On Thursday, March 9, I ate: half of a yogurt-and-granola parfait, half of a cinnamon roll, eight slices of deli ham on a large Hawaiian bun with pickles, two handfuls of potato chips, two pieces of low-fat string cheese, a small square of shortbread, two vanilla wafers, half a cup of leftover spaghetti with butter, two large bowls of spaghetti with four cups of Bolognese sauce, and 15 butter cookies. I drank: two glasses of orange juice, a two-liter of Coke, and a big mug of skim milk.
Does this sound like a lot? It didn’t to me. I saw the yogurt and granola, the potato chips I hadn’t eaten, and the tomatoes (a vegetable!) in the Bolognese. The two-liter of Coke disappeared over the course of a day. The leftover spaghetti, which I ate mindlessly while warming up dinner, didn’t even count.
I didn’t exercise on March 9.
I weighed 291 pounds. I am 5’5″ and 43 years old. I was pushing a size 24. My body mass index was 48—morbidly obese.
This was a typical eating pattern. Earlier in the week, I had eaten three-fourths of a butterscotch-pudding pie while watching TV.
I know I’m fat (yes, I said it: fat), but I didn’t think my eating habits were hopeless. Some bordered on healthy. I would eat one of every five bags of lettuce I brought home. I didn’t devour entire packages of cookies at a time. I exercised, sporadically. I went to the farmers market, and not just for the bakery stands. I racked up punch cards at my favorite juice bar. I wasn’t delusional—I understood metabolism and blood-sugar cycles. I suppose focusing on the small victories was a coping mechanism.
Yet I didn’t wake up one day surprised to weigh 291 pounds. The number didn’t bother me as much as the physical reality of being fat—how the seam of my bra dug into my armpit, how I dreaded stairs, how I couldn’t reach across my chest to crack a backhand on the tennis court. I was very aware, every second, of my body and my weight. Occasionally, I would lose 20 pounds by busting my butt in the office gym and eating more fish than pasta. But never by dieting. I was never “on a diet.” I actually have decent self-esteem, knowing there’s more to me than my size, and I’m happily married. I was just always trying to change my relationship with food. Nothing stuck.
Health magazines say the older you get, the harder it is to lose weight because metabolism slows. But none of them ever told me that my problem might not be food at all.
The week of the butterscotch pie episode, I joined IU Health’s nonsurgical weight-loss program—and, coincidentally, was also assigned to write about Roxane Gay’s new book, Hunger.
Gay is a best-selling author who teaches creative writing at Purdue. She’s quite famous with the NPR crowd, commenting regularly on race, feminism, and gender identity. After making a name for herself in literary journals, she broke out in 2014 with her first novel, An Untamed State, and a book of essays, Bad Feminist. Purdue had the good sense to hire her before Time magazine said “let it be the year of Roxane Gay,” and CNN named her one of the most inspiring women of 2014, alongside Malala Yousafzai, Shonda Rhimes, and Elizabeth Warren.
Gay ascended as a cultural critic over the next few years to an echelon of voices that includes The Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates (a friend of hers) and Lena Dunham (an admirer and perhaps a pal). Now she has six publicists and is a regular opinion writer for The New York Times. She attended Exeter and Yale and earned her Ph.D. in writing at unheralded Michigan Technological University. Then she taught at Eastern Illinois University before moving to Indiana.
Much of her writing is personal. When she was 12, Gay was raped by her boyfriend and his friends in Omaha, where she was raised. She didn’t tell her parents, but now she is outspoken about rape culture and the aftermath of sexual assault. Her stories often commingle sex and violence, and a hallmark—which has gotten her work noticed—is that she does more than speak about such atrocities. She lingers over the details, forcing a reader not to look away, because the victim can’t. She does the same thing with recovery. In 2012, she wrote, “We forget when narratives neatly imply that everything turns out okay, when narratives imply that it gets better without demonstrating what it takes to get to better.”
Her voice isn’t confessional or self-effacing, which is usually how women talk about being overweight.
So I was curious to read such an examination in Hunger. It’s time for a writer of Gay’s ability to take a long, slow look at what it’s like to be fat and why obesity is not purely—perhaps even mostly—a result of laziness. The obesity conversation has been dominated by critics, like Dan Savage, the prominent Seattle newspaper writer who went on a tear about fat people in columns about a decade ago, even suggesting a ban on fat marriage. More recently, some obese women have tiptoed forward in the name of fat acceptance to remind assholes like Savage that they aren’t punching bags, to call these jerks’ bluff on their supposed tough-love motivation, and to proclaim that they’re done feeling ashamed about their size.
