Lena Dunham on Girls: A new kind of nudity.
Trigger warning: Nudity and sexual references.
HBO’s Girls provides us with one of the most thought provoking representations of the female body on mainstream television. Cellulite, small breasts, stomach rolls, thighs that touch. Bodies that exist outside the prescribed norms of heteronormative female beauty. It’s refreshing. I’m so used to thin, conventionally attractive women being the only socially acceptable sexual beings, that I involuntarily cringed the first time I saw Lena Dunham’s body onscreen. I couldn’t believe my own reaction. I’m a body positive feminist, why am I reacting this way?
I had to admit it, no matter how many tokenistic ‘body empowerment’ campaigns I’d encountered, I was still brainwashed by the belief that thin is beautiful. Lena Dunham’s body provided me with an alternative narrative, you don’t have to be a size six to have sex, existing outside patriarchial beauty norms does not make you worthless. The nudity, in her own words, is ‘a realistic expression of what it means to be alive.’
Lena Dunham’s self articulated nudity challenges the status quo. Its polarizing. The nudity on Girls has sparked furious debate, giving birth to endless think pieces and critiques on the blog circuit. It’s also been the target of vitriol, one example being the reaction of shock jock Howard Stern (the American solution to Alan Jones) who called Lena Dunham ‘a talentless little fat chick’ and compared watching her naked body onscreen to rape.
The uglier reactions to Lena Dunham’s body highlight how bodies that don’t conform to the ideal are shamed and treated as sites for moral judgment.
This idea of body related shame resonates with me on a personal level, and is the reason I find Lena Dunham’s fearlessness so compelling.
A few years ago, I was a heavy girl. 5 foot 3 and weighing close to 75 kilos. I had (and continue to have) an acute awareness of what my body looks like. I felt intrinsically worthless when I was overweight. I felt as though I could never exist as a sexual being, only as a fringe dweller. Every time my thighs rubbed together, or I had to use a cubicle instead of the communal changing room, or I wore something tight fitting, I felt the shame trickle over me. Swimming pools or the beach were my worst nightmare. My weight made me both invisible, and the centre of attention.
I went on a rigorous (and in hindsight, very unhealthy) diet and exercised maniacally for a year. I became extremely restrictive with eating, and developed a perverse relationship with food. I would pack school lunches that consisted of a single tomato and a can of Diet Coke. I knew the calories in everything. I would constantly be doing calculations in my head, to the point where I would question my decision to eat something as innocuous as an apple. I was obsessed with food and it began to consume my life.
I had a motivation board, where I had pictures cut out of magazines of ideal women. It was plastered with everything from Victoria Secret swimsuit catalogues to a poster of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. These women were achingly, unattainably perfect. They were what I was aspiring to, my end goal. They had sexual currency, they were confident, elegant, effortless.
I was hungry all the time. It got to the point where I forgot what it was like to be full. I wanted cake so much, but I would force myself to resist. I built iron clad willpower. I would smell the cake instead. It was bizarre. I would just cut myself a slice of cake, and smell it. To me at that moment, it was the closest I came to eating the cake, it provided me with one of the sensations of eating the cake.
Needless to say, I lost weight, lots of it. I dropped over 20 kilos. But it took my mind much longer to catch up with the weight loss than my body. I had lived the life of a fat person. I was used to drowning in my clothes, self consciously tugging at oversized shirts, receding into the background. I was often treated with a kind of patronizing sneering superiority that I didn’t recognize until I’d lost weight. People assumed I was lazy, disgusting, unfeminine. There were implicit and explicit insults and slurs. My defence mechanism was to be inconspicuous, to disappear.
After I lost weight, what shocked me the most was how every aspect of my life changed. I was treated differently. People were more receptive, warmer, politer. People who had previously treated me as though I was the carrier of some horrible infectious disease were suddenly friendly. I was the same person inhabiting a smaller body, and I found it frustrating that this was the only standard by which my worth was judged.
My food issues were always lurking in the background. It takes a long time to deprogram yourself. It wasn’t till the last couple of years of high school that I really managed to divest myself of the guilt that was inherently associated with eating. It’s a bizarre example, but it wasn’t till my first year of university that I could eat butter spread on toast. I had brainwashed myself to the extent that butter was an out of bounds food item, and it was as though an invisible forcefield existed around it. It’s fundamentally fucked up.
It’s been a long path for me to reconcile myself with my weight issues and undo the damage of training myself to eat restrictively. Now I’m primarily concerned with making sure I’m healthy, and enjoying food as much as I can.
I have absolutely no doubt that a large contributor to my old body hatred were the beauty norms I was exposed to. I felt as though I couldn’t be the protagonist in my own story if I wasn’t thin.
Lena Dunham’s body on Girls is a step forward. By presenting us with a non-airbrushed alternative to the bodies we’re used to seeing is subversive, and forces us to question our beauty ideals.
Girls has been criticized for ‘pointless’ and ‘excessive’ nudity. A TV critic at a recent press conference had the following criticism:
”I don’t get the purpose of all of the nudity on the show, by you particularly, and I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you go, ‘Nobody complains about the nudity on Game of Thrones,’ but I get why they are doing it. They are doing it to be salacious and, you know, titillate people. And your character is often naked just at random times for no reason.”
These criticisms irk me, because female nudity doesn’t only exist for the purpose of titillation. People are naked for non-sexual reasons. Most of the nudity in Girls is either before or after sex, or whilst bathing, peeing or doing other designated naked activities. And sometimes, people are naked just for fun. Some days, you just don’t feel like wearing pants. Nudity for fun is encapsulated perfectly in the scene where Lena Dunham plays topless table tennis.
The societal aversion to non sexualized bodies has many offshoots. For instance, the aversion to public breastfeeding . People find breastfeeding confronting and distasteful, even though the primary purpose of breasts is to provide nourishment to infants. It’s important for us to be able to view nudity outside of a sexual context, and the T.V. critic who found the nudity on Girls ‘purposeless’ was missing the point.
Nudity on Girls also plays the important role of illustrating unspoken intimacy. There’s a beautiful scene in Girls where Jemima Kirke’s character Jessa takes off her clothes joins Lena Dunham in the tub. Jessa is upset, she needs emotional support, and she turns to Lena Dunham for help after her failed marriage. It’s not a sexual scene, it’s not salacious, it’s primarily about female friendship.
There’s another problematic aspect to the criticism of the nudity on Girls as not ‘titillating’ enough. Lena Dunham naked in a bath seems to be ‘random non sexual nudity’, however, if we substituted her with someone considered conventionally beautiful, then the nudity would be considered implicitly sexual. We’re brainwashed to believe that the naked women that look like the girls in Vogue, the Blurred Lines music video or Game of Thrones are representative of sex.
The reason why the critic doesn’t find Lena Dunham’s nudity ‘salacious’ is because she doesn’t have the kind of body that would indicate that the scene is intended to be salacious.
These associations of sex and a particular physical archetype are insidious. It contributes to the kind of body negativity that can shackle us to the belief that sex is the privilege of the beautiful.
To me, Girls was a revelation. Lena Dunham’s casual nudity (sexual and non sexual) and comfort with her body and her unapologetic self acceptance is far more empowering than any body positive campaign I’ve encountered. Her body isn’t an impediment to her life or ability to have sex.
Girls undermines the entrenched status quo, and provides us with an alternative narrative about women’s bodies and sexuality.
It’s a realistic expression of what it means to be alive.