By the time Roxane Gay was a teenager, her once-lanky body had become something she barely recognized: fat. Overeating as a way to cope with the shame and trauma of being gang-raped at the age of 12 by a boy she adored and a group of his friends, she hit 577 lbs. at her heaviest point.
“I thought if I’m fat, boys won’t come after me,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I wanted to make myself bigger.”
Today, Gay, 42, still faces the daily challenge of living as an overweight woman in an often unforgiving, thin-obsessed world.
“When I am walking down the street, men lean out of their car windows and shout vulgar things at me about my body, about how they see it,” she says. “Fat-shaming is real.”
But it’s not just the humiliation she endures at the whims of naïve or “cruel” people who are intolerant of large-sized, or diverse, body types.
At the heart of Gay’s discomfort — and why she would like to be smaller — is a desire to feel healthier and move through life more easily.
“It’s about how I feel in my skin and bones, from one day to the next…Nearly everything physical is difficult,” she writes in an astonishingly honest memoir, Hunger, excerpted exclusively in this week’s issue.
“When I move around, I feel every extra pound I am carrying. I have no stamina…More of often than not, I am in some kind of physical pain….The pain can be unbearable.”
Even something as simple as sitting in a chair can be extremely problematic. “Chairs with arms are generally unbearable,” writes Gay, who is a best-selling author of Bad Feminist.
“The bruises tend to linger. My thighs have been bruised, more often than not, for the past twenty-four years.”
While Gay is currently working with a dietician and acknowledges her relationship with her body is still a work-in-progress, she feels fat-shaming is unacceptable.
“No matter what size I am,” she says, “I should be treated with respect.”
For much more from Gay and an exclusive excerpt from Hunger, please pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE.