What Lena Dunham and the ladies’ locker room have in common

A couple of days ago, I was in the locker room of my gym, getting ready to change into my workout clothes when I thought about a particularly mean-spirited review I’d read earlier in the day, about Lena Dunham on “Girls.”  Specifically, about Lena Dunham’s nudity on “Girls.”  In her review for the New York Post, Linda Stassi writes of Dunham’s body:

It’s not every day in the TV world of anorexic actresses with fake boobs that a woman with giant thighs, a sloppy backside and small breasts is compelled to show it all.

She later describes Dunham as a “blobb[y] who is willing to take their clothes off in public constantly.”

Now, confession time: I have not actually seen “Girls.”  I have read more criticism of the show than I ever thought possible, to the point that any interest I may have once had in the show – or, for that matter, in said criticism of the show – has been beaten out of me.  The journalist in me knows I should watch the show and try to form my own opinions, but truth is, I’m suffering from “Girls” fatigue. Which, when you compound that with my ongoing New York City fatigue, makes it hard for me to muster up even the idle interest necessary to watch an episode.

But I do know what Dunham looks like – that she has a body that has not been carefully toned in hours of Pilates or with the help of a surgeon’s scalpel.  As Virginia Sole-Smith wrote last year:

Here’s what Lena Dunham is doing that is so truly subversive and smart that I can’t even believe they let her get it away with it on television: She’s playing the female lead in a sitcom without a perfect Hollywood body — and her lack of six-pack abs is not the entire point of the show.

I thought of Dunham and the criticism she’s received for baring her small boobs and big thighs on television as I looked at all of the women around me in the locker room.  I saw the bodies of women of all ages, sizes, heights, fitness levels, you name it.  I saw boobs that drooped, probably thanks to age and baby-rearing, bellies that rolled when the women sat down.  I saw stretch marks and cellulite.

What I did not see was a single body that looked anything like what I see on any given day in the mass media.

In this media-saturated culture, it’s easy to forget what actual women’s bodies look like.  When I write “actual” I am not trying to imply that most of the women that we see in mass media are somehow not real, so please don’t take it that way. What I mean is that we rarely see bodies that are not mediated through lighting, make-up artistry, photo retouching, intense body work, or any of the other tricks and tools that are used to conjure images of physical perfection.  You don’t see the cellulite that almost all of the women are sure to have, nor do you see wrinkles, saggy bits, red blotches, hair, stretch marks or anything we commonly think of as “imperfections.”

The number of bodies we actually see in real life, which make up the reality we actually experience, are dwarfed by the number of bodies we experience through media. If 99.99% of the bodies you are exposed to have been mediated in such a way as to erase everything deemed imperfect, then it’s not hard to see how the 0.01% of bodies you do see might seem deficient as a result. For a lot of us ladies (particularly us hetero ones), the 0.01% of bodies we actually see are often our own.

Something I’ve learned from spending time in the locker room is that the “flaws” I once thought that I, and I alone, possessed are actually things that appear on most women’s bodies.  It’s not that I sit and stare goggle-eyed at all of the other naked women, but I can’t deny that I do see them, and what I’ve seen has helped me to feel less ashamed of my own body and more accepting of all of the little quirks and differences that make it my own.

Take this woman who seems like a seriously dedicated weight lifter. I’ve watched with admiration as she does slow, deliberate lunges and pull-ups on the squat rack, chewing her gym in concentration the whole time.  She is one of the few women who walks around freely naked in the locker room, and her body, as impressively muscular as it is, still doesn’t look  all that much like those of the women I see in fitness magazines.  In seeing her, I’ve come to understand that my butt’s failure to look perfectly smooth and dimple-free is not evidence that I am not strong and fit.  Instead, it’s just how my butt is.

I can’t help but think that maybe this wouldn’t have been such a huge epiphany if the majority of my exposure to women’s bodies hadn’t come to me through the highly idealized world of media. I mean, it seems rather obvious, doesn’t it?  I mean, of course, most women will not look like the cover of a fashion magazine.  In fact, most of the women who are actually on the covers of fashion magazines don’t even look that way.

My friend Brandi once told me that the “Stars Without their Makeup” features of most tabloids are not necessarily awful because it lets you see that someone who is stunningly beautiful, like, say, Mila Kunis, is just as prone to uneven skin tones and undereye circles as the rest of us.  I tend to hate those features because they are presented with a tone of mockery and disgust, like “can you believe how gross these women really are?” but I think Brandi has a point.  The images are so seductive, and they make it so easy to believe that there is this class of women walking the earth whose skin is the texture of pearls and whose body parts are perfectly symmetrical.   In this kind of image-laden environment, reminders that almost no one actually looks that way are even more critical than ever because it grounds us in reality, not in the fantasy land of those image makers.

