“Unlike Seth Rogen, whose career was ruined by losing the weight, the dominant discourse insists that fat girls are worthy of our ridicule, as a woman has to be ‘f*ckable’ to be liked. It’s not enough to give an Oscar-worthy performance. You also have to look like Natalie Portman when you do it.” –Nico Lang
One man’s trash
As season two of Lena Dunham’s HBO dramedy “Girls” came to an end, it’s interesting to observe the galvanizing commentary that emerged in response to one episode in particular, “One Man’s Trash.” In this vignette, Dunham’s protagonist Hannah Horvath indulges in a brief but passionate affair with a doctor played by hunky actor Patrick Wilson. Dunham is refreshingly average looking for a television actress: neither thin nor significantly overweight, but pear-shaped and small-busted. Dunham’s nude or scantily clad body has appeared in almost every episode of the series’ two seasons, in premises ranging from mundane bathing scenes to graphic sexual scenarios. The episode inspired a torrent of backlash from bloggers who considered Wilson to be “out of her league,” with Daniel Engber of Slate essentially accusing Dunham of acting out her sexual fantasies onscreen: “How can a girl like that get a guy like this? Am I small-minded if I’m stuck on how this fantasy is too much of a fantasy?” XOJane’s executive editor Emily McCombs promptly responded with a bold rebuttal entitled “I Look A Lot Like Lena Dunham, And I’ve Banged Super-Hot Guys.” The overwhelming response to “One Man’s Trash” highlights an important distinction of what makes “Girls” interesting and subversive in the first place: women who look like Lena Dunham do bang super-hot guys in real life (Dunham’s boyfriend, “Fun” guitarist Jack Antonoff, is a nerdy hunk in his own right), they just don’t bang them on TV.
A body-positive addition to your media diet?
As unsettling as Dunham’s unabashed TV nudity may seem at first blush, recent research has indicated that being exposed to “aspirational” images of women with higher BMIs causes women to feel more positively towards women with larger bodies, which may lead to improved self-image. Whether or not Hannah Horvath can be considered aspirational is debatable, but there is no doubt that Hannah, much like Dunham herself, is uncommonly comfortable with her body and her sexuality. When Patrick Wilson’s character Joshua tells Hannah she is beautiful, she initially expresses disbelief, not because she believes herself to be unattractive, but because it’s “not always the feedback that (she’s) been given.”
In an entertainment industry where overweight actresses like Rebel Wilson are frequently pressured to conform to beauty norms through (often short-lived) promotional stints for weight loss programs like Jenny Craig, Dunham goes out on a limb by embracing her body in all its lovely imperfection. When Playboy (a magazine that aggressively objectifies thin, large-breasted women) asked Dunham what she would do if she woke up with the body of a “Victoria’s Secret model,” she replied:
“I don’t think I’d like it very much. There would be all kinds of weird challenges to deal with that I don’t have to deal with now. I don’t want to go through life wondering if people are talking to me because I have a big rack.”
Dunham’s rejection of socially-enforced beauty standards in favor of self-acceptance might be unusual in Hollywood, but it sends a healthy, body-positive message to her fans.
While Hannah’s character struggles with mental illness, and suffers a relatable share of body anxiety (“I am 13 pounds overweight, and it has been awful for me my whole life!” she proclaims in one of the show’s most hilariously bittersweet moments), the show never resorts to mean-spirited fat jokes or body shaming for cheap laughs. While Hannah may seem to be equal parts narcissistic and insecure, she also demonstrates a sort of unapologetic self-acceptance when it comes to her physical imperfections. She’s comfortable being naked around her friends and lovers, and actively pursues a passionate sex life with a variety of enthusiastic partners. When juxtaposed against her more conventionally attractive best friend Marnie (Allison Williams), it’s clear that Hannah is no less happy or sexually fulfilled for being “average” looking.
Embracing erotic images of body diversity
In 2009, sex researcher Dr. Sonya Satinsky reviewed the “Shape of Us” exhibit for Kinsey Confidential, and expressed her enthusiasm at seeing erotic depictions of body diversity:
It’s very common to see traditionally attractive male and female bodies in erotic works. However, most of us probably don’t have ‘ideal bodies,’ nor do we all find the exact same body types attractive!…You know what I saw all around the gallery? Not just beautiful photos, drawings, colorblock prints, and corsetry… but images of people who looked liked me. And images that looked like all the other visitors to the gallery that day. Our bodies were being displayed and counted as erotic and sexy.
While Dunham’s graphic nudity and sex scenes may provoke disgust or discomfort for some viewers, watching Girls can feel subversively empowering for the very reasons Satinsky outlines above. It is a rare thrill to see an honest erotic depiction of a television actress who not only doesn’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model, but doesn’t want to look like a Victoria’s Secret model. You might even say that it’s aspirational.