Unruly Bodies: Obesity as Situation, Resistance and Critique in Roxane Gay’s Body Memoir Hunger

In Swedish

Helena Tolvhed
Dept. of History, Stockholm University


Photo: Annelie Drakman
In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017), writer and Associate professor of English at Purdue University, Roxane Gay, recounts her life through embodied experiences, observations and trauma. It is a book that, in an in-depth and touching manner, depicts the violence (physical, verbal and symbolic), abuse and restraints that the obese body is subjected to in public as well as private spaces.

Gay’s memoir of (her) body illustrate how the body emerges, and is formed and interpreted, through the dynamics between the individual and personal, and the sociocultural, contextual. Here the body appear as position and situation, shaped by life events, traumas and diet and activity practices, which in turn generate experiences. In these processes, as Gay’s book shows, insights, criticisms and resistance can also be created.

In this essay, I discuss Gay’s book in relation to feminist research tradition as well as to the 21st century’s emerging field of research for Critical health studies and Critical weight studies (the latter sometimes referred to as Critical fat studies). These fields have drawn attention to how health has emerged as a superior value and prime life project in late modern society, and also have come to be equal to the display of a slender, ”fit” body.

Furthermore, this essay discusses how obesity as a dimension for oppression is similar to, but also differs from, other such dimensions. Obesity is frequently, in popular culture as well as in medical discourse, represented and presented as a choice and as something that can, and should be, addressed and transformed. Responsibility for this is placed on the individual, surrounded by powerful body norms and a highly profitable industry of diet and fitness products, services and coaches.

There are obvious connections between Hungerand the body/fat activist movements, whose questioning of homogeneous body norms has caused increasing attention in recent years, especially through social media. Gay’s reasoning is, however, more nuanced and complex than simple celebrations of ”bodies of all sizes”. This kind of complexity on matters of health and body norms needs, I would argue, to be considered in health and sports research, as well as in public health work and sport movements.


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HELENA TOLVHED is an Associate Professor at the Department of History, Stockholm University. Her research centres on how gender has been created, challenged and renegotiated in sports and fitness culture, from the beginning of the 1900’s until present day. In her book På damsidan. Femininitet, motstånd och makt i svensk idrott 1920–1990 [On the ladies side. Femininity, resistance and power in Swedish sport, 1920–1990] (2015), sport is examined as a historical arena for subordination and marginalization, but also for community and liberation for women. She is presently concluding the research project ‘From People’s Health to “Healthism”? New Femininities and Masculinities in Health and Fitness culture from 1970’. (e-mail: helena.tolvhed@historia.su.se)


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