March Book Review Club: Hunger by Roxane Gay (memoir)

Hunger

“What you need to know is that my life is split in two, cleaved not so neatly. There is the before and the after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.”

When Roxane Gay was twelve years old, a boy she trusted led her into the woods where he and his friends gang raped her. Underestimating the love of her Catholic family, she told no one about her rape but instead turned to food for comfort, and over time, her body became both a fortress and a cage for her. At her heaviest, Gay tells us early in the book, she weighed 577 lbs as a twenty-something. Hunger chronicles her complex relationship with her body. We see Gay as a sheltered child, as an intelligent yet damaged adolescent, and as an accomplished woman haunted by what she calls “the girl in the woods.”

My body issues are different from Roxane Gay’s. While she has had doctors write her medical diagnoses as primary diagnosis “morbid obesity” and secondary diagnosis, “strep throat,” I have gained and lost the same 30 pounds repeatedly over the years. While she and I might be in different BMI classes, I did relate to her memoir. I, too, have lived in fear of my own hunger, of the knowledge that my hunger for food might actually hint at deeper problems. I, too, have always felt my body to be unruly, something never quite within my control, or as much in control as is possible in world where cancer or crippling car accidents can happen to anyone.

While I definitely related to so many parts of this, it was definitely a learning experience for me. My issues with weight have been fairly superficial, such as not fitting into the shorts I want to wear, while Gay’s are more everyday and immediate, such as will she fit in the only chair that is offered to her? Hunger brings awareness of what life is like for those in “unruly bodies.” Gay talks about the problem of airline seat sizes, and also the embarrassment of being unable to keep up with friends when walking as a group to a destination, or never being able to sit on an unfamiliar toilet seat for fear of breaking it. People can’t address these types of everyday inequalities until they are aware of them.

While I was reading Hunger, we had an evening full of rain in Michigan, followed by a drop in temperature, which turned all roads and sidewalks into ice. Every school district was closed, but predictably the university I work for remained open. I was signed up to attend a session on white privilege that morning (which out to be about privilege in general). Our presenters gave us this exercise where we were in groups with randomly assigned amount of money, and we could buy privileges. The privileges ranged from being able to practice your religion to being being able to hear radio stations in your native language. What I noticed after we all shared what privileges we had chosen was that none of us had chosen were those dealing with able-bodiedness. Why had none of us selected it? Because we were all so able bodied that we were able to get to a random building in the middle of an ice storm, so we didn’t think about the limitations of the body because none of lived that reality. Had the sidewalks not been covered in a sheet of ice and less able bodied people had been able to get to the session, our choices probably would have looked different and the able bodied attendees may have learned something new from their peers.

Similarly, Hunger provides a perspective that is needed. We all need to be able to understand the struggles of people who live in bodies different from ours, whether it’s due to weight or physical disabilities or some other factor. We need to examine what we assume about other people’s bodies when we don’t know their stories.

I do recommend this book. The obvious audience is people interested in women’s issues and body image. It would be helpful to medical professionals, as obesity stigma is common in the medical profession. (It will actually be a work book club selection at the School of Public Health where I work.) But everyone lives in a body and could benefit from reading Hunger.

FCC Notice: I purchased my own (Kindle) copy.

 

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February Book Review Club: Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein

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Linda Kay Klein was raised within the evangelical culture during the purity movement. When she found herself too attracted to her high school boyfriend, she convinced herself that God wanted her to break up with him to show her devotion, as that was an easier concept to understand rather than that sexual attraction is normal and healthy. Just out of high school, she learned that her youth pastor had been a pedophile and a young girl in her youth group had been his victim, and Klein first begins to question purity culture. In early adulthood, she still finds herself bound to it. When she begins some sexual experimentation with her boyfriend, she obsessively takes pregnancy tests, even though she is still a virgin. Ultimately, her questioning led her to graduate studies where she wrote her thesis on white American evangelicalism’s gender and sexuality messaging for girls. It also led her to conduct interviews with women raised in purity culture about their experiences. Those interviews, coupled with her own experiences, became the book that is Pure. The interviewed women ranged in age from the early twenties to the early forties, and all are white evangelical females unless otherwise noted.

Pure is part of a greater backlash against purity culture that has been underway among current and former evangelicals. Even Josh Harris, author of the infamous I Kissed Dating Goodbye and golden boy of ‘90s evangelical circles, decided against continuing publication of his own defining book, which told an entire generation of evangelicals how to approach romance, marriage, and sex, even though he was a homeschooled 21-year-old when he wrote it. While Klein is not the first to point out the ill effects of the purity movement, she has possibly done it best by giving voice to many women and by explaining the psychological effects of the purity movement.

Klein explores the inconsistencies of purity culture, how girls are told if they just keep themselves pure and sexless before marriage, they will instantly enjoy a fulfilling sex life upon marrying, as that is God’s blessing upon upright young couples. One woman Klein interviews married very young, as she and her husband were eager to go to bed together. Having a strong sense of purity, they waited until they were at the altar to have their first kiss, a mortifying and very public experience that involved clanking teeth, only to find their total ignorance of sex kept them from having a satisfying sex life for several years. That is quite possibly the most extreme story in the book, but it is likely not uncommon among evangelical circles, given that even thinking about sex before marriage can be frowned upon, as thoughts are considered to be a reflection of the soul. With that type of expectation, for a “pure” couple to successfully have great sex on their wedding night, they would need to be a pair of prodigies.

Many of the stories are those you would expect to find in a book like this: One woman was raped by her brother, only to have her parents blame her for “enticing” her brother. There is a lot said of women being “stumbling blocks,” the classic cliche of the evangelical world, where women are blamed for the lustful thoughts of men. Klein points out this is a misinterpretation of scripture, as only one Biblical reference to stumbling blocks refers to sexual desire, and in that reference, it is the lustful eye that is described as the stumbling block, not the object of desire.

As someone who grew up in a fundamentalist church, I related to this book. Lately, I have been thinking of how my early religious upbringing has formed me. The best of me can easily be credited to my childhood church and to my parents. That is where I learned about service, community, and what it means to live selflessly. There are other things–critical thinking and social justice, for instance–I have had to learn for myself as an adult because they were notably not taught at church or at home. There is also damage. All of the trauma and sexual anxiety that Klein describes I recognize in my own life. There was also a spiritual trauma completely separate from the purity culture. As someone who is prone to doubt and genetically prone to anxiety, growing up in a church that regularly liked to share the bad news about hellfire was probably not the best for my mental health.

I do strongly recommend Pure. The obvious audience is those who have grown up in evangelical or fundamentalist homes, but I think this is relevant outside that subculture. Purity culture can be seen in gender-specific school dress codes. The belief that women are “stumbling blocks” to men is at the root of the Me Too “anxiety” that men can’t mentor women in the workplace because women are too distractingly sexy or because they are Eves who might falsely accuse them of sexual harassment.

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.

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