I’ve read a lot of books and watched lots of movies and shows about eating disorders, personal experiences, recovery tools, you name it. However, there’s a book unlike any of those; it's a shame that it's the only one. I’m talking about Roxane Gay’s “Hunger.”
Gay’s story is not one you usually hear. We typically hear stories about young, white women who have dealt with anorexia, who are skeletally thin, who are in treatment centers drinking Ensures and doing art therapy. These are the stories of some people, but there’s danger in a single story: it leaves out so many others.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of the single story in her Ted Talk, saying “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” This is the case with the eating disorder and body narratives we often see.
Gay, a black woman, was gang-raped at the age of 12 and spent many of her years eating and eating in hopes of becoming larger and less conventionally attractive. She ate and became bigger in order to feel safer. Despite her parents’ attempts to try to help her lose weight, Gay purposely gained it all back. However, she struggled with her body’s size. It’s not easy to live in a larger body, especially in a world with thin privilege.
She has shame about her body and has realized she no longer needs to be fat (fat is a descriptor, not a bad word) in order to feel safe, but pulling back is harder than she expected.
She also argues that women, especially, are raised and conditioned to think that our bodies are a problem that need to be solved, something we need to lessen. That we need to discipline them with rules. We are told that we cannot be happy until we are thin -- no matter how successful we are -- and that by being thin, we are instantly happy, despite what else is going on in our lives. Being thin will, supposedly, make us wholly happy.
Sigh. What a shame, what a lie, what a misconception this idea is. And Roxane Gay both knows and argues it.
This problem starts with the way we discuss and talk about our bodies with each other and with ourselves. We must drill into our heads the truth that someone who is fat is not always unhealthy, and vice versa. That the fact that people didn’t realize Gay was the keynote speaker because of her size is a problem. That a fat person can go into the doctor with a problem unrelated to his or her body or eating or exercise, and weight loss is the prescription. In that, the Hippocratic Oath apparently doesn’t apply to people who are fat. This frustrates me, and I have thin privilege. I can’t imagine how ostracized, misunderstood, and frustrated people facing body oppression feel.
I struggle sometimes with emotional eating and weight. I struggle with feeling validated in my experience with an eating disorder. In the eating disorder world, there’s a prevalent feeling of “not sick enough” that hits me hard, especially having so many friends who have struggled with their eating and bodies as well.
That’s one of the reasons why Gay’s book is so important. I hunger for stories like hers. I hunger for stories about weight gain and overeating and trauma. I’m entirely too full of stories about emaciated women in hospitals and specific details about how sick someone was. Those stories are important, but I’ve heard them too many times before.
I believe a major reason why stories like mine and Gay’s aren’t heard is because of the stigma and danger that comes from the single story narrative that leaves out so many demographics, including people of different weight ranges. Weight and weight loss have a genetic component that’s not discussed. People are scared their stories aren’t valid so they don’t tell them, and I totally get why. However, I feel we need to have the courage to break out of this small mold. It’s easier to talk about your story when it’s obvious and cookie-cutter and elicits validation and money from insurance companies and the general public. But that doesn’t make other stories less valid, especially since untreated and invalidated eating disorders can be so dangerous.
In addition, we have to keep in mind that our stories are so vastly different, from our family’s environmental and genetic histories, our personal traumas, our behaviors, our brain chemistry, the other ways we try to cope with our mental illness, et cetera. Eating disorders and mental illness and life do not play out the way we want them to, and we don’t have control over them. In other words, attempts at true comparison are futile and cannot be done accurately. There’s no point.
I try to remind myself of this. I struggle, believe me, but that does not make me a hypocrite -- that makes me human. I believe the same of you. Trying is such a valiant thing. It takes courage and fortitude. And we will come out stronger for having experienced it.