“People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know the why of my body. They do not.” At 12 years old, Gay was brutalized in a gang rape masterminded by a boy she trusted and, in her own preteen way, adored. Shell-shocked but terrified to share her secret, she turned instead to the safe, silent succor of food: whole cheese pizzas and thick frappés devoured in the privacy of her boarding-school dorm room; T-bone feasts and sleeves of Oreos she later learned to chase with a single carrot, an old bulimic’s trick for marking the spot. By her late 20s, she stood 6 foot 3 and weighed 577 pounds—“taking up space in nearly every way,” but more and more a stranger to herself.
Though fans of the prolific, incurably outspoken essayist and author may be familiar with bits and pieces of this narrative, she’s never shared it so fully or in such intimate, lacerating detail. Hunger wears its identity politics—fat (the term she prefers), female, Haitian-American, queer—proudly, and Gay is a fierce, if not always focused, critic of the casual cruelties and willful ignorance obesity still elicits. Her writing can feel circular and sometimes contradictory, but the book’s short, sharp chapters come alive in vivid personal anecdotes: her unvarnished love for TV chef–slash–roast-chicken libertine Ina Garten; a furious stationary-bike face-off with a spindly blond gym bunny. And on nearly every page, Gay’s raw, powerful prose plants a flag, facing down decades of shame and self-loathing by reclaiming the body she never should have had to lose. B+