Gay was the perfect voice to expand the conversation. Stylistically, her stories glide effortlessly, even when the subject matter is brutal. She’s candid, saying things you would only think, like “rivulets of sweat spring forth between my breasts and pool at the base of my spine,” describing her average day. She doesn’t go along with fashionable rhetoric: “It would be easy to pretend I am just fine with my body as it is.”
Gay has earned broad respect and cultivated a huge audience. She has more than 200,000 Twitter followers and travels frequently for writing assignments or speaking engagements (Purdue gives her the freedom to do so). Those gigs have included interviewing Sons of Anarchy hunk Charlie Hunnam for InStyle magazine and serving as a panelist at the AWP Conference & Bookfair, North America’s largest gathering of writers and publishers.
Gay’s latest collection of short stories, Difficult Women, came out in January, earning the review “challenging, quirky, and memorable” from Publisher’s Weekly. Then Gay made headlines when she pulled a book contract from Simon & Schuster because the publisher had signed controversial political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Hunger, a memoir, has been eagerly anticipated.
Gay tackles thorny issues of identity, race, and gender through her lens as a black, queer, fat woman and a victim of rape. Looking at social issues from multiple perspectives is called intersectionality, a buzzword in cultural criticism these days. Frankly, a lot of it goes over my head. Writing about Gay was going to be a mind-bender.
It was just the type of assignment that makes me eat.
While the literary world was looking forward to what Gay would reveal about her body and emotional hunger, I was confronting some of the same issues from my past.
When I was 2, I went through a phase of slapping my plate off the table and into a wall whenever I was done with dinner. I consider it the earliest sign of what would become a defining and dysfunctional relationship with food.
I was the kid who “didn’t like” a thousand foods I’d never tried, including: all vegetables, all fish except canned tuna, beans, ketchup, mustard, untoasted bread, yogurt, peanut butter, nuts, ranch dressing, unmelted cheese, dips, rice, Chinese, white gravy, guacamole, coconut, Alfredo sauce, Cheerios, watermelon, pears, cherries, salsa, runny eggs, wheat crackers, and creamy soups. I liked meat, potatoes, pasta, and junk.
My parents divorced when I was 16. My six older brothers and sisters had moved out, and what had been a chaotic but happy household went dark overnight. I was intensely lonely. My dad let me cook for myself most of the time. I turned Pillsbury biscuits into a culinary staple, making everything out of them. My favorite was pizza pockets. Eckrich Old-Fashioned Loaf and Kraft macaroni and cheese were also in heavy rotation.
The bad eating habits got worse at college. I often took home a sack stuffed with day-old cookies and banana bread from my job at a campus bakery. My roommates barely touched them; I couldn’t resist. Papa John’s introduced cheese sticks when I was in college, a big part of the reason I was a size 14 by the time I graduated without hardly ever touching beer.
In my 20s, I thought I was doing well by taking to Caesar salad, shrimp, rice, and corn. But the list of “foods I don’t like” was still massive. The one time I lost weight was when I went to Hong Kong, because I couldn’t eat anything. I managed to ditch my group and go to McDonald’s or something called The Spaghetti House near our hotel.
I adopted some nutritious foods as I got older—fish, roasted vegetables, vinaigrettes, yogurt. That felt like progress, even though the scale didn’t reflect it. When my doctor would wrap up appointments without mentioning my weight or using the word “obese,” it was easy to tell myself that it wasn’t a major problem or that I just had a ridiculously slow metabolism. Yeah, I knew better. But I couldn’t imagine finding the strength to replace the companionship of food. I couldn’t even talk about it.
Thankfully, Gay can. I am what she calls “Lane Bryant fat,” her term for people who shop at the most popular plus-size retailer. At one point, Gay, who is 6’3″, was 577 pounds, too large for the chain’s maximum size. She doesn’t give her current weight in Hunger. Just eyeing it, I’d put it at high 300s to mid 400s.
Her favorite word for her body is “unruly.” She uses it nine times within 77 pages in Hunger. It suggests detachment, like her body has separated itself from her mind, and she can’t control it. This makes sense, because Gay isn’t really a fat-acceptance advocate, at least not for herself. She thrashes against her size as well as the social norms that make being fat worse than it is on its own.
