When I was 10 years old, some moms in my fifth-grade class organized an end-of-the-year pool party for our entire grade. It was one of the first times I can recall being sent into a tailspin of anxiety for weeks, because it meant I had to wear a bathing suit in front of my classmates. After many sleepless nights agonizing and envisioning endless mocking and scrutiny, I opted for a giant T-shirt and jumped in the pool fully clothed. Looking at photos of myself at that age now, I can’t imagine what I was thinking. I was completely average size (though tall and developing). And yet I was putting myself through an incredible amount of body shame while only a child.
I thought about this pool party this week when discussing Sunday night’s episode of Girls with various women on Twitter and during the daily Web chat I host for VH1. Something very obvious hit me, and I haven’t been able to shake it: Lena Dunham is really the first woman I’ve ever seen on screen who looks like me. But not only that—she’s comfortable in her skin, in her nakedness, in her sexuality, and as herself.
Of course she doesn’t exactly look like me. I am tall; she seems short. She has smaller breasts; I’ve had the same saggy size-C mom boobs since I was 14. But her thighs touch together when she stands, her shape moves, her arms aren’t skeletal, and sometimes her clothes don’t fit “right.” (See: the endless comments about the jumper she wore in “One Man’s Trash.”) But even in her own form, I still see myself. I see my thighs that touch when I stand, I see the round yet flat shape of my ass that moves when I do, I see my own nonskeletal arms. And every time Hannah/Lena takes off her clothes, every time she establishes that she is, for the most part, comfortable in her body, it gives me a little bit of hope for myself.
Because I am 33 years old, and I am still not comfortable in my own body. I haven’t been since I was 8 and sprouted breasts before everybody else and would change into my bathing suit in the bathroom stalls at camp, certain that everyone would be horrified by what they saw. I wasn’t when I was 12 and towered over boys, slouching to bring myself down in inches. Nor was I at 19, skinny-dipping in the waters off Long Island with my closest college friends. Even though I was drunk and stoned, the shame was still able to find a way in, and I hid my body with my hands as everyone ran laughing into the ocean in the middle of the night.
I was not comfortable in my body in my 20s, when a male improv student of mine came to see me perform at the UCB Theatre and then said I slouched too much and needed to work on my stage presence because I was setting a bad example for my students. I wasn’t when I would start dating people and, upon waking up next to them in the morning, would scurry off to the bathroom with my breasts in my hands, because I was embarrassed about their size. I wasn’t when I dealt with the death of my mother by compulsively dieting and exercising, because it was the only way I could have control over my emotionally rudderless mess of a life. And I wasn’t after I gave birth to my daughter at 31 and would drag my exhausted body to the basement of a temple to weigh in at Weight Watchers, desperate to return to someone I no longer would ever be.
The thing about self-inflicted body shame and self-loathing is that it seeps into other aspects of your life. It makes you feel unworthy in other situations; you give yourself less and less agency, because really—why should you have any? It’s a cycle of worthlessness that weaves its way into social interactions, sexual relationships, and random moments of your life. It’s vicious and is something I am constantly aware of, something I constantly trying to improve upon and change in myself. And I’m confident from the many conversations I’ve had with other women that my experiences are hardly unusual.
So please, Lena Dunham, don’t listen to commentary on your shape and don’t stop being naked constantly on screen. Don’t stop having lots of sex in Girls and please do ask another lover on the show to make you come first. That’s not being “ungenerous” (ugh, Slate, your review in particular really sucked), it’s being an empowered and confident sexual being.
When people come down on Lena Dunham for these things, they’re coming down on all women. They’re reinforcing the negative criticism and commentary many of us already put upon ourselves.
And that ... that is the real shame.
[This was originally published on Kate Spencer’s Tumblr blog as “On Seeing Lena Dunham Naked.”]