What’s Up With Lena Dunham?: Celebrating Women’s Bodies


In Los Angeles you spend time at gas stations like New Yorkers wait for subways. One of the perks is, if you like to eavesdrop, L.A. gas stations are great social equalizers. Everyone needs gas, from celebrities to lost tourists. Recently, I listened to two young women critically discuss the show, Girls.

The tall one wondered, “What’s up with Lena Dunham? Why does she always wanna get naked? Does she think it makes the show better? That like… people wanna see all that? Or is she just making the point — it’s her show and she has the power — she can do whatever she wants? Is she like just some girl with a bad body getting back at all the beautiful girls?”

So much going on in that series of questions. I wanted to ask them if we could go get some coffee and discuss it. But I knew that’d probably sound really weird. And I didn’t have the time anyway. Still, I kept thinking about what she said.

“What’s up with Lena Dunham? Why does she always wanna get naked?”

I suppose only Ms. Dunham knows the answer to that one.

“Does she think it makes the show better? That like… people wanna see all that?”

This caught my ear. It was the word “that.” She really loaded up that single syllable. She weighed it down with so much judgment I felt bad for the little pronoun. She was obviously referring to way more than nudity. She was critical of Ms. Dunham’s body. But she didn’t linger, she moved on to the question of power.

“Or is she just making the point — it’s her show and she has the power — she can do whatever she wants?”

This was the key turning point. I don’t think she realized all the feminist arguments she was raising about a woman having “the power” to bare her body before the world and do so on her own terms, on her own show, and be the subject of her own “gaze,” since Ms. Dunham is often the director of the episodes when she gets naked.

But then the young woman swerved back to the critical question at hand…

“Is she like just some girl with a bad body getting back at all the beautiful girls?”

Rather than discuss Lena Dunham’s power, this young woman wanted to evaluate her attractiveness, seeing her as someone who dared to “get back at all the beautiful girls” of the world. I couldn’t tell if she thought this was a good thing. Or if it was an act of folly, like a mere mortal challenging the Greek gods. And I never found out because the next thing she said was, “Fifty on twelve.”

Then she and her friend left the gas station. Yet her words stayed with me and left me wondering for hours… “What’s up with Lena Dunham?”

The sexiness and the beauty of a woman are often confused as the same thing. But they’re not. Sexiness is a swirl of physical attractiveness and attitude. And it’s entirely subjective. Beauty is an appreciation of uniqueness. It can be considered objectively, like how we discuss art. Often a majority of people will agree on the beauty of a thing or a person. Which means it doesn’t matter if you think Lena Dunham is sexy or not… but a vast majority of us can agree she’s beautiful.

Recently on Thought Catalog, Chelsea Fagan wrote a great piece about nudity. I highly recommend it. She discussed how nudity is still a problem for our culture. People get so crazy-excited about boobs and vaginas. And I don’t just mean men and boys. Women do, too. I’ve noticed women often grow anxious when confronted with female nudity. Not because it’s indecent but because nudity can trigger their own insecurities. From what I understand, female insecurities about their bodies are about as common as bad teeth in Britain.

It’s a shame we turned the “female beauty ideal” into such a rigid standard it’s now a nightclub few can get in. It’s sad so many women suffer their whole lives because of it. From girlhood to the grave most women never feel they measure up. They look in the mirror and see all kinds of “wrong.” They isolate areas and zones of their body they hate. They criticize themselves for their collection of “imperfections.”

My sister grew up hating how she looked. I saw how much she struggled to like herself because of it. She had a black woman’s body in a town of mostly white and Asian women whose skinnier bodies made her feel like she was “fat.” She wasn’t. She was just curvier and more muscular. But in the mirror, all she saw was a “heifer.”

I didn’t understand how deeply held her “belief” was until high school. We were arguing about some “bitch at school” calling her “fat.” I told my sister she wasn’t fat. I said the other girl was an asshole and just trying to hurt her feelings. We kept arguing. I got frustrated. And said to myself — fuck it, I’m sick of arguing. So, I tried agreeing with her. I said I could see how the “bitch from school” might think she was “fat” but it didn’t matter.

I know… it was pretty much the stupidest things I could’ve said.

I didn’t even say she was “fat.” I said I could see why someone would say that. No matter how many times I told her she was beautiful, no matter how many times I argued she wasn’t “fat,” because I uttered this one statement I confirmed all her deepest fears she was a “heifer.”

To this day she remembers that moment. And I’ve regretted it. From the second the words left my lips and I saw her eyes change, until now, I’ve regretted it. But the damage was done. That’s how I learned about how so many women struggle against the “female beauty ideal.” It’s some hardcore shit.

For my sister, my young niece, and all the women who suffer from body image anxiety, I’m stoked Lena Dunham is on TV dropping her dress, and that she has the “power” to confront the tyranny of the “female beauty ideal.” I’m also stoked she’s not alone. There’s a growing trend of art and media projects celebrating real women’s bodies. Right now, there’s a wave of images of everyday women washing over our culture, eroding the reigning ideals of beauty like sandcastles at high tide.

If a woman must evaluate herself, and it does seem natural to compare, at least now she can measure herself against other real human beings. For too long our media has undermined women with “false images.” How could anyone live up to such an unrealistic ideal? Women are doomed from the start.

The “female beauty ideal” is the Original Sin that corrupts what women “believe” about their bodies. It’s way too easy to forget the man-made images are make-upped, Photoshopped, air-brushed “creations.” They’re totally unreal. It’s like a horse comparing itself to a unicorn.

These new authentic images of real women’s bodies aren’t about women being sexy. They’re not focused on what men like or want to see. These images of female nudity are all about women and offer them a way to see each other’s bodies and feel better about themselves.

The NU Project is a photo project created by Matt Blum, a Minneapolis-based photographer, and his wife Katy Kessler. They ask everyday women to pose nude in their own homes. The photos celebrate women’s bodies in their natural environment. He uses the same techniques one would use for a fashion model shoot. Good lighting, beautiful composition, inspired poses and an attitude of intimacy. The photos capture each woman’s individual beauty. Blum and Kessler have a Kickstarter project. If you’re interested in supporting them it ends on March 9th.

You can find a gallery of photos and more information on the NU Project website.

Additionally, on Tumblr, there are other projects designed to free women from the anxiety of wondering if they’re “normal.” If you’re looking for female nudity, Tumblr is a good place to start. However, more than the usual “nude selfies,” screen captures of porn films, and crazy-ass hentai, there are Tumblr pages dedicated to large labia and breasts of all sizes. A young woman named Emma created these two spaces specifically for women. Internet spelunker and Tumblr curator, Dora Moutot, the French artist responsible for Webcam Tears, made me aware of both projects.

Ourbreasts.tumblr.com is a curated collection devoted to celebrating the many shapes, sizes and colors of breasts. For young girls and women who feel self-conscious, the variety of breasts on display answer the question, “Am I normal?” Women submit photos and write testimonials of their struggles with self-acceptance and the self-doubt that bedevils each new generation of women.

Emma’s other Tumblr page, LargeLabiaProject.tumblr.com is a photo gallery of “selfies” of vaginas. If I were anxious about my labia, this would be a great site to visit.

Some folks have argued the project reinforces the stigma because it inversely suggests large labia are unusual and women must be told they’re “normal.” As a kid, I never liked hearing someone tell me, “A black man was the first person to perform open heart surgery.” I always thought, “So what? Does that surprise you?” Consequently, I understand the value-inversion argument, however, in this instance I think the testimonials on the site suggest a more important dynamic at work.

One visitor wrote, “You should know how very much this has helped me. I am a young woman in her 20s and I implore you to continue… if one day a girl who is insecure and worried stumbles across this project as opposed to a link for labioplasty then you have made a large difference. Wish I had. We as women so often self mutilate and this is a thing that can be changed.”

Her regret articulates how a few inches of skin and tissue can turn into years of shame and suffering, and drive a woman to seek out unnecessary surgery to fix what’s “wrong.” There’s nothing “wrong” with a woman’s labia or any other part of her body. To quote Jane’s Addiction, “Ain’t no wrong now… ain’t no right.”

Even if you think you’re overweight, underweight, pockmarked, stretch-marked, wrinkled, or lumpy, you’re as beautiful as a giraffe. And yes, I know it’s lame to compare a woman to an animal. But I think just this once we can drop any charges of sexism since I’m comparing all of us to giraffes. We’re all animals… just talking monkeys who learned to shave our legs and faces.

That’s what the young woman in the gas station forgot. Lena Dunham doesn’t have a “bad body,” she has a human body. Since we’re just animals, she has a body as beautiful as a swan and no one criticizes a swan for being naked.

It’s awesome that Lena Dunham is another voice joining the growing chorus of women overcoming anxiety, women rushing past the outmoded beauty ideals. Together, naked as jaybirds, they’re loudly singing, “Real women’s bodies are beautiful! Totally fucking beautiful!” 

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