Many people want neatly packaged things. But Roxane Gay burns bright with brilliant contradictions.
Her profound literary side coexists with her love of the Fast and the Furious franchise, and her prose is often composed as episodes of “Law and Order: SVU” play in the background. As Gay detailed on the TED stage, yes, she is a feminist—but she dubs herself a bad one for things like her love of catchy rap that’s derogatory to females, or her belief that a woman can take a man’s surname if she wants to.
“I feel a lot of pressure,” she said. “We have this tendency to put visible feminists on a pedestal. We expect them to pose perfectly. When they disappoint us, we gleefully knock them from the very pedestal we put them on. … Consider me knocked off that pedestal before you ever try to put me up there.”
One can find great inspiration in Gay’s prose. But one can also find great inspiration in Gay herself. When Lifehacker asked her for the best advice she has ever received, she said, simply, it was when she was preparing for a job interview in academia and her friend Matt Seigel advised her to be herself. “Otherwise, if I got hired as the person I was pretending to be, I would have to keep up that pretense for the rest of my career.”
Contradictions and all, Roxane Gay is herself. And in a world of mirages online and off, that is an immensely powerful and revolutionary thing.
To celebrate this live episode of Design Matters, here are 27 Roxane Gay quotes that reveal, bit by bit, her bold and vital voice on the literary and cultural landscapes today.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
“If having a personality and having opinions makes me difficult, then yes, I am very difficult.”
“To write a good book worthy of publication—that was the dream. I never dared imagine or dream anything beyond that. I did not know there was anything beyond that to dream.”
“A lot of people say you can’t make money from writing. And I understand where that comes from. But it’s not necessarily true.”
“As a black, bisexual woman I am writing into and against a culture that tries to make me and people like me invisible and silent. Writing is wholly a political act. It is also a pleasurable act. And as Isaac Bashevis Singer counsels, I seek to both inform and entertain.”
“I’m pretty shy and quiet, but writing is a place where I don’t have to be shy or quiet. And that’s exhilarating.”
"In general I write for marginalized people. I start with black women because I think black women are the least respected and least heard voices in the world. So I always put that first before anything else, because when I’m walking down the street people see my blackness first—and my size.”
“I was thinking about what my next nonfiction project was going to be and I thought, The thing I want to write about the least is fatness. In that moment I knew the thing I needed to write about the most was fatness. Because it was something I was dreading.”
“I told myself that no one was going to read it. Yeah, that’s how I get through all of the writing that I do that’s personal in nature. If I think too much about it, I absolutely will chicken out because it’s terrifying to think of people reading these personal revelations. I just tell myself, Oh girl, no one’s going to read it, and that makes it a lot easier. That’s the only way I get through it.”
“I think writing always gives us control over the things that we can’t actually control in our lives, so taking control of the narrative of my body as a public space was absolutely helpful in terms of thinking about my relationship to my body.”
“When we read nonfiction about weight, it’s someone who has lost all of the weight and has figured it out. They’re standing on the cover of their book in half of their formerly fat pants, like, ‘I’ve done it.’ And yeah, I would love to write that book. When I was doing research for Hunger I looked up a bunch of writers who had written that book, and they’d all gained the weight back. … I wanted to write a counter-narrative that you can have an active, fulfilling life and you can struggle with weight and be interested in weight loss, but not have figured it all out, but also not be full of self-loathing. And just to write a complex story of a body.”
“The Biggest Loser is an unholy union of capitalism and the weight loss industrial complex.”
“My father believes hunger is in the mind. I know differently. I know hunger is in the mind and the body and the heart and the soul.”
“This is what most girls are taught—that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.”
“My nonfiction helps me to value truth in my fiction and my fiction helps me to value a strong narrative shape in my nonfiction.”
“Men write dark stories all the time, and rarely is that darkness obsessed over. But when women write dark, all of a sudden it’s a thing. It’s like: Why so dark? I mean, have you seen the world? It’s an appropriate response.”
“If people cannot be flawed in fiction there’s no place left for us to be human.”
“Short fiction is an ideal medium for bringing to bear the horrifying reality of our present moment. It allows the comfort of distance provided by fiction but also allows an unbearable intimacy of painful truths. It engenders empathy by getting readers to care about circumstances other than their own.”
“We struggle with the definition of feminism because at the heart of feminism is, in fact, a very simple idea—that women should be able to move through the world as unfettered as men. I think we struggle with accepting that it really can be that simple while recognizing how elusive this simple idea remains.”
“I worried about the tone people used when suggesting I might be a feminist. The feminist label was an accusation, it was an ‘F’ word, and not a nice one. I was labeled a woman who doesn't play by the rules, who expects too much, who thinks far too highly of myself, by daring to believe I’m equal—[coughs]—superior to a man. You don’t want to be that rebel woman, until you realize that you very much are that woman, and cannot imagine being anyone else.”
“It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away.”
“The last line of my book Bad Feminist says, ‘I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.’ This is true for so many reasons, but first and foremost, I say this because once upon a time, my voice was stolen from me, and feminism helped me to get my voice back.”
“I think the most important thing a woman can ever do for herself is have financial independence. Even if you’re saving five dollars a paycheck. I totally understand the realities of the world, but save five dollars a paycheck. It really, really helps.”
“When something terrible happens, people expect me to have an immediate response. It’s singing for your supper.”
“My favorite line is, ‘I'm not an opinion vending machine.’ Because I’m not. … It’s actually not the trolls that are going to drive me off social media—it’s more the people who expect me to be everything to everyone at all times, to always have the perfect politics, to always say the perfect thing.”
“Social networks … provide us with something of a flawed but necessary conscience, a constant reminder that commitment, compassion and advocacy neither can nor ever should be finite.”
“I think that writers have obsessions. Often we write the same story over and over, in slightly different ways. It means you have found your voice.”
“Books are often far more than just books.”
Roxane Gay: It is true. Whenever a woman expresses a need or has a need, and articulates that need, all of a sudden she's a problem. Again, she's difficult.
Curtis Fox: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from DesignObserver.com. On this episode, Debbie talks with writer Roxane Gay about loneliness, social media, and self exposure.
Roxane Gay: And it's just terrifying to tell the truth about yourself, to tell the truth about what it's like to live in your body.
Curtis Fox: Debbie interviewed Roxane Gay at the On Air Fest in Brooklyn on March 2, 2019. Here's how they were both introduced to the audience.
OnAir Fest MC: Debbie Millman is joined today by a very, very special guest. A badass, fuck, feminist, woman-ist, professor, editor, social commentator, writer, internet gangster, fellow Haitian American, Roxane Gay. So... want to bring Ms. Debbie Millman and Ms. Roxane Gay to the stage. Welcome to On Air Fest y'all!
Debbie Millman: That was a pretty badass introduction.
Roxane: Yes, it was. I feel super introduced, and yeah, I'm an internet gangster on twitter.
Debbie: Well, actually I think the gangster part might go a little bit further back. I understand that in your high school yearbook there's a note from a girl who wrote, "I like you, even though you are very mean." So, were you really mean in high school?
Roxane: What? I have no idea what you're talking about. Yes. No, I wasn't. I was really shy and awkward, but apparently my memory of myself and people's memories of me are very different things. I do remember probably my sophomore year or so I developed a mean streak. It wasn't bullying or anything like that, but if I had something biting to say I said it. I had no filter.
Debbie: Do you remember any of the more biting things you might have done?
Roxane: No, I don't. Thank God, I have absolved myself of all of those sins conveniently. So, I don't remember what I said.
Debbie: Now you've stated that in many ways, likeability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct, dictating the proper way to be left to our own devices. Do you think that we're all really diabolical deep down inside, Roxane?
Roxane: I hope so. I genuinely hope so. No, I don't think we're all diabolical deep down inside, but I think we have imperfections and darkness's inside of us. Some of us are better at hiding them than others, but I never trust anyone who seems perfect and incredibly likable and incredibly nice. I always just think, what's going on under there? So, all of the HGTV hosts, anyone who appears on a Hallmark channel movie.
Debbie: Kelly Ripa.
Roxane: Yes. I just think-
Debbie: No offense to Kelly, we love her.
Roxane: No, I just... whenever I see these people and this performance of niceness I just think, my god you are probably the cruelest person alive. So, I think it's more healthy when we at least acknowledge those parts of ourselves, and I think maturity is knowing when to release that, and when not to. So, hopefully I have, since high school, matured at least a bit.
Debbie: Expect on twitter.
Roxane: What? What are you trying to say?
Debbie: We'll get to that.
Debbie: You quoted Lionel Shriver in an essay for the Financial Times about the notion of liking. He states, "This liking business has two components. Moral approval and affection." And I'm wondering how much do you feel the need for the approval of others?
Roxane: Oh, I feel a great deal. Like, any good self-loathing writer. All I want is approval. I think it comes from being Catholic, and-
Roxane: Oh yeah. And just expecting the priest to listen to your confessions and then, hopefully telling you, "Oh, you did fewer sins this week. Good job." Which I never heard. But no, I do, I think, like many people care too much about what other people think and seek the approval of others, which is one of the reasons I think I work so hard, is just thinking okay, am I finally good enough? Am I finally doing enough to earn my keep in this world?
Debbie: Do you think you'll ever feel that it is enough?
Roxane: I would like to think so, but I don't know.
Debbie: Has it changed as you've gotten more successful?
Roxane: The more successful I get, the less successful I feel.
Roxane: Because I keep moving the bar for myself. I keep telling myself, oh this is not enough or that was luck, or that was a fluke. I never really allow myself to enjoy any accolade or rest on my morals, so to speak.
Debbie: Not even for a moment? Like the first moment you hear-
Roxane: Well, there's always that first moment when I get like a really good email where I just think, ah. Then, five minutes later I'm like ugh, how am I going to top this? So, it's a lot.
Debbie: How do you keep pushing through that sense of it not being enough, or do you want to?
Roxane: I mean, I would like to. I would like to get to a place where I understand what satisfaction feels like, where I think, okay I've done enough for today, for this week, for this life. But-
Debbie: I mean you could say that right now, objectively.
Roxane: I don't know. Really? I mean, ugh.
Debbie: It depends on how high the bar is today.
Roxane: Yeah, the bar is very high. I don't know that anyone could ever reach the bar. So, I'm working on lowering the bar and just being comfortable with mediocrity.
Debbie: Yeah, let's see how long that lasts. In the New York Times review of your book, Difficult Women, the author declares, what constitutes a difficult woman? For Roxane Gay, she's easy. By the third date, one of her troubled troublesome narrators tell us we've already slept together twice. I'm not a hard sell. She's also needy, moody, and above all, unpredictable, which makes her dangerous.
Debbie: When I read that I thought, that doesn't really sound like the definition of difficult to me. I'm wondering if we could talk a little bit about why that even is something that is posited as difficult. Sounds interesting.
Roxane: It does sound interesting. I think any time a woman demonstrates any amount of personality, self-actualization, or free will we're like, "Oh, this bitch is fucking difficult." And, that's really frustrating because we have these very limiting categories into which we like to put women, and contain them. So, any time you try and get out of those categories you start to create problems. So, it's interesting.
Roxane: I don't think it's actually difficult, but I do think we are considered difficult in those circumstances. So, especially in Difficult Women, I was trying to explore what are the circumstances in which a woman is behaving in a completely rational and normal way, and is considered difficult.
Debbie: And we see that over, and over, and over again, whether it be Serena Williams, whether it be Hilary Clinton. You said that you want characters to do bad things and get away with their misdeeds.
Debbie: You want characters to think ugly thoughts, and make ugly decisions. You want characters to make mistakes, and put themselves first without apologizing for it. And, as I was reading those lines I was wishing that I could be a person like that. That is the definition of, for me, what a happy woman looks like. And I'm wondering if there was any projection in those lines for yourself too, because it really does sound like the perfect woman.
Roxane: Well, thank you. I am the perfect woman, ha ha.
Debbie: She said she was easy.
Roxane: I mean, my fiction is indeed fiction. It is made up, but there's always a lot of wishful thinking and, I wish I could do this. I wish I could behave in this way. I wish I could say this without consequence.
Debbie: But you could. I mean, now you could.
Roxane: Well, you could, but there are always consequences. So, I think about consequences, and this goes back to of course caring about the approval of others. So, oftentimes, especially in Difficult Women, those women are doing the kinds of things that I think a lot of women would love to do if they were freed from the constraints of womanhood in the world as it is.
Debbie: In an essay about film and the characters in the Hunger Games, you wrote for the Rumpus, which is also in your essay collection, Bad Feminist. You write, I am fascinated by strength in women. People tend to think I'm strong, I'm not. And yet... what happens after the and yet?
Roxane: And yet, here I am still standing. So, clearly, there's some measure of strength in me.
Debbie: You really don't think that you're strong? You wouldn't identify as being strong?
Roxane: Not really because I never feel it-
Debbie: I mean, before I knew you I was terrified. I was terrified by your twitter presence, I was terrified by your success. I was terrified by your stature.
Roxane: Oh really?
Roxane: Hmm, we'll have to get into that a little later.
Roxane: Yeah, I often times feel terrified myself, and a lot of times people tell me, "Oh, you're so brave. You're so strong." I'm like what the fuck are you talking about? No, I'm not, I'm watching HGTV in my pajamas and I haven't opened my laptop in two days, and I have two books due. No, I'm not brave. I'm perpetually failing.
Roxane: So, I never feel strong, and in one of the I write about in Bad Feminist and also Hunger for that matter, is this idea that surviving means that you're strong. I don't know that that's the case, especially for me.
Debbie: Well, I'll actually get you that quote because I did want to talk to you about that.
Roxane: Wow, you came prepared.
Debbie: I did. Can you imagine?
Debbie: Because it's really... it's quite a good quote, but I actually don't agree with you. You said, just because you survive something does not mean you're strong. Just because you survive something does not mean you're strong. I don't know that I agree. I think that if you survive something, that's table steaks for strong, for me.
Roxane: Yeah, I guess... again, it's raising the bar. Like oh, oh great, you survived the unsurvivable, big deal. Who doesn't?
Debbie: Oh, there are a lot of people that don't.
Roxane: I know. So, it's not fair to myself, but I... yeah, I'm consistently raising the bar in terms of even strength and what that looks like, and what that is. I think, also, it just makes me uncomfortable to consider myself strong. I don't know why. I think it's because I don't want to be seen as having errors about myself, like ugh, calm down there sister. Are you really strong, or you just human?
Debbie: Well, I feel that way about the word brave. The word brave I actually bristle when that is referred to anything that I might be doing or have done. Strong, I sort of feel I've earned in some ways, but brave feels as if you're still in the midst of actually getting over something. I think you could only really be brave once you're over whatever it is that victimized you.
Roxane: Interesting. Yeah, I find the word brave is ubiquitous these days, and over used. Anytime like a woman blinks, "Oh my god, you're so brave." And, again, I think that sometimes the bar is too low for certain things. I think sometimes we project bravery on to others when they do things we can't do ourselves. But, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's brave.
Roxane: But again, you know, I don't know. My barometer on all of this is so hopelessly damaged that I'm not the measure.
Debbie: What do you think makes a person strong?
Roxane: That's a good question. I think resilience does play into it, but I think what makes a person strong is the way in which they survive something. The way in which they endure. Do you endure boldly or not? I also think strength is about being able to have self-awareness to acknowledge mistakes, and to acknowledge failures. I think that might be why I struggle with considering myself strong. There are lots of things that I can do but, I'm not so great with failure. I'm deeply afraid of failure.
Roxane: So, I just think I'll be strong when I can better handle failure.
Debbie: What failure do you feel like you've encountered?
Roxane: Oh, so much. So much, all the time, every day there's a small failure to contend with. You know, whenever a project doesn't work out, or you know I don't succeed at something the very first time. Again, my bar is not a good bar but-
Debbie: You must have been a really problematic baby.
Roxane: I was. I was just like ugh.
Debbie: I can't walk, oh my god.
Roxane: I can't believe it, I'm four months old, and I'm just rolling around. What the fuck? It was terrible. I was really hard on myself as a child. I remember once in kindergarten we had a drawing assignment in school. There were two glasses on a piece of paper. We were learning fractions, and they said, "Color in half of the picture." So, I colored in half of one glass. I got an F on the assignment.
Roxane: Now, what kind of school gives a kindergartner an F? But-
Debbie: Your school.
Roxane: Yeah. I was so mortified that I stuck the paper with the F on it in the bus seat and the bus driver took it out and brought it to the house, and gave it to my parents. Ugh, I'm still angry at him. How dare you? Same bus driver, by the way, my parents told me two days ago dropped me off at the wrong house once. I just started walking around, and my mom was driving around and found me. Wild.
Debbie: How did he keep his job?
Roxane: The '70s were a different time. They were a very different time. I don't know.
Debbie: In the same article about the Hunger Games you write: loneliness was the one familiar thing making me this bottomless pit of need. Open, and gaping and desperate for anything to fill me up. I should not be this way but I am.
Debbie: The topic of loneliness comes up several times in both Bad Feminist, and Hunger. I actually did a search for those words specifically in both books. And they're quite prevalent. You detail how you felt lonely even as a little girl. Do you still?
Roxane: Yes, and no. I did very much as a child because we moved around a lot, like every year moved around because my dad is an engineer and we would move to where the construction project was. He builds tunnels. So, I never had time to really develop a sense of community, and develop meaningful and lasting friendships, plus I was shy, awkward, nerdy. So, it was just that deadly trifecta of you will never have a prom date.
Debbie: Don't forget mean.
Roxane: Yes. I mean, wow.
Roxane: Thanks. Thank you. So, it's only in the past few years that I've started to develop... well, I would say since graduate school that I've developed these truly meaningful friendships. I don't have a lot of friends, but I have very good friends, and very loyal friends. I am loyal to them as well. So, I would say I am the least lonely I've ever been.
Debbie: Do you associate loneliness with that bottomless pit of need? I've been also called a bottomless pit of need by various ex's, which is why they're ex's.
Roxane: They are, thank goodness.
Debbie: But I think that it's interesting that most people don't call men needy. It's almost as if having needs as a woman just automatically makes you needy. I think men have the same needs and then some.
Roxane: Yes, they do. I find men to be deeply emotionally, and high maintenance. Which is why generally I don't associate with them. It is true, whenever a woman expresses a need, or has a need and articulates that need, all of a sudden she's a problem, again she's difficult. And, she's needy.
Roxane: So, I do associate loneliness with neediness. This idea that I need companionship. That I'm not a self-sustaining unit, or a robot is problematic for me. But I'm okay with it now. The older I get, once I turned 40 I just had so fewer fucks to give about anything that I've just started to also embrace certain things about myself, like oh yes, you enjoy companionship, how dare you? You're like everyone else Roxane. You're not special.
Roxane: So, I do see it less and less as a problem, and I also feel it less and less because I have really good people in my life.
Debbie: You said that this started to change when you turned 40? When you turn 40 you have less fucks to give.
Debbie: I'm in my 50s, I still have a lot of fucks to give. I don't know that it's necessarily age related.
Roxane: For me, it was. I don't know if it was age and where I was at that point in my life. But, it just... I just realized well, I'm sort of cresting, whatever, this is it. It's all sort of downhill from here, so whatever happens, happens. Let's see. Yeah.
Debbie: Reading seemed incredibly important to you when you were lonely and growing up, I understand, you read everything you can get your hands on. You've written about how when you were reading you were never lonely or tormented, or scared. Most recently in your introduction to the 2018 addition of Best American Short Stories you write that in times of great personal or public upheaval you turn to reading. Now, in times of great personal or public upheaval, I turn to drinking. So, I'm wondering how reading actually helps.
Roxane: Oh, because reading... well, I do drink while I read.
Debbie: I think I should start reading while I drink.
Roxane: Yes, I'm a multi-tasker. I'm a libra, what can I say? Reading, I find, provides escape. If it doesn't provide escape it provides solace. So, even now, I love reading. Yesterday I had the shittiest travel day known to man. So, I read on the entire flight. I just could not be bothered to do anything else. It was fantastic. I read this incredible memoir called How We Fight for Our Lives by Sied Jones. Yes.
Roxane: I was completely immersed in his life, and his childhood in Texas, and then Atlanta, then college in Western Kentucky. I completely forgot about the fact that my flight was delayed for two hours. That was really nice. I have also used reading to escape far more serious things. When I was a child and I was dealing with sexual assault, reading showed me a language for what I had been, and that I wasn't alone, and that perhaps, I would get to the other side of it. Though, it's just so useful to me. It's also how I learned about sex.
Debbie: After the sexual assault, you realized as an adult how desperately you had sacrificed yourself for love and attention, and how little you felt you deserved. And in Hunger you write: I was a gaping wound of need. I couldn't admit this to myself, but there was a pattern of intense emotional masochism of throwing myself into the most dramatic relationships possible, of needing to be a victim of some kind of over, and over, and over. That was something familiar. Something I understood.
Debbie: Yet, you go on to state that you dated assholes because you were lazy. I'm wondering what does being lazy have to do with dating an asshole?
Roxane: Oh, that's a great question. I've never been asked that before.
Roxane: Thank you. Because when you're dating an asshole you generally know it. They can't really hide it. So, I generally, when I date an asshole, I'm just like eh, oh well. I know you're an asshole but I'm not going to do anything about it. I'm not going to break up with you. I'm just going to deal with it. So, when I know that, when I'm feeling particularly lazy, it's just like I could do better. This person is not great, but they're good enough. It's okay. It's adequate.
Debbie: And you didn't feel like you deserved more?
Roxane: No, I didn't. I just thought well, this is as good as it's going to get. So, he's an asshole, whatever. You know, it's really a hard thing to decide that you deserve better, that you decide that you deserve love, tenderness, mutuality. And, especially in my 30s and my 20s it just didn't even seem like a possibility to me.
Debbie: How did you break the pattern?
Roxane: I turned 40.
Roxane: So much happened when I turned 40. It was just like a choir of angels.
Debbie: Just lots of luck.
Roxane: No, I think I just started to date women again, which goes a long way. Though women can be assholes. I hear. But, it just... I think something about getting older and, realizing I don't want to feel this terrible all the time, anymore. I can be alone, which was an incredibly important realization that I can be alone, even if I would prefer not to. Then, just you know, when you are loved by the right person a whole world of possibility opens up.
Debbie: How did you get the courage to finally be alone?
Roxane: Oh. I think you just hit a wall. You hit a point where you just think, "I can not be in this dysfunctional relationship for one second longer. I would rather be alone than put up with this for one moment longer." Unfortunately, my threshold is very high for nonsense. So, it took me a long time to get there. But once I got there I just realized, you know, whatever. I'm very amusing and I can amuse the shit out of myself. And also, I have cable, like not... I do. I do. I don't have the thing where you sign up for five different services. I have actual, old people, cable. So, all the channels come to my house.
Roxane: Ugh, worlds of possibility. My favorite show right now is Forged in Fire, History Channel. It's a sword making competition. It's like Chopped but for sword makers. She doesn't watch any reality television, so every time I'm like, "Well, let's watch Vander Pump Rules." She's like, hmm, what is that? I'm like why am I dating you? What's going on?
Debbie: Now, you said that your threshold is very high.
Debbie: But yet, it's very low on twitter.
Debbie: You don't accept any abuse on twitter. You are a twitter gangster.
Debbie: So, talk about why that dichotomy of being so much a punching bag over the history of your life, but so unwilling to accept even the slightest clap online?
Roxane: You've answered your own question.
Debbie: How is that?
Roxane: Because I have tolerated so much nonsense and bullshit in my actual life, on twitter I just refuse. Like, no, you are not going to speak to me this way. Do not even think about it. Especially when you have eight followers. Like, how dare you? How dare you? The other day, a man, with eight followers tweeted at me, "No one cares." Just factually, 567,000 people care what I say. And eight people care what you say.
Roxane: It's just the... just, how dare you? The audacity, and the thing is, so many of these idiots on twitter really step to me like they're making some sort of grand and profound argument. They're not. It's very easy, and I've said this before, but it's like T-Ball. You know when you play T-Ball and there's a stick, and the ball is on the stick. So, you can't miss the ball. Well, some kids do, but for me, twitter is like T-Ball where these idiots put themselves right on the stick, and it's just like well, I mean, if you're going to serve it up... I guess I'll hit the ball. It's deeply satisfying, but it also... it is.
Roxane: It's one of my favorite things to do. But, also it's to let people see the level of harassment that a black, queer woman gets online. It's constant, and pervasive. Often times it's deeply cruel, especially when you live in a fat body. It's not okay. You don't get to talk to people this way and think it's fine. And, more and more I find when you push back a lot of them cry. They just get upset, or they say, "Oh my god, I'm sorry. I'm just having a bad day." Well you know what? Your bad day is not my problem. So, don't make it my problem. Yeah, I have no tolerance.
Debbie: What I find so interesting about the clap backs is how often the person deletes the tweet that they sent you.
Debbie: Because I like to go look at what it is you're responding to, and often that tweet is no longer available. I wonder what the strength that person has. That moment where they think it's okay to do this.
Roxane: Because they think there's not going to be any push back.
Roxane: They think it's okay to just say whatever the fuck. No.
Debbie: But if they follow you they know that that's not the case, so I often wonder-
Roxane: A lot of them don't follow me.
Debbie: So, they just...
Roxane: Like someone retweets me into their timeline.
Roxane: And they're like, oh, this woman believes women are people. I have something to say about that. Yeah.
Debbie: Person with eight followers.
Roxane: But also, some of my followers do it too, and I just think, hmm, not paying attention. It's right there in my bio. If you clap, I will clap back. So, I provided a disclaimer.
Debbie: This range that you have, I find it really fascinating and, in Bad Feminist you state that you approach most things in life with a dangerous level of confidence to balance your generally low self-esteem.
Roxane: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Debbie: That's a really interesting response to dangerously low self-esteem, to put yourself out there in that way. The times that I get claps on twitter, I generally ignore them, mostly because I'm afraid to engage. I'm afraid to-
Roxane: I don't.
Debbie: I know you don't. Thank you for defending my honor. But, I still worry about the pleasing of the seeming angry, the seeming like I care about this, to giving it attention. Tell me how you balance that lack of self-esteem, or what you perceive as a lack of self-esteem with that outward confidence?
Roxane: Well, I've been on the internet since 1992, back when we had like 600 BOD modems, 30 BOD modems. So, I have been on the internet for a long time. In many ways I feel very comfortable and more comfortable on the internet. So, while I might have low self-esteem in the physical world, in the virtual world I'm very confident.
Debbie: So, where does that come from?
Roxane: Because you're freed from the constraints of your physical self in the virtual world. You can be anything, you can be anyone, you can say that sort of witty retort that you never have when you're walking the street, and someone says something mean to you. Like for me, on twitter, I have it right there for whatever reason, and I don't quite know why but I just have that ability to say exactly what I want to say when I want to say it.
Roxane: So, I don't feel as constrained by self-esteem because I just believe in my right to say what I want to say. The thing is, I don't go looking for trouble. I don't believe in being cruel. It's when you come to me with your nonsense that I push back. So, that also helps me to be confident because in general, I'm a kind and fun person. I believe for the most part my online demeanor reflects that, except I also love to complain.
Roxane: Oh, it's my favorite thing.
Roxane: Just it feels so good. It's just like... or just to articulate these are my woes today. It just feels really good, like yes. My stomach hurts, I didn't sleep enough. So, I just enjoy complaining. I get it from my mother.
Debbie: What you see as complaining might just be seen by somebody else as being honest about how you feel. In Bad Feminist you say you're full of longing, and you're full of envy, and so much of my envy is terrible. Most people, if they felt that they were full of envy and that envy was terrible, would hide it. You don't.
Roxane: No, there's no need. Again, 40. It was a game changer. It really was. I just-
Debbie: I love how you're just putting so much on that age change.
Roxane: Well, I think it was also-
Debbie: 39, you know the last day of you being 39-
Roxane: Oh trash.
Debbie: 11:59 PM.
Roxane: When I turned 40 I was like, oh my god, I won the lottery.
Debbie: I'm healed.
Roxane: No, but I also... I mean, it just happens to be 40. I don't know that it would have happened to me at 40 if other things hadn't also fallen into place, but that's when my writing career really took off. That's when I became independently financially comfortable. That's when I got tenure at my day job. So, tenure makes a lot of things possible. You can say whatever you want, and can't get fired. So, I was like the white boys do this all the time. So, I'm going to fucking ride this tenure thing out. It's great.
Roxane: It really just... so, all of those things happened around the same time and enabled me to feel just more empowered with just owning who I am, owning the fact that I experience envy, and that I have desires.
Debbie: Where do you think the envy comes from?
Roxane: Oh, just I don't... human nature. I think a lot of us deal with envy. You know, whenever people are like, "Oh I don't get jealous." Really? I get jealous all the time.
Debbie: I live in a constant state of jealousy.
Roxane: Yes. So, like I mean, I get jealous of like, "What are you doing looking at your phone?" Then, I'll just look at my own phone as a deeply inconsistent person. I think it's just this idea of wanting to be the center of the universe.
Debbie: You begin the book Hunger with this statement: everybody has a story and a history. Here, I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger. Righting this book is a confession. These are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me.
Debbie: Roxane, what about the book do you find to be ugly or weak or what part of the bareness is something that you don't like?
Roxane: Well, with Hunger it was a book about my body. Now, when you live in a fat body, and you move through the world, people make assumptions. They see you, they think they know the story of your body. With Hunger I was telling the truth of my body. Some of it may have met people's expectations, and some of it may not have. It's just terrifying to tell the truth about yourself. To tell the truth about what it's like to live in your body.
Roxane: Parts of it felt ugly to me. Sometimes the truth feels ugly. It feels like it's too much. It's too needful, and especially when I was writing that book, which was definitely the most difficult thing I've ever done professionally at least, it just felt like ugh, this is hateful, hideous stuff. Part of that, of course, is shaped by a misogyny and fat phobia, and even though you think I'm against these things, you internalize them nonetheless. So, a lot of that was just internalized self hatred brought about by what it means to be a woman in the world.
Debbie: Reading Hunger I think was my first foray into falling in love with you. So.
Roxane: Hmm, wow.
Debbie: What was it like for you to-
Roxane: I like how she just dropped that little snippet.
Debbie: What was it like for you to receive such an immensely positive reaction to something that was so difficult to write?
Roxane: It was good. It was good. It was great.
Debbie: Did you ever feel nervous about everything that you'd put out there?
Roxane: Oh yeah, I was terrified. I was deeply, deeply terrified. I was just deeply terrified. What are people going to think? What are they going to say? And yet, people have responded in really moving and profound ways ever since the book came out. Like women come up to me and just tell me, "Oh my god, I see myself in this book. I feel a kinship, it got me a girlfriend." Which is pretty great.
Roxane: So, it was a lot of really good things came from that book. And also, it really helped me to recognize the chip on my shoulder where I think that only people who know experiences like mine can understand what it's like to feel need, and to feel hunger, and to feel loneliness. The book has shown me that no, lots of people feel this way, and lots of people can connect to what's truly at the heart of this story. So, that's been really meaningful as well.
Debbie: Toward the end of Hunger you write that you no longer need the body fortress that you built, and that you would now focus on undestroying yourself. How are you doing with that?
Roxane: Oh, so far so good. You know, I'm doing... after I finished this book it really forced me to take hard look at myself and some of the behaviors I've developed over the past 20 or 30 years, and-
Debbie: Like what? Like what?
Roxane: Just like emotional eating, self-loathing. It's one thing to say I have really bad self-esteem but at some point, you should probably do something about it. So, I went back to therapy, which has been great. Yeah, I highly recommend it. It's very expensive. Like this guy... I'm just like, I went into the wrong field. But he's worth it I guess. He's kind of an asshole.
Debbie: What makes him an asshole?
Roxane: He tells me things I don't want to hear.
Debbie: That just sounds like honest, right?
Roxane: So, that's been part of it. Then, in January of 2018 I had weight loss surgery and that has been interesting.
Debbie: In what way?
Roxane: Well, I put it off for many, many years, and I think the surgery is horrific and barbaric. I think that it should be something you go into very carefully, and I think that medicine is just like this is the only cure, and I think they force it on people. And, don't tell people the truth of it, and how radically you have to change everything about your life to do it. But I knew thankfully, because I had taken 10 years to make the decision, but it was just very... even though you know what you're getting into, you don't really know.
Roxane: So, that was... it was interesting.
Debbie: You stated this about that experience in an article that you wrote in Essay that you wrote about it on Medium. The truth is that my desire for weight loss has long been about satisfying other people more than myself. Finding a way to fit more peacefully into a world that is not at all interested in accommodating a body like mine. The dominate cultural attitude toward fatness is that the fat body is a medical problem and a drain on society. You've lost quite a bit of weight since your surgery, do you feel resentful about satisfying other people with the amount of weight that you've lost, or when people say, "Oh Roxane, you've lost so much weight."
Roxane: Yeah, I feel deeply resentful. It just pisses me off but then, I get mad when they don't say anything. Like how dare you? I've lost a person! So, again, it's just such a difficult space to inhabit, where you... I deeply resent that now all of a sudden people are like... even friends. Like the other day a friend texted me, "Oh my god, you're looking so great." Why didn't you tell me this in December of 2017? I mean, really? It's frustrating, but I get it, I guess. But it's frustrating.
Roxane: When people say congratulations, I just... especially as I deepen my awareness of fat positivity, I just think what are you really congratulating me for? I think you're congratulating me for making you feel more comfortable about being around my body. So, I actually... the more weight I lose the more radically I'm like fuck you, stay fat.
Debbie: Do you feel differently about yourself and your appearance?
Roxane: Unfortunately, I do. I mean, but I think... I think it's more that so much more of the world is slowly opening up to me that I didn't realize I didn't even have access to.
Debbie: Like what?
Roxane: Just being able to move around better, to be able to walk for miles at a time whereas before it was steps. Just a better range of clothing options. I can buy clothes in stores now, which is not something that has previously been an option. I mean, like two stores, but still. That's two more stores than before. It's horrid, I'm telling you what. Their clothes are for young people but I don't care. I wear them, and they're very breasty but so am I, so it's fine. It's just great to have those options, and so like when you can feel better and look better and have more options you start to feel better about yourself. So, it's all connected and, you know I'm struggling with some of the reasons why but still, whatever.
Debbie: You're working on a new magazine for Medium.
Debbie: Called Gay. Good name.
Roxane: Very good name.
Debbie: Three new books, a collection of essays, a graphic novel, you're working on several screen plays, and you have a new podcast in the works. Where does all this drive come from girl?
Roxane: I just am relentless in my ambition. I want to rule the world, so one step at a time.
Debbie: Roxane, my last question for you is this, in June of 2011 on Book Slut you wrote this: in one of my more elaborate, embarrassing flights of fancy, I won an Oscar for writing the best adapted screenplay based on my bestselling novel, which has graced the New York Times best seller list for at least 57 weeks. At the Oscar's ceremony I am wearing something flawless by a designer with a long, exotic name. My hair and face are beat. I don't trip when I walk up the stairs in my Louis Vuitton to accept my honor.
Debbie: You wrote this in 2011. That seemed really far away for you at the time, a flight of fancy was how you put it. Doesn't seem so outlandish now does it?
Roxane: No, it doesn't.
Roxane: I'm literally like two and a half, three years from my Oscar I feel.
Debbie: Roxane, thank you for joining me today at the OnAir Fest for this live episode of Design Matters.
Roxane: Thank you.
Debbie: And thank you for bringing so much magnificence into the world. Ladies and gentlemen, Roxane fucking Gay.
Roxane: Oh, sit down! Thank you so much.
Curtis: Design Matters is produced by Curtis Fox Productions. The show is published exclusively by DesignObserver.com and recorded at the School of Visual Arts Masters and Branding Program in New York City. The editor in chief of Design Matters media is Zachary Petit and the Art Director is Emily Weiland. Generous support for Design Matters Media is provided by Adobe XD and Wix.com.