believed if I made myself hard enough, the world couldn’t break me.
Hunger, Gay writes, is a memoir of her body in the wake of rape, and the ways her relationship with her body is mediated through violence and desire. These two poles of her life are felt in visits to gastric bypass offices, college classrooms, and in the personal relationships she navigates from her teen years to the present as she moves through the world “taking up too much space and still finding nowhere to fit.” Seeking release from her body, she denies herself brightly colored clothes, the use of a shared armrest, eating potato chips in public, and everyday forms of affection. Amidst desire, desirability, and the lingering scars of sexual violence, lies hunger. An insatiable yearning for a different kind of life and different kind of self. Liberation from a prison of marked flesh.
Gay describes being trapped inside her body; I am running from mine. I have never needed a belt extender, but I once bled through my pants on a trans-Atlantic flight rather than inconvenience the thin people in my row by asking them to move so I could change my tampon. I fold in on myself and will even close my eyes for the entire flight. I am not there. I am anywhere else.
One time, I ran so far from my body it almost killed me. Nineteen, suffering from a depth of depression that’s hard to imagine now, I shrank from a size 16 to a size 10 in the space of two months. My job was physically demanding and I subsisted almost entirely on two apples and a spoonful of peanut butter for each meal. By the end of each long workday, I found myself nearly unable to walk, or lift anything heavy, or do anything but slump onto my bed and stare into the dark shadows of the night woods.
I kept doing this until one day, late at night, still at work, outside in the middle of winter, I collapsed onto the ground and could not get back up. My boss found me nearly three hours later, hypothermic but alive. While in the hospital, I consumed only one biscuit and one cup of water a day, and my body shrank still more. Since I was quiet, and the staff had bigger problems to deal with, my self-deprivation went unnoticed. I blacked out every time I stood up. It took the nurses two days to notice. In less than five days, I lost fifteen more pounds, and I weighed 172 – the thinnest I have ever been in my adult life. I fit into a size eight. My hip bones jutted out against the waistband of my jeans. On my broad, five-foot-ten-inch frame, my ribs could be played with a soft touch and I when I crossed my arms above my head to change shirts, they splayed out visibly like wings desperate to break out from my skin. I was so thrilled with the weight loss that I attempted suicide twice more hoping hospital stays would shrink my body further. I did this with a disregard for my own life that shocks me now. Equally pleased with the prospect of death as with thinness, I was already dead, but also unkillable.
A decade has passed. I am still not sure how I survived. It is hard to even recognize myself in my own memories. Years later, my partner showed me a picture he had taken of me while hiking. In the picture, I look happy, but I am not thin – my underarms are soft and skin strains against the top of my jeans. But I am happy. I was happy in that moment but I can hardly stand to look at it. Hiking up that mountain, I felt blissfully light, carried by the early morning gusts of wind, and light people, I have been taught, have toned arms and legs shaped just so. Suddenly, my happiness feels invalidated.
There are no pictures of me from that dark time of hospital stays, starvation, and exercise binges, but I know I was not happy. I was thin, though, so most people either assumed I was or didn’t care that I wasn’t. So thin and tightly muscled one of the nurses mistook me for a professional runner. I remember being dumbstruck by this. How could she possibly think that? I am fat. I am too big.
I remembered this moment as I hastily dismissed the hiking picture from my phone, and asked my partner to take it down from his social media account. He was equal parts concerned and annoyed. Look how beautiful you are, he said. He really meant it. I looked again, but I could not see what he saw.
I still wonder each day if I am truly fat or if it is my own dysmorphic mind playing tricks on me. Numbers provide little help. As a size fourteen, I am “smaller” than the mythical average American woman who can be summed up by a pants size. I linger in that twilight zone between the straight sizes and plus sizes and will only buy one brand and style of pants to avoid the pain and anxiety that comes with venturing beyond. Sizes range widely anyway, and are meaningless for describing the measurements of my body. But when my partner bought me a pair of 2X shorts I cried. It didn’t matter that in reality, the shorts were too big and should have been two sizes smaller. It didn’t matter that they were a gesture of love. All that mattered, in my mind, was that he picked them up, and thought, Yes, this will fit her. Fatness fits her.
Numbers can be even worse than unhelpful. I regularly deny myself medical care because scale readings can send me into a dark space that I would rather not go. After an old birth control prescription lapsed, it took me years to work myself up to going in for an IUD, and only then after I was forced to seek an abortion. From setting my own broken fingers to draining a painful abscess of the inside of my leg, I rely on my own high threshold for pain and the meager medical knowledge I gained as a veterinary assistant years ago.
On the rare occasions I cannot avoid stepping on a scale, I weigh somewhere between 215 and 245 pounds. Every time I am near women complaining about how fat they are as they weigh in at 120, 130, 140, I feel like a different species. Women who appear to me to be my size – who I can share clothes with – on average weigh 170 to 190 pounds. Surrounded on most days by middle-class and wealthy academics who, thanks to the ways in which fatness intersects with our classed lives, are on the whole much slenderer, I feel enormous. I tower five inches or more above most of my women friends and it only magnifies my bigness. How can I be so abnormal?
Even in self-hatred, I feel I cannot fit comfortably. I wonder if I am fat enough to accept myself as fat, to accept myself at all; people whose bodies thrust them into much sharper conflict with our unaccommodating world often – rightly – point out that my experience of fatness doesn’t extend to the same level of interpersonal or structural discrimination that they and people like Roxane Gay have experienced. I hate buying clothes – and especially trying on clothes – but I can buy them in most stores. For most of my life, I refused to eat in the presence of others and today when I do eat publicly, I am hyper-aware of the way what and how I eat will be perceived. But no one has ever snatched food from grocery cart. I was once forced to sit, as the only fat person in the room, through a seminar where the professor discussed obese people as a climate change problem, as though being fat was as bad as burning coal, but I have never been excluded from an academic space because it was structurally inaccessible to me. I worry that claiming the word “fat” for myself will ultimately obscure these problems; that in examining the way fatness has shaped the atlas of my body, it will contribute to the neoliberal phenomenon of prescribing personal solutions to social problems.
This is true, and yet my hunger almost killed me.
Over the years I have come to understand that my self-hatred is a perception, refracted not only through mirrors and cameras but through our society. No matter that I had understood such a concept for years after first reading feminist theory, I never understood it to apply to me. When I was thin, I perceived myself as fat. Now I am fat, and I am the most content with my body I have ever been, which is not saying much. I do not know myself, I conclude, but rather can see my reflection only through images distorted by a society that hates every part of who I am, and where I can never fit correctly.
I see so much of myself in Gay’s narrative that Hunger was both agonizing to read and impossible to put down. We differ in size and background, but share our history of sexual violence and the feminist guilt that plagues the hatred of our bodies. Far from being only deeply personal coping mechanisms, the result of my own traumas, Gay’s memoir showed me how the deprivation and discipline to which I subject my own body are prescribed in support of a social system that pathologizes fatness as a shroud for gender-based violence.
If there is something to be learned from this experience that so many of us share, it is, Gay points out, the way marginalization in its many forms can teach empathy. Near the end of the book, she describes an incident at a speaking event where her own experience, navigating a world that seems happy to exclude her, allows her to intervene to preserve accessibility for her deaf audience members. “I am thankful,” she writes, “that my body, however unruly it is, allowed me to learn from that moment.” The long and always unfinished process of healing is not only personal journey, but can be an expansion of our capacity for solidarity. It reminded me of James Baldwin’s observation that “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” It’s true. Hunger is the most important book I have read in a long time.