By Lucy Farcnik
If you were anywhere on Instagram in the past decade, you’ve probably seen the term “self-love” thrown around hundreds of times. In theory, it’s a great concept: treat yourself with love, kindness and respect, and accept yourself fully. This can apply not only to physicality but to oneself as a whole. But in reality, as many of us are well aware, it’s much easier to do in theory than in practice. How is it different for people who don’t fit into the very marketable, very thin, very white version of popularized self-love?
Roxane Gay starts the second chapter of her memoir Hunger with the line “the story of my body is not a story of triumph” (4). Hunger is, quite literally, a memoir of hunger, but it is also so much more: a reflection on race, on beauty, on size, on belonging, and most importantly, on perception. While the book was written after the body positivity movement exploded on the internet in the 2010s, it was one of the first books I read that examined the issue not only interdisciplinarily, but without an inherently positive narrative. Instead, the book offers a narrative that leans toward the art of imperfect acceptance.
Gay is an author and professor who has written a great deal of short fiction and several novels, but the work that always stood out to me has been her nonfiction. Bad Feminist in particular, which I read far before Hunger. It had similar, shorter reflections, but the focus of Hunger comes into direct contrast with how I see and feel about self-love. Self-love is an intrinsic concept, but it ignores the fundamental ways that the world treats people regardless of the way they feel about themselves. Gay, reflecting on the necessity of buying two seats in order to fly, states this twice for emphasis: “The bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes” (210).
Gay may speak at length about the ways her body holds her back, but she never says she hates it outright. She often talks about her body protecting her, or how it acts as a fortress to keep others out. This doesn’t align with the popularized view of self-love. We are not allowed to be both critical and gracious of the bodies and brains that we live in. This is why self-love, in its aggression and one-sidedness, often seems to miss the point of what it is meant to do.
Conceptually, self-love can be beneficial, but taking it at its face value benefits those trying to use it to sell things. Approach the self-help aisle in your local Indigo and pick up a Rupi Kaur compilation or books whose main message is that you must love everything about yourself at all times. I think Gay’s greatest lesson is that you don’t. Self-love is limiting in that it doesn’t teach neutrality, or the fact that not loving everything about yourself at all times is fine, and normal, and doesn’t have to ruin your day. It is important to understand that these thoughts are temporary, and ultimately, largely unimportant.
When I read this book for the first time when I was 16, I wasn’t quite sure if it was written for me. There’s a line in the first several chapters where Gay says, “This [is] a book about living in the world when you are not a few or even forty pounds overweight. This is a book about living in the world when you are three or four hundred pounds overweight” (11). Originally, this made it uncomfortable for me to relate to Gay’s ideas if, as I thought, they weren't written for the kind of person I was.
But rereading the book later in my life, and having spent a great deal more time with both reading and writing, it’s clear to see that this wasn’t Gay’s intention. Her book, fundamentally, as the title says, is about hunger; hunger not only in the physical sense but hunger for better representation and acceptance by oneself and others. Self-love is brilliant, but it can be a shortsighted concept. Gay’s was the first book where it dawned on me that disliking my hips for a day didn’t have to negate my self-image. And so what if I dislike my hips or my thighs? My body carries me around the best way it can. On my best days, like Gay, I do my best to be neutral or appreciative of my body. On my worst, I remind myself that my body has precious little to do with what actually matters: me. That’s what self-love, or its many better synonyms, should be about. My body was a lottery, but my mind I made myself, and just as I hope everyone does, I think that’s pretty damn cool.
Gay, R. (2017). Bad Feminist: Essays. Harper Perennial.
Gay, R. (2018). Hunger: A Memoir of (my) Body. Harper Perennial.
McKee, J. (2014, August 7). Quick Q&A with Roxane Gay, Appearing Thursday at Literati. mlive. Retrieved February 25, 2023, from https://www.mlive.com/entertainment/ann-arbor/2014/08/quick_qa_with_roxane_gay_appea.html