Why Lena Dunham's Body Matters (And Why It's Ridiculous That It Does)

Thanks to the social-life-suck known as grad school, I’m a bit behind on all relevant cultural phenomena. I have yet to watch an entire episode of The Pauly D Project, for instance, and for that I am ashamed.

But because the end of the semester looms near and my motivation has officially plummeted off a cliff, I’ve given myself permission to catch up on the good things in life, i.e. TV shows and movies. And my first stop on the Anti-Education-Pop-Culture-Catch-Up-Express was Lena Dunham-ville.

Despite holing up in a scholastic cave for the last few months, I’ve managed to keep up with the always informative social networking worlds, and all signs in the Twitter universe and my friends‘ Facebook feeds pointed to Dunham. Plenty has already been written about her 2010 award-winning film, Tiny Furniture, and her new HBO show Girls has garnered so much press, sparked enough debate, and stirred up such controversy, it has launched itself and its creator/writer/director/star into the Angelina’s Leg-level stratosphere of media insanity.

And a good amount of that hype has surrounded Ms. Dunham’s body.

New York Magazine‘s resident television sage, Emily Nussbaum, describes Dunham as “short and pear-shaped.” Maya Dusenberry at Mother Jones calls her “average-weight.” And The Frisky‘s Julie Gerstein notes her body is “less than model-ish.” And many critics are quick to point out how little it matters that Dunham isn’t the typical Hollywood waif, because neither are the rest of us, and that’s what makes her so relatable.

Well I’m definitely not a qualified critic, but I am a twenty-something-year-old woman, and I can say with certainty that as much as it pains me to admit the seemingly superficial truth, it does matter.

This isn’t to say Dunham’s “average” body overshadows her talent, wit, or endlessly impressive ballsiness. She may not be the voice of her generation, but she’s undoubtedly contributing an astonishing amount to the conversation. She’s hilarious, hard-working, and alarmingly shrewd for someone just barely breaking into her mid-20s.

Clearly, Dunham has more to offer than an onscreen representation of the “average” female physique. But while I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, there is something jarring about seeing her frequently uncovered flesh onscreen. Dunham’s body is what women see in dressing rooms, in locker rooms, and in the mirror. But seeing it in a space typically reserved for stick-thin starlets seems somehow avant-garde. And that’s just silly, isn’t it?

Not really. Sad as it is, we’ve been socialized to expect our lead actresses, our cover models, our skincare spokeswomen, to fit a certain cookie-cutter mold. We may not approve of it or even like it, but there is an undeniable body-type norm that exists in Hollywood. Seeing someone unapologetically step outside of it, and more importantly, refrain from making it the center of every interview or storyline, is refreshing, but sort of heartbreaking. Why in the world should it be so strange to see real life reflected in entertainment?

Dunham’s certainly not the first woman outside the size-0 box to shed her clothes onscreen. But while cellulite and belly rolls are often relegated to indie films, Dunham’s work and her body have garnered mainstream media attention. And while it’s unfortunate and rather telling of our societal preoccupation with weight and body image that her physical appearance has stolen some spotlight from her rather impressive brain, it’s also great. Because really, isn’t it about damn time girls, women, men, and boys bore witness to the existence of blemishes, imperfect breasts, and yes, even thighs that touch?

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