Review: Roxane Gay’s “Reaching for Catharsis: Getting Fat Right (or Wrong)” and Diana Spechler’s “Skinny”

This week I am reading Roxane Gay’s compilation of essays, Bad Feminist. A beautiful writer. I will attempt to explain to you how her words feel inside my soul as I read them… imagine the ribbon baton. This is the kind of baton I would have used dancing around in a glittery tutu when I was young (or even now for that matter). Her words are the glitter and her sentences are the movement of the baton. Her witty commentary is the sharp whip the ribbon makes when waved vigorously. Although Roxane’s prose energized and lulled me simultaneously, there were a few instances that I was deeply offended by her brash assumptions and criticisms. I often shy away from the use of offended; I often try to understand the intentions of the other person before I recoil into myself and open myself to pain. I wasn’t just offended, I quickly realized too, that I was angry. Livid even.

In this particular essay, Roxane discusses Diana Spechler’s novel Skinny. A story of a woman escaping the pain of her father’s death and becoming a camp counselor at a fat camp. spechlerThe main character, who has recently gained approximately 30 pounds, begins to console her anguish and loneliness with weight loss. She begins to exercise and eat fewer and fewer calories; soon, she is barely consuming any calories, her body atrophying with the excessive physical training.

Roxane Gay begins to describe her criticisms of the novel and its overall effectiveness in communicating the story of a young woman who finds herself in a situation in which the only consolation she can find is within the self-absorption she has with her own body. A weakness, Gay begins to explain, is “the implausibility of all this drama over a mere thirty pounds of excess weight…”.

Earlier in Gay’s book, we learn that she is overweight. She finds comfort in food and security in being bigger. Taking all of this into account, I understand that I have never been the weight of Gay. I have, however, been almost 200 pounds as an eighth grader, with a body that was perhaps only capable of carrying the weight of a 130 pound girl.

Not only was I overweight, but it consumed my thoughts for 95% of my childhood. In high school, after the summer of my sophomore year, it became 100%. 100% for the next seven years. That is a long time to spend worrying and thinking about your weight, the perception you have of yourself and others have of you, and of your own happiness. In fact, as someone who viscerally experiences almost every moment of her life and the events of others in their own life, fighting a seven year battle with your own mind can become quite lethal.

When I read this line, when I read the implausibility of all this drama. I was stabbed in the stomach. How dare you invalidate the pain and experience others have had because you have a different version of the pain described. Because your version is different, absolutely does not mean that that pain and anguish does not exist or is implausible.

I have not read Spechler’s book, I have not been to fat camp, but I have suffered from eating disorders. Eating disorders “not otherwise specified”. Eating disorders that resulted from only being 30 pounds overweight. Eating disorders that caused me to destroy my body internally and externally. I was so starved I began to eat my mind and regurgitate it in the form of liquid and chunks of granola bars. I lost myself, in attempt to find consoling; I chopped my hair, I punched my stomach, just to feel out of the skin I was in. I did these things. Mostly, I hugged myself and I cried because the experience was altogether too painful and I could not escape my body, mind or the poignant feelings of disgust and shame, anger, and fear of what others were going to force me to do.

When I read or listen to people speak in the way Roxane Gay does in this particular essay, I am deeply wounded. The lack of empathy for people other than themselves is all too distinct.

I will fight this behavior for as long as I live because every voice with a story of eating disorders, deserves to be heard, regardless of the particulars of that person’s experience. The invalidation of pain one has not experienced is inexcusable, and frankly is counterintuitive to most of the movements Gay proclaims to stand strongly for.

I hear you, Roxane, when you explain why you wrote what you did, but I cannot help but believe that you are immensely mistaken in your criticisms and overt judgement of who is eligible to have and experience the pain of an eating disorder.

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