A woman’s body is never, ever her own. Not really. Be it the battle over abortion, the unwanted poke of a pregnant stomach, men deciding the bits that should or shouldn’t be covered, or the sexualisation of body parts we’d forgotten we even had, a woman’s body is everyone’s own Speakers' Corner, their own soapbox from where they pronounce their views to the world, trampling all over our limbs and agency.
No truer is this than when it comes to the Female Celebrity Body. The FCB is literally anyone’s – it’s the media’s, it’s Facebook’s, it's yours, it’s mine. We’ll all play a cruel guessing game of which bits are real and which bits are fake, of whether or not she’s pregnant, or we'll marvel at just how stubborn that baby weight really is. We’ll make completely unfounded assumptions about her eating habits for no particular reason. One of the most popular news websites in the world provides an official window to look through, like an aquarium or a zoo or a circus, where we are all free to stare and comment and judge. And, like clapping seals or performing monkeys, today’s show for our entertainment is Lena Dunham’s support of a fitness trainer.
Dunham appeared at an event, admitting that she has been working with Tracy Anderson – the woman associated with training Madonna and Gwyneth. As Dunham told the press she’d been working with the famous trainer, the press – who don’t normally bother finding a reason – took it as a great excuse to publish pictures of her in a bikini on a beach.
And that was enough for the internet to wind itself up and fall into a shallow hole of faux rage and disbelief like lemmings. "HOW COULD SHE?!" they cried, one after the other, as they fell off the cliff of their own righteousness, "AFTER EVERYTHING SHE’S DONE?"
We’ve been using her self-acceptance to make ourselves feel good – but that’s definitely not the same as fully embracing self-acceptance. It’s like standing in a changing room, looking up and down the line of women, and telling yourself you're not the fattest woman in the room
“Everything” being that Dunham has been a fairly radical champion of body positivity and challenged the stereotypical norm of women’s bodies that we typically see on TV or on magazine covers. And don’t get me wrong – Dunham slips up a lot; I’m no fan of Girls or self-indulgent memoirs written by the super privileged, BUT her work to encourage greater acceptance around real women’s bodies is nothing but admirable.
So, now she’s getting in shape and trying to look like Gwyneth. Except she’s not. Dunham told People magazine: “I came to her and was like, ‘I have endometriosis, I have chronic physical pain... I just want to have a stronger core, I want to feel like I have more power throughout my day, how do I get there?" But the internet doesn’t read beyond 140 characters or a single image and, anyway, the FCB belongs to the internet, so what does Dunham know, anyway? Dunham is now a #hypocrite. (At this point, I’d like to share a few thoughts: READ SHIT PROPERLY; America has an obesity problem, so maybe a millennial mega star working out in a healthy fashion is no bad thing; she’s hardly morphed into ghost-child proportions; exercise is fucking good for mental health – something else Dunham has spoken openly about; IT'S HER DAMN BODY.)
Anyway. I don’t actually think that the outrage is borne from people who are so impossibly incensed that Lena Dunham is somehow going back on her Body Positive message. I think it’s a lot less about Dunham, and waaaaay more about people. And this is why:
In our warped media filter, Dunham has, since Girls came along, been “the fat one”, the real one, the one who made us feel good about ourselves. But now she’s changing – she’s getting fit, she’s exercising, she’s lost a little bit of weight. And where does that leave us? We identify certain individuals and use them to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. So now what?
An example: when I first started writing publicly about my problematic relationship with drinking, I had a similar experience. No, People magazine didn’t report on it and there aren't pictures of my tummy on the internet, THANK CHRIST, but I was approached by women – some who I knew and some I didn’t -– making strange comments about my drinking. Comments such as, “Oh, you’re not having a drink?" or, “Oh, you’ve got a wine in your hand. I thought you weren’t allowed to.” They were said in a nasty, spiteful, smug way that stuck – at first. But, over time, I began to realise it had nothing to do with me. It was about the fact that I had articulated concerns that maybe they also had, and I was doing something about it – I was drinking less. And so, suddenly, the tables turned – were they drinking too much? Where did that leave them? If the big drinker is opting for a small spritzer, how do you feel about the large pinot in your hand? There was a nervousness around me was because I embodied a problem they didn’t like, or weren’t ready to face, so they took a swipe at me and walked off, trying to find a way to feel better about themselves.
Dunham’s weight loss makes us look longer and harder at our own bodies – something Dunham’s conversation around body image has always made us do. Yes, she was the one woman who wasn’t succumbing to a narrative of changing her body to reduce it, or to fit a harmful ideal. But I haven’t actually seen her do that yet and it sounds like her motivation is much more about health than dress size. Yet, when the “fat” girl begins to change, we don’t like it. We’ve been using her self-acceptance to make ourselves feel good – but that’s definitely not the same as fully embracing self-acceptance. It’s like standing in a changing room, looking up and down the line of women, and telling yourself you're not the fattest woman in the room. And, to my mind, there’s nothing MORE cynical than crying principles when what we actually mean is a troubled expression of our own insecurities.
Being a women in the public eye must be bit like being a statue of a dictator after a revolution (stay with me): everyone is wrapping you in ropes, desperately trying to pull you down and watch you topple and crumble. As part of the process, we take bits of the rubble and claim them, victorious, as our own – women might as well be holding Lena Dunham’s thighs and crying, "YOU will not judge me!” except without realising that they’ve reduced Dunham to disembodied parts with no agency to prop themselves up with.
When we decide to pull other women down, we should probably start by taking a closer look at ourselves.