Recently Lena Dunham has been all over the world promoting her new book, which lead me to revisit the first series of her career-making comedy Girls. Unsurprisingly – given that Dunham’s pale, tattooed and altogether normal, naked figure is paraded about in almost every episode – it got me thinking about all the pictures of bodies we see, every day.
Of course, the topic of Dunham, on screen, in her smalls is not exactly news. But coming back to the show I found myself shocked anew at just how different she looks. Different to the women we see on the front pages of our magazines. Different to the tiny figures who adorn our movie posters. Different, even, to the women who read our news.
Considering that in real life she’s actually a size 10, well below the UK average, this shocking difference is somewhat problematic.
And that her fractional divergence from an unrealistic cultural norm can fill so many column inches, only serves to highlight the perversity of the situation we find ourselves in. In this bizarro world, normal women – size 10 women! – are the freaks. Work that one out.
At one point or another Dunham’s approach to her own nudity has been labeled disgusting, refreshing, feminist, anti-feminist, unnecessary and gratuitous. Whatever the comment pieces say, Dunham has changed something.
After watching Girls, you can’t help but see your body in a different light. Maybe it’s not weird, maybe you feel ‘more normal’, maybe you look at yourself in the mirror and think “Hey, why couldn’t I be the leading lady in an HBO drama?”
The effect of seeing a more attainable body shape like this, in such an influential medium, can be transformational.
As someone engaged in an interminable struggle with body confidence, I’d love more opportunities to feel like this. Apparently, we see 1500 advertisements a day featuring people whose body shape in no way represents our own. This make us feel inferior. On a daily basis, we think we’re failing to look as we should. And this does not make us feel good.
It’s not a trivial issue. If we feel bad about how we look, we make bad choices about our health; we are more likely to be depressed; we have more addictions and suffer from eating disorders. It’s actually a big problem and something clearly has to change. It is a kind of madness that so many women believe in a lie that props up their unhappiness and encourages self-loathing.
The media’s insistence on reflecting back at us an unfair, unattainable and, frankly, unnatural body shape is directly contributing to this and although education is the foundation for any shift in attitude, the media must face up to its responsibilities if that change is to be long-lasting.
There is no point teaching children about body confidence, or diversity, if that lesson is undermined as soon as they step outside and see a billboard.
But for me, more importantly, we have to encourage everyone, and women especially, to just focus less on appearance. Stop mass objectification and start talking more about what people do and less about how they look.
In my own work on an online forum called the What I See project, which aims to give girls different kinds of role models, we are working on this problem.
We feature women who have achieved great success in fields where looks are irrelevant, and celebrate their achievements. We have a lot more to do, but we’re taking the issue one more step along the road.
The bottom line is that obsessing on how we look takes up far too much of our mental bandwidth. It’s time to drown out the noise about bodies and replace it with new ideas.
Often the voices speaking out for acceptance of different body shapes miss the point too. Take The Sun’s No More Skinny campaign, or the frequent rhapsodizing about the wonderful curvy figures of 50s movie stars – these all just fuel the disproportionate focus on how women look, trapping us in the same cycle.
While we waste time chasing the impossible dream of physical perfection – whatever it is this month – we move further and further away from living a rewarding and fulfilling life. Lena Dunham has got us out of the starting blocks, it’s time for the rest of us to pick up the baton.