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Grace Mattern: Roxane Gay and the right body



For the Monitor
Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Roxane Gay is fat. Her new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, tells the brutally raw story of how she got so fat and why.

At 12 she was gang raped. She barely had words for what happened to her, and the words she could muster she couldn’t say to anyone, not even her parents. They loved her but she was a good Catholic girl, and good girls didn’t get raped.

So she swallowed her secret and got big, big enough that she felt safe from male attention. Which is the response many girls have to being sexually assaulted.

Dr. Vincent Felitti uncovered the link between child sexual abuse and obesity by accident. Felitti was the chief of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, and for five years in a row half the patients in his obesity clinic dropped out, patients who were losing weight. It didn’t make sense.

Felitti interviewed patients who’d left the program, asking a series of questions about their weight and lifestyle histories, and one day he made a mistake. Instead of asking how old the patient was when she first had sex, he asked how much she weighed. He was shocked when the woman said, “40 pounds.” She’d been 4 years old when her father raped her.

It turned out that almost all the patients who left the clinic had been sexually abused as children. People would lose 100 pounds and drop out of the program. Being small, and potentially attractive, was too dangerous.

Felitti went on to work with Dr. Robert Anda, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, on the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE, study. More than 17,000 patients in the Kaiser Permanente system answered extensive questions about their health and their experiences as children. The people who participated in the study were a representative sample of middle-class Americans across races, professions and education levels.

Dr. Anda wept when he first looked at the collected data. Two-thirds of the adults in the ACE study had experienced at least one childhood trauma – sexual or physical abuse, addiction in the family, loss of a parent – and 87 percent of those had experienced two or more.

Felitti and Anda found a strong correlation between people’s ACE scores – the number of adverse experiences in childhood – and every chronic health condition in the United States. A lot of people were suffering and comforting themselves in ways that led to poorer health, and that the world judges harshly – smoking, drinking, taking drugs and overeating.

Gay’s book tells the painful story of what it’s like to live with a body made “unruly” in its search for comfort, some way to relieve the overwhelming anxiety and guilt caused by the assault. Like most of the women Dr. Felitti first interviewed, Gay got big fast. Whenever she started to lose weight she’d get scared, feel too exposed, and quickly get big again.

The problem, though, is that big bodies draw attention, too. Not necessarily unwanted male attention but condemnation for being too large, taking up too much space, not being attractive according to the rigid standards that surround all women in our culture. You can’t hide the fact that you’re fat; as soon as you go out in public the whole world can see how you’ve “failed.” The medical definition of Gay’s weight status is “super morbidly obese.” The term itself is shaming; being “super morbidly” anything would tell you there’s something seriously wrong with you.

But there’s another problem, one each of us can do something about. For Gay, what’s seriously wrong with her body is how other people judge it and treat it. She’s often upset with her body and frustrated by its physical limitations, but she’s ready to forgive herself and accept and live in the body she has. Society isn’t. Gay can’t find a doctor who’ll treat her as she is; she doesn’t have enough room on airplanes; she has to judge the seats and spaces in a restaurant before responding to friends’ invitations to eat out.

You may think Gay has created her own problem. Except on a very important level, her size works for her, as it works for the women Felitti interviewed. Eating makes Gay feel better. It makes sexual abuse survivors feel better. It eases anxiety and anger, and it makes them feel safe.

In Hunger, Gay repeatedly asserts her body’s right to be in the world the way it is, any body’s right to be in the world. That assertion is contradicted constantly as Gay moves through her daily life, so it’s no wonder she returns to it.

Most of us don’t accept fat people as living in bodies that may work for them in ways we don’t understand. It shouldn’t take research to make us less judgmental. But knowing the research and knowing Gay’s story make it clear that it’s oppressive and useless to perpetuate the idea that extra large women are shameful and unable to control themselves. We can change that.

Gay’s slamming accuracy in describing how our culture treats fat people isn’t easy to read, but it’s real. Yes, her body is “unruly” but it’s doing what it needs to. It’s fighting back.

(Grace Mattern is a poet and writer who lives in Northwood. She blogs at gracemattern.com.)