Lena Dunham’s Type Of Body Acceptance Isn’t Doing Us Any Favors

lena dunham eating cake on the beach girls

Lena Dunham turns 28 today, and ever since she showed up on the scene in 2010 with her debut film Tiny Furniture and skyrocketed to fame with the premiere of Girls, she’s been one of the most analyzed, lauded, criticized, and talked about writers of the past five years. Her work is at once hailed as generation-defining and denigrated for its uncomfortable depiction of privilege. Her body has become a lightning rod for the discussion about body image and representation on TV. While many herald Dunham as some body positive revolutionary for appearing naked on screen (which, in part, is revolutionary), on the whole her brand of body acceptance is actually harmful, and further ingrains the ideas that she purports to work against.

One of the biggest conversations about Dunham is the argument about whether or not she speaks for the entire generation, which of course is patently false (and, as Laurie Penny points out, is a fairly gendered discussion in the first place). Dunham doesn’t speak for everyone (or hell, even me, a fellow privileged, white millennial living in Brooklyn working as a writer), and so arguments about that are moot. But I am concerned about the points she makes when speaking with her own artistic voice, most specifically, when it comes to body image. It’s been the biggest detriment to me jumping on board the Dunham wagon, because if there’s something I can relate to that she represents, it’s having a body that society has deemed to be unacceptable.

It’s hard to separate Dunham-the-person from Dunham, the voice of Girls. As a person outside the show, she’s charming and funny, and her response to criticism over her body is nuanced, radical, and measured. It seems necessary to separate the real person and the voice of Dunham’s Girls, although it would seem obvious that that voice is Dunham herself. And her attitude towards body acceptance on the show is problematic–it’s wrapped in faux-acceptance that in reality is exploitation. It’s harmful, and we’re talking about it wrong when we praise Dunham for having a body.

The nudity on Girls doesn’t read as “this is what a human body looks like and I don’t care what you think.” In fact, it’s just the opposite: “this is what a human body looks like and I care deeply that you think of it as bad.” Through a series of gags (she grabs armfuls of snacks at a business meeting, she eats cake on the beach, she can’t run), Dunham’s Hannah is the stereotypical fat person that you’re supposed to pity and write off, instead of a fat person, which is really just a person who is also fat. Her body is played for laughs–it’s another aspect of Hannah’s personality that needs fixing. She can’t get her career going, to keep her relationship stable, or to stop eating, and we’re supposed to view those with equal measure. Her body is an extension of all the things wrong with her. It’s not just a body; it’s one imbued with negativity. Her attractiveness is supposed to exist in spite of her size. It’s ass backward.

Of course, it’s easy to talk about this in the abstract and forget about Dunham-the-person. It’s her body, and if Dunham wants to play it for laughs, I suppose that is her right. But she’s not playing her body for laughs to five friends. The whole world is watching her abuse herself into the punchline. Where’s the acceptance?

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    • Lindsey Conklin

      “Hannah is the stereotypical fat person that you’re supposed to pity and write off, instead of a fat person, which is really just a person who is also fat.” -Yes, that’s exactly right. There’s a difference between portraying a body that isnt “skinny” and accepting it vs. mocking it. In my opinion Mindy Kaling does a fabulous job of this, whereas Hannah’s body is always the punchline…well said, J.

      • emilykwells2188

        I specifically came here to comment about how Mindy is a great example of portraying body acceptance the right way, but you beat me to it!

      • adamsb6

        Mindy depicts her character as an out of control snackatarian all the time.

      • Daline

        I don’t think she is “fat”, I think she has a pretty regular body to be honest. As well as Mindy. What does it mean being fat actually? If we just put the line in “where your weight starts not being healthy”, I think both of them are far from that

    • Penelope

      It’s really way too gratuitous. Way too.

    • http://www.daniellacortez.com/ Daniella Cortez Alvarez

      I disagree. The snack thing I saw more as a “holy shit they give us free food here!” Which when I started working as a writer for a PR firm where they had free snacks, as opposed to the tiny newspaper where I had to bring my own coffee in, I did the exact same thing. I’m broke and hungry, I loaded up on the snacks. I still have a huge pile of protein bars at my desk in case the powers that be decide to suddenly stop stocking them. Lena Dunham/Hannah and I have very similar body shapes. It’s been really heartening for me to see an actress on screen, both for interviews looking stylish and sleek as well as in character looking closer to how I look every day. I can’t run. I’d eat cake on a beach if I lived near a beach. I like snacks. I wear shorts and tank tops and have a love/hate relationship with my dimpled thighs, wide ass and small boobs. But it’s still pretty cool to see this character having and enjoying sex with various partners over the several seasons the show has run. Most of who have been considerably more attractive than is usually “allowed” for fat girls on t.v. (HELLO DONALD GLOVER SEASON 2. UGH. PERFECT.)

      I also think that Hannah is both accepting and begrudging of her body, its not played for laughs so much as realism. Hannah is a deeply flawed person and its entirely reasonable that she has a complicated relationship with her body, both that she’s confident enough to wear rompers and stringy lingerie but also that she’s nonathletic and overeats. Her sort of awkward, sometimes schlumpy appearance and portrayal of her body matches the way she deals with everything else in her life. Both studied and overwrought and completely clueless as well.

      I mean I get it, I see the author’s perspective here, but I think how Lena Dunham the actress/writer portrays her body in real life and how Hannah the immature and often misguided character are very separate issues.

    • LisaJDwyer

      It’s been really heartening for me to see an actress on screen, both for interviews looking stylish and sleek as well as in character looking closer to how I look every day. I can’t run. I’d eat cake on a beach if I lived near a beach http://goo.gl/emYxTI

      • competitivenonfiction

        Yeah, eating cake on the beach sounds lovely.

    • HB

      Is it possible you’re projecting in connecting her body to her imperfect life? I certainly don’t see it that way. Having lots of snacks? Having cake on the beach? That’s probably just normal for her. She has a fat body; it’s fine to show her eating. The snack joke had nothing to do with her size, in my opinion. It was just the wow-this-is-a-legit-job-with-a-breakroom kind of thing that she got really excited about.

    • Mehiella Satchi

      Maybe you need to change the way you interpret things.

    • Adds

      “But I can’t get past the nagging sick feeling I have whenever Hannah’s body is used to point out how much of a shitshow she is..”

      Yes, this totally your interpretation. Nothing more. I never see her body used as such-I see a girl who does not give a shit what she looks like.

    • JEG

      It’s really you, the writer, who cannot get past her body. She actually has a very average body, but you’re hung up on how abnormal it is to see a regular sized gal just letting it all hang out, doing her thang. My opinion of Hannah is that she, like many people, has some hangups about her body, but it doesn’t stop her from taking risks and just generally doing whatever the hell she feels like doing. All the characters on that show are a mess. It’s the theme of the show–getting your life together in your early to mid 20′s and defining yourself on your own terms.

    • TulsaTerry

      Is it possible that the show is the only method by which Dunham could get “body acceptance” past the executives – that is to say, that they believed only a show that abused her could be “funny”, so she made sure the show was that in an attempt to at least get some normal human people portrayed on TV in any form?

    • Xgx