There’s evidently plenty to criticize about “Girls,” but for all of the flaws her show may have, one of them is not Dunham’s willingness to get naked.  Maybe if more of us knew what other women’s bodies actually looked like, instead of seeing nothing but the stagecraft and trickery of the mass media, maybe we’d all be less inclined to obsess over the “flaws” of our bodies because we’d understand that there is nothing freakish or wrong about us, that we are all lovely just the way we are.

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15 responses to “What Lena Dunham and the ladies’ locker room have in common

  1. Great post. I completely agree!
    I hit on both of these topics recently. (Lena and Locker Room Nudity)

    I love that Lena is so willing to expose her body in Girls because it’s not the image of perfection we’re so used to seeing (she looks totally normal) and that’s really what we need to see more of– the bodies of common women not just the bodies of a select few.

    A lot of women will cover up their bodies out of shame even in an environment like a locker room where exposure is okay. So I always appreciate the locker room’s token nude woman who doesn’t take measure to try to hide her body while she’s changing or showering or sauna’ing. It’s great to see the boobs and thighs and bellies of women who aren’t movie stars because we’re starting to lose the knowledge of what real women look like anymore.

  2. I just started going back to the gym and the locker room is one of the places I approach with trepidation. On the one hand, screw what other people think while I change. But on the other, much more human hand, oh crap naked in front of strangers, most of whom are much smaller than I am D:

    But I’m working on it and it really helps when other women are changing without batting an eyelash. Last night, for instance, as we were leaving the locker room, a woman was wearing just her workout pants and as we approached, talking about something, she turned toward us. Full body turn, breasts and all, and it was no big deal. I’m enough of a follower that actions like this help me feel more comfortable.

  3. Fantastic post! I love women’s changing rooms for just the reason you describe, and I think it’s such a shame that the only way to see what women really look like is to make yourself into some kind of locker room perv.

    And those “without makeup” features area so awful, and it’s been around forever. In first year university I had to read a Jonathan Swift poem about a guy who sneaks into a woman’s dressing room, and how revolting all the powders and hair removers and other beauty stuff all was, culminating in his coming across her chamber pot — “Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” it ends in a note of horror. I had maybe my first public feminist fit when discussing this poem, about how it’s supposed to be satire about how naive men can be but really it just shows how utterly fucking impossible society makes it for women because we are disgusting in our natural state and can only hide that state through equally disgusting “beauty” treatments.

    I’ve never seen Girls, but bravo to Lena Dunham! Like Melissa McEwan at Shakesville is always saying, there’s nothing more subversive than being comfortable and happy withyour own fat body.

  4. Another great space for learning to appreciate the bodies of human beings and all of their “imperfections” is to participate in an art class drawing nude models.Treating ordinary and “flawed” human bodies as art objects to be appreciated and respected is an extraordinary opportunity for body acceptance for yourself and others. The diversity of body shapes among nude models is truly exciting. My college drawing class also assigned projects like drawing a nude self-portrait. Analyzing your own body as an art object too can be a revolutionary and exciting process, and it can be curiously freeing to distance yourself as the artist from your body which is now the subject matter. Stretch marks become an opportunity to add the tracings of a map to your hips, dimples catch light beautifully, hairs add texture, and all the “flaws” that are erased from media images can be embraced, represented, and reinterpreted.

    • That sounds like an incredible experience. I imagine it would be intimidating at first but the idea of being able to get past the idea of what our bodies SHOULD be and see/appreciate them for what they ARE sounds really amazing.

  5. I really liked this post. I also haven’t seen girls, but I saw “Tiny Furniture” about a year ago. I remember being really put off by Dunham’s willingness to “bear it all,” perhaps even more by the nonchalant manner in which she did. As mentioned of Girls, the film had little to do with her weight or body, and yet it was there in high def. I felt ashamed for being ashamed of her, probably because at the time I too was someone with small tits and a sloppy backside. I should be in this woman’s corner, but I wasn’t. I think her willingness to be real is just that, honest. Kudos Dunham, kudos.

  6. I haven’t seen Girls either (and I find all the discussion just as tedious as you!) but I love your comment about locker rooms. I admit to being a bit “aggressively naked” in there (though you would think blow-drying my hair in my pants+bra was Playboy-level material, some days) but I’m desperately hoping that displaying my fat, less-than-‘perfect’ body freely is not disgusting but inspiring. I really feel it’s important to normalize bodies of all kinds– since the media won’t show us them, let’s display them ourselves!

    • Yes! Radical nudity FTW! I try not to hide myself when I’m in the locker room for the same reasons. I recognize that we have two different situations but I also have parts of my body that could be considered “imperfect” and I don’t see the point in hiding them.

  7. Great post! This;

    “The number of bodies we actually see in real life, which make up the reality we actually experience, are dwarfed by the number of bodies we experience through media.”

    is a great point. Before mass media, before TV and the movies and pin up girls, I bet women didn’t compare themselves to some ‘ideal’ all the time. Were young women in Renaissance Florence beating themselves up because they didn’t look like Botticelli’s Venus? I don’t think so.
    I like the gym locker room because it provides a counter balance to all those ