It’s true: Lena Dunham’s very public, extremely naked, hotly discussed body has made me more self conscious of my own. As a woman who “sort of looks like that,” as a girl who was always “chunky” or “slightly overweight,” Lena’s twentysomething, messy, cellulite explosion into our living rooms every Sunday night hasn’t made me feel empowered or liberated in the ways I often pretend it does. I am glad to see a body like hers, in all it’s glory, on premium cable. I am glad that Vogue chose not to edit her into unrecognizable oblivion, though it’s clear some people wish they had. I am glad for body diversity, positivity, and boundary pushing. But with such inexcusable backlash, at what cost?
Lena’s particular anatomy has set the internet ablaze in ways chubby best friend sidekicks before her never did. Maybe it’s because she’s the lead character. Maybe it’s because she’s chosen to show herself squarely, unflatteringly lit in all of her birthday suited splendor. Maybe it’s because she’s not fat like Melissa McCarthy or Rebel Wilson are – her body shape is threatening in ways that obesity for comedic sake is not. Maybe it’s because people treat her personality like a bad rash, the more she speaks the more America itches, confused and indignant about what exactly it is she’s playing at, collectively wondering aloud why she has the audacity to be not only “unattractive,” but “whiney” and “incessantly annoying” as well. I’m not here to argue the merits of her work, or her personality (or the personality of her character – however near or far that is to the real deal). I’m talking quite plainly and specifically about the dialogue around and ramifications of her body – and albeit unfairly – the thousands of other bodies it represents.
It isn’t Dunham herself that has made me more self-conscious. I am a very open, very confident, often naked person. My body resembles hers much more than it does Giselle’s and I made peace with that freshman year of high school when I chose the McDonalds burger over a pack of baby carrot sticks in the school cafeteria every single time like some fast food fixated Rainman. It’s not that I don’t have the physical capacity or mental willpower to be “skinny.” I’m healthy and strong. I try to work out consistently and make much better food choices now that my palate has evolved past that of Honey Boo Boo. If I made myself miserable,
I could be 120 pounds. The thing is…I really don’t care. I enjoy swigging IPA and good whiskey and I refuse to drink vodka sodas. The gym bores me to tears, and my schedule as of late has only allowed me to practice yoga two or three times a week, if I’m lucky. I eat two to three meals a day and aim to make them as balanced as possible…but let’s just say I’m not crying myself to sleep at night if I happen to run out of spinach. I am healthy and happy because I enjoy life and try to live it by my own standards, not the media’s.
Yet restless, long buried feelings have a way of creeping in on even the most morally sound of people. And the conversations that have swirled around Lena and her weight ever since the show premiered have deeply, deeply disturbed me. The things that people say on the internet are often horrible and deranged, but the consistent poking, prodding, and general debasing that Ms. Dunham has endured makes me sick to my slightly flabby stomach. Lena isn’t the only woman in the spotlight criticized about her weight, not by a long shot. But she is one of the only ones criticized about it to such a violent and belligerent extent. Mindy Kaling, who shares a similar body type to Dunham, is treated incredibly more civilly in the media. The characters Kaling plays may have something to do with that since she tends to exude onscreen confidence in a way that schluppy Hannah Horvath clearly does not. The difference is that Kaling’s persona is one of making herself look as feminine and presentable as possible, whereas Dunham toes the lines of acceptability, avante garde, and frumpy – respectably. Even at award shows Dunham is commonly a sure bet for worst dressed, worst makeuped, worst haired, and worst postured. Everyone (and by everyone I mean the internet at large) has basically said that if only she stood up straight, grew out her hair, picked a dress that fits, and fixed her teeth she would look lightyears better. IF ONLY. As if those Miss Manners style critiques are quick fixes to a better life. As if she even gives a burning fuckwattage what faceless screen names on the internet are caps-locking at each other about.
I don’t know if she cares, but I know she definitely reads. Dunham’s active twitter life has given us ample proof she’s in the know about what people say about her personality, her clothes, her views, her show, and most relevantly her body. Yes – as an artist and an entertainer and a celebrity you open Pandora’s box to harsh words and cruel tabloid covers. Fame does not come without cost. But the extremism against her form, the repulsion I’ve witnessed from not just random commenters hiding behind a handle, but real friends willing to screech about their need for a sick bag when they see her on screen, break my goddamn heart. Because god forbid I be so lucky as to have a career like this woman’s. Based on my somewhat tepid feminist appeal, my recent decision to cut my hair to look less performatively feminine, and my subsequent love handles, I’d reckon to say I’d be facing the exact same on-slew of bullshit as Dunham is now. And despite her politics or her persona or her show, that’s no way to make someone feel about themselves. As a human being you can try to shrug as much of the negativity off as you can. But even the most iron-willed of women must let such scathing critique about their most traditionally vulnerable asset, their shape, get to them at one point or another. When you have reputable media outlets tolling some ridiculous bell under the guise of feminism by putting a $10,000 cash prize on unretouched pictures of you to prove some bizarro mean girl point about how much photoshopping must have taken place to have made you look halfway decent in a fashion magazine, I can’t imagine that having zero effect on your overall self esteem.
Psychologically, if I had to wade through the doucheriver of awful insults that Dunham does, I’d be a mess. I’m one tough cookie and people have said and done some really horrible, fucked up things about and to my body that I’ve generally been able to sweep under the rug. But when everyone in cyber space is telling you that you look like a dog with a worse groom job who should never be allowed in public looking so disgustingly displeasing, that’s where I think I’d come unhinged. I don’t know what I would do – except for maybe exactly what Dunham is doing. Keep my nose to the grindstone, pray that my temper allows me to keep my public retorts to a minimum, focus on creating work I’m proud of, and maybe try to avoid googling myself at all costs.
Written by Chelsea Leibow
Originally published on her blog, Chelsea Twentysomething