Roxane Gay: ‘There’s so much stigma around food, no matter how you consume it as a fat person’

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Roxane Gay’s book, “Hunger,” is a confessional of personal trauma and a searing societal indictment of how people are judged. It’s an account of what it feels like to be in her body, which experienced childhood abuse, and how the subsequent trauma created a need for the kind of self-protection that overeating can provide. Gay discusses learning to cook, and what she’s making at home now.

KCRW: What was the food like in your house growing up?

Roxane Gay: “The food was good. My mom does not necessarily have a passion for cooking, but she does have a passion for her family. So she made Haitian food and some American food. It was very much the food-triangle type of making. 

Sure we had the proper nutrition. Everything was well balanced. She didn't believe in processed foods. So I actually never really eat canned food. I've never had a frozen dinner. She put a lot of energy into making sure we were well fed.”

Did your mom teach you to cook? 

“She specifically did not teach me to cook because she didn't want me cooking after some man. I mean, she's quite the feminist. She says she's not a feminist, but she's incredibly feminist. She did teach my brother to cook, though.”

It's perfectly possible to go through this life, particularly now, without learning how to cook. Why did you want to?

“I started teaching myself how to cook when I moved to Charleston, Illinois, for my first faculty position. I was a vegetarian at the time. And vegetarian cuisine, especially in Charleston at that time, was largely iceberg lettuce and French fries. And as delicious as that sounds, it's not a way to live. So I realized that if I was going to eat anything remotely nutritious or delicious, I was going to have to make it myself.”

Who was your mentor? Did you have one?

“I guess Ina Garten (of Barefoot Contessa). I watched a lot of Food Network, and Ina is definitely my guiding light in terms of the culinary realm. I think she's an incredible role model for women. She's very self-possessed, very confident. And she never shines away from her talent, which is always really nice to see in a woman.”

What's comfort food for you? 

“I think all food is comfort food for me. There's not a specific thing that I turn to for comfort. I just turn to food. It doesn't matter what it is.”

I find it really interesting that in our society, we're allowed to cook while fat. But eating while fat is another thing entirely. 

“For sure. There's a lot of stigma around eating while fat. And also, I think to a certain extent, around cooking while fat. There's always going to be someone who's going to make a comment like, ‘Why are you making that? Go get some gruel and shut up.’ 

It's frustrating. They don't want to see you eating because so many people deprive themselves. They resent seeing fat people eat when they think that we should make ourselves suffer the way they are suffering and restricting, even though what they don't realize is that most fat people are constantly engaged in some form of disordered eating.”

A lot of thin people too.

“Oh, for sure. But I don't care about them. I think disordered eating is disordered eating, no matter what kind of body you're in. There's [sic] enough people worrying about and caring about thin people. I care about fat people more. A lot of times, fat people have eating disorders and they go untreated because people don't think you can be fat and have an eating disorder. And there’s so much stigma around food, no matter how you consume it as a fat person. That's where my work lies.”

You wrote about your decision to have bariatric surgery in an essay titled “What Fullness Is.” You wrote, “I hate the way I hunger but never find satisfaction. I want and want and want but never allow myself to reach for what I truly want, leaving that want raging desperately beneath the surface of my skin.” Does cooking abate that wanting?

“It can, because I feel more in control. I get to feel like I'm having a healthy relationship with food because I'm taking the time and caring enough about myself and my family to prepare something. It does make the tension and the stress of my relationship with food a lot easier to control.”

Did fullness change for you once you had surgery?

“Oh, for sure. For the first time in my adult life, I felt fullness, physically. I didn't necessarily feel it emotionally, but because I felt it physically, I was able to consider that perhaps I was sated, which is not something I had previously been able to experience. I think part of it is that I ignored that feeling of fullness. But with the surgery, the physical restriction is such that you really do feel incredible discomfort if you try to push past that point.”

Were you afraid of the pushback you would get after being such a voice for fat positive messaging?

“Yeah, I was certainly concerned. It's a pretty touchy subject: weight loss surgery in the fat positivity community. And I've never claimed to be the spokesperson of that community. But I do believe that fat positivity is incredibly important. 

We need to change how we see fatness, how we treat fat people, and we cannot frame it as a negative. It's an adjective. It is a type of body. And there are all kinds of reasons for a fat body. But it doesn't matter. You don't have to explain a fat body. 

I knew that there were going to be people who felt like I was betraying something. But I was the only person who knew what it was like to live in my body at that size. I made a decision because eventually, I feel like my luck was going to run out. Eventually I was going to have some sort of issue that was only going to be exacerbated by age. And so I wanted to just try something different. Who knows if it will work. But it was worth a try. And I have no regrets.”



Evan Kleiman