What Lena Dunham and the ladies’ locker room have in common
A couple of days ago, I was in the locker room of my gym, getting ready to change into my workout clothes when I thought about a particularly mean-spirited review I’d read earlier in the day, about Lena Dunham on “Girls.” Specifically, about Lena Dunham’s nudity on “Girls.” In her review for the New York Post, Linda Stassi writes of Dunham’s body:
It’s not every day in the TV world of anorexic actresses with fake boobs that a woman with giant thighs, a sloppy backside and small breasts is compelled to show it all.
She later describes Dunham as a “blobb[y] who is willing to take their clothes off in public constantly.”
Now, confession time: I have not actually seen “Girls.” I have read more criticism of the show than I ever thought possible, to the point that any interest I may have once had in the show – or, for that matter, in said criticism of the show – has been beaten out of me. The journalist in me knows I should watch the show and try to form my own opinions, but truth is, I’m suffering from “Girls” fatigue. Which, when you compound that with my ongoing New York City fatigue, makes it hard for me to muster up even the idle interest necessary to watch an episode.
But I do know what Dunham looks like – that she has a body that has not been carefully toned in hours of Pilates or with the help of a surgeon’s scalpel. As Virginia Sole-Smith wrote last year:
Here’s what Lena Dunham is doing that is so truly subversive and smart that I can’t even believe they let her get it away with it on television: She’s playing the female lead in a sitcom without a perfect Hollywood body — and her lack of six-pack abs is not the entire point of the show.
I thought of Dunham and the criticism she’s received for baring her small boobs and big thighs on television as I looked at all of the women around me in the locker room. I saw the bodies of women of all ages, sizes, heights, fitness levels, you name it. I saw boobs that drooped, probably thanks to age and baby-rearing, bellies that rolled when the women sat down. I saw stretch marks and cellulite.
What I did not see was a single body that looked anything like what I see on any given day in the mass media.
In this media-saturated culture, it’s easy to forget what actual women’s bodies look like. When I write “actual” I am not trying to imply that most of the women that we see in mass media are somehow not real, so please don’t take it that way. What I mean is that we rarely see bodies that are not mediated through lighting, make-up artistry, photo retouching, intense body work, or any of the other tricks and tools that are used to conjure images of physical perfection. You don’t see the cellulite that almost all of the women are sure to have, nor do you see wrinkles, saggy bits, red blotches, hair, stretch marks or anything we commonly think of as “imperfections.”
The number of bodies we actually see in real life, which make up the reality we actually experience, are dwarfed by the number of bodies we experience through media. If 99.99% of the bodies you are exposed to have been mediated in such a way as to erase everything deemed imperfect, then it’s not hard to see how the 0.01% of bodies you do see might seem deficient as a result. For a lot of us ladies (particularly us hetero ones), the 0.01% of bodies we actually see are often our own.
Something I’ve learned from spending time in the locker room is that the “flaws” I once thought that I, and I alone, possessed are actually things that appear on most women’s bodies. It’s not that I sit and stare goggle-eyed at all of the other naked women, but I can’t deny that I do see them, and what I’ve seen has helped me to feel less ashamed of my own body and more accepting of all of the little quirks and differences that make it my own.
Take this woman who seems like a seriously dedicated weight lifter. I’ve watched with admiration as she does slow, deliberate lunges and pull-ups on the squat rack, chewing her gym in concentration the whole time. She is one of the few women who walks around freely naked in the locker room, and her body, as impressively muscular as it is, still doesn’t look all that much like those of the women I see in fitness magazines. In seeing her, I’ve come to understand that my butt’s failure to look perfectly smooth and dimple-free is not evidence that I am not strong and fit. Instead, it’s just how my butt is.
I can’t help but think that maybe this wouldn’t have been such a huge epiphany if the majority of my exposure to women’s bodies hadn’t come to me through the highly idealized world of media. I mean, it seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? I mean, of course, most women will not look like the cover of a fashion magazine. In fact, most of the women who are actually on the covers of fashion magazines don’t even look that way.
My friend Brandi once told me that the “Stars Without their Makeup” features of most tabloids are not necessarily awful because it lets you see that someone who is stunningly beautiful, like, say, Mila Kunis, is just as prone to uneven skin tones and undereye circles as the rest of us. I tend to hate those features because they are presented with a tone of mockery and disgust, like “can you believe how gross these women really are?” but I think Brandi has a point. The images are so seductive, and they make it so easy to believe that there is this class of women walking the earth whose skin is the texture of pearls and whose body parts are perfectly symmetrical. In this kind of image-laden environment, reminders that almost no one actually looks that way are even more critical than ever because it grounds us in reality, not in the fantasy land of those image makers.
There’s evidently plenty to criticize about “Girls,” but for all of the flaws her show may have, one of them is not Dunham’s willingness to get naked. Maybe if more of us knew what other women’s bodies actually looked like, instead of seeing nothing but the stagecraft and trickery of the mass media, maybe we’d all be less inclined to obsess over the “flaws” of our bodies because we’d understand that there is nothing freakish or wrong about us, that we are all lovely just the way we are.