Gay’s work pays attention to the fallout that happens simultaneously with recovery from a trauma. It’s like the B-side of healing. In An Untamed State, about a brutal kidnapping in Haiti, much of the story takes place after the main character is freed—from captivity, but not from pain. The victim’s rich father was unwilling to pay her ransom, because doing so would have made his other children targets of kidnapping. The victim copes with more loss in recovery: She can’t isolate the trauma in her memory, so she tries to put all of her past, good and bad, behind her. The payoff in a Gay story is a fuller understanding of how happy endings take shape, not the fairy tale itself. That said, she holds out hope for one. The first line in Untamed starts, “Once upon a time.”
She calls writing Hunger the hardest thing she has ever done. It explains how the rape affected her, first by driving her to eat as a defense mechanism, then by messing up her ability to have healthy relationships. The two things dovetail, of course. Hunger is at its best when it departs from those well-worn themes. Gay bares her soul about what it’s like to move through the world at her size. People actually take food out of her grocery cart! She prepares excuses for why she needs to rest while walking around with friends and wonders why they’re oblivious to her issue with amusement parks. She’s too self-conscious to use a handicap bathroom stall, but worries about breaking smaller toilets.
Her voice isn’t confessional or self-effacing, which is usually how women talk about being overweight. Nor is she the Amy Schumer of fatties. She’s matter-of-fact about the humiliation she faces, then painfully desperate while revealing her desires: for a maxi dress with bright stripes, for the satisfaction of finishing a 5K, for the energy she spends being “intensely and constantly preoccupied with my body.” She would just like to move freely.
My parents remarried when I was 23, seven years after the divorce that did my formative eating habits no favors. This just doesn’t happen. Nuclear families don’t get second chances. There aren’t even movies about it—the notion is too unrealistic even for Hollywood.
So why did I start crying around then and never stop? In the wake of Prozac Nation, published in 1994, I started hearing more about depression. It took a while, but I realized that’s what I had. Sometimes I cried out of loneliness, sometimes out of a hazy despair, sometimes because I didn’t know who I was and constantly—as in, hour to hour—carried on a contentious internal dialogue about that.
I tried to hide my depression because it made me feel worse when my family wanted to help but couldn’t. On my own, I saw a couple of doctors and therapists, but those discussions were torturous—I couldn’t untangle my thoughts and explain my inner torment. Instead, I became a high-functioning head case, although it took all of my energy—and a daily diet of comfort food—to keep it together to the extent that I did.
I assumed I was depressed partly because of my steadily increasing weight, and it took about 15 years to figure out it was the other way around, that I was, as we say now, eating my feelings. That was probably seven years ago. But it didn’t mean I could change. By then, food was the foundation of my happiness.
I could feel my vocabulary disappearing. My brain grasped for a simple word … two syllables, starts with an M …. and it wasn’t there. I actually felt my brain shutting off. I couldn’t catch my breath.
I was sweating a deadline on the hardest story I’d ever written. I had probably eaten horrifically most of that time. Writing was a junk-food trigger, leading me to the vending machine and soda fountain up to five times a day.
I don’t know if it was then or later, at the emergency room, that I recalled IU neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s description, in her best-selling memoir My Stroke of Insight, of having a stroke and being acutely conscious of her nervous system shutting down. That’s what I felt like. I ended up just having my blood pressure checked and declining an EKG when the doctor ruled out a stroke. I left without a diagnosis (it was probably a panic attack) and with a $1,000 bill.
The emergency-room visit was a wake-up call. It was time to go to a therapist, and I was ready because I had spent years self-diagnosing that raging inner dialogue, which made me think of my mind as a mess of wire hangers. My thoughts were a jumble that I couldn’t untangle, about something as simple as whether I liked a song and as complex as whether I believed in God. Ever since college, linear thoughts were a challenge, because I was constantly questioning or editing myself—sometimes out loud. Once, I stopped in the middle of a conversation with my mom and started mouthing words to myself; she looked at me like I was an alien. It was a little weird at best, and at worst it prevented me from forming convictions, having basic conversations, knowing my identity, and writing. It doesn’t sound so bad on paper—a lot of people have inner conflict—but mine was an extreme, maddening state of existence. A silent chaos I had long treated with dopamine released by Little Debbie Swiss Rolls and Totino’s Party Pizzas.
My therapist diagnosed it as anxiety.
Anxiety and depression are both manifestations of low serotonin. This is why my trains of thought had the shortest of tracks. Mini panic attacks, she said, constantly derailed me, umpteen times a day.
For $3.99 per month, the cost of a low-grade antidepressant prescription, my mind settled almost immediately. I could cope with everything better. I was nicer to people. I eventually freed up enough energy to think about my health. The next few years were full of starts and stops and setbacks. I passed on Whole30 (too many avocados) and flailed at gluten-free (does lettuce spoil fast, or is it just me?). I struggled to find a lasting workout rhythm. There are all kinds of discomforts that fat people deal with when they exercise, and the potential for injury is high. Last summer, I popped tendons in both feet and lost my entire tennis season.
Finally, it dawned on me to go to the one place that should have been obvious: the doctor!
Opening the door to the bariatric department at IU Health North was humbling and a little embarrassing. In the exam room, I cried while telling gastroenterologist Ashley Gilmore, the program’s physician, why I wanted to lose weight. Some of the reasons were common and some weren’t: I want to be my best self. I can give more to the world. I want to try aerial silks. I don’t want to die early on my husband. I want to shop Anthropologie’s clearance closet. I want to apply for Survivor, and my God, that show can’t last forever. Mostly, I wanted to respect my parents, whose gift of life I was wasting.
On March 13, my first day on IU Health’s nonsurgical weight-loss program, I ate: three vanilla protein shakes, two cinnamon protein bars, a cup of romaine with pico de gallo in place of dressing, and two cups of shredded chicken sautéed in olive oil with vegetables and garnished with melted cheese. I drank lots of water and LaCroix.
I chose a partial meal-replacement program for rapid weight loss. (Some patients do full meal replacement. Others choose medication or surgery instead. I would have qualified for surgery.) I wasn’t at all confident that I would last a week. Every day, I would have three small shakes and two bars, equaling 620 calories and designed to put the body into the fat-burning metabolic state of ketosis. I would also eat one healthy meal of my choosing, high in lean protein and vegetables. No carbs, no sugar, no fruit, no booze, no drinks except water. If I got hungry between meals, I would snack on high-protein food, like boiled egg whites, string cheese, or deli turkey. I would journal every morsel.
Week one was a complete bitch. Overcoming temptation took every ounce of my concentration. I was supposed to be reading Gay’s books, but I couldn’t. I was either planning meals or prepping food or thinking about food or journaling about food. If I wasn’t hungry, I worried about when I would be.
At Friday’s weigh-in, I had lost 4.4 pounds and confessed my plan to eat McDonald’s or doughnuts that weekend to IU Health nutritionist Kelly Sharp, who talked me out of it. The second week, also a hideous grind, I lost another 5.2. In week three, 6.4. Temptations were fading. I started to exercise in week four, when my energy returned. I did BODYPUMP, a weight-training class. Then I added walking on the treadmill. Then I added an incline. Then I started jogging for a minute here and there. I biked to work. I was still playing tennis. I ate salad with chicken, steak, or fish for dinner. I bought a spiralizer and made zucchini noodles for pasta, and tried cauliflower pizza recipes. I had never eaten cauliflower in my life.
I cheated every day. Sips of my husband’s Coke, a bite of his pasta. Four pieces of pizza at work one day, out of sheer habit—whoops! Olive Garden salad dressing instead of balsamic, though I dipped my fork into the dressing before taking a bite to reduce calories. I added bleu cheese and crispy peppers to every salad and put dollops of goat cheese in my egg-white omelets.
Nevertheless, you only have to drop 10 or 15 pounds to start feeling better (and if you’re considered overweight or obese, losing just five percent of body weight improves your health). I looked forward to my weekly check-ins. More energy and looser clothes gave me motivation, and for some reason, this time, it was sticking. The pieces had finally fallen into place—maturity, low anxiety, and a newly active lifestyle in Garfield Park, where I had just moved and enjoyed walking nearly every day. One key, too, was that I was occupied with organizing the house, something that plays into my natural energy. It occurred to me that the best time to start this program might be when you’ll be doing something you love.
After six weeks, I had lost 24 pounds, and my addictions were disappearing.
I was on a roll. And for the first time, I wasn’t eating my way through a tough assignment, the Gay story.
But I was wary that something would knock me off track, because I have a long history of feeling gung-ho about a new subject and then losing interest or mettle or whatever. It was a pattern. I had run an Etsy shop and become an Airbnb host. I once mastered the finer points of couponing, and now my binder is full of expired $1-off clippings. After becoming enthralled by the complexity of craps, I took a night job as a croupier for an entertainment company, working parties until a friend (looking sharp in a tux) spotted me (wearing a dorky costume bow tie) at the Indiana Roof Ballroom.
I feared a similar end to this diet.
When I emailed Gay for an interview, it did not go well.
I expected a “no,” because her publicist had already told me that Gay had agreed to an exclusive interview with a national magazine, but I got an earful instead. The words “manipulative” and “unethical” were used. I remembered a line from Hunger, about how she liked her mean streak. I didn’t.
The email walloped me, emotionally.
Of all things, I thought, a book about struggling with obesity is going to do me in. I braced for how much I would eat that night. There were two boxes of macaroni and cheese and a butterscotch pudding mix in the cupboard.
Instead, that email was the best thing that could have happened. By the end of BODYPUMP the next day, I was already getting over it—endorphins work. I didn’t eat my feelings after all. My weigh-in three days after the email was good, another 3.3 pounds for a total of 30. That’s when I realized this program might be for real.
I was down 42 pounds as of this writing, six weeks ago, and my BMI was 7 percent lower.
Sometimes I wonder what’s waiting for me at the bottom of the mug I use for diet chocolate shakes. My dream of playing Survivor? Poverty, from shopping sprees? Or a fear of food, just as dysfunctional as my addiction? For now, though, my biggest concern is injury and a setback in the exercise department. For instance, I can’t do that foot-grab quad stretch, so my legs are starting to hurt. All athletic shoes squeeze my feet, and they’re often sore after pounding on a treadmill or tennis court. Exercising properly is one of the obstacles fat people face. That doesn’t even touch the cost. I recently spent $80 just on cushy socks—and they make a big difference.
I have a long way to go. I want to lose 150 pounds, and Dr. Gilmore says it’s hard for people to lose more than 100. It’s not just biological—though there isn’t much conclusive research on obesity or weight loss, she says, partly because the American Medical Association didn’t recognize obesity as a disease until 2013. It’s mostly environmental. It’s just hard to maintain focus that long, to avoid food your family is eating, and so forth.
But I didn’t want to wait until I was not obese to talk about it. What I like about Hunger is that it focuses on the crummy and fragile parts about being fat. Gay writes with a frankness I can only admire, if not achieve. This is so important, because for all of our society’s obsession with size, we don’t discuss it honestly and personally. It’s a touchy subject. Even doctors struggle to bring it up to their patients. I get it—it seems hurtful, not helpful. But the silence just adds to the shame.
At some point recently, I stopped feeling self-conscious about my obesity. At my favorite restaurant, instead of hoping for a banquette, I ask for a different seat if the armchair digs into my hips. Gay hasn’t gotten there yet, and it’s understandable. She hears rude whispers and sees snickers. She flies a lot, and once, a fellow passenger rang the flight attendant to discuss whether Gay could handle the exit-row responsibilities. These appalling humiliations don’t happen to me. Only two people have called me fat in public: a driver I cut off on the Circle while riding my bike, and a stranger on the subway in Chicago, who simply blurted out that she had lost weight after discovering she was allergic to ice cream. I was surprised, but not offended. She was trying to help.
Gay mentions something I relate to, though. She believes people don’t want to read “fat-girl stories of taking up too much space and still finding nowhere to fit.” I worry I sound silly for crowing about losing a little weight when I have so much more to go, then the challenge of maintaining and learning control. I read a study decades ago that I’ll never forget, about how Americans would rather date someone with a drug addiction or a felony record than a fat person. Is there an appetite for stories like mine and Gay’s?
Perhaps not among people who can’t relate to the vice grip of bad food. But for anyone who does, it’s time these stories come out. The public conversation about diet and obesity has been dominated by responses (often cruel) to the endless stream of medical studies proclaiming “fat can be fit” or “no, it can’t.” Can we all agree that obesity creates a high risk of “comorbidities,” such as heart disease and diabetes—and that not all fat people burden the healthcare system any more than those reckless with their well-being in other ways? We need to get past our sniping and let people talk about being fat so they can start tackling the underlying reason, if they want to. I think people are judgy about food because everyone eats and therefore assumes they’re an expert. People who aren’t alcoholics or schizophrenic don’t know what that feels like, so they trust the testimony of the people who do. We need to get to that point with food addiction.
That’s what I hunger for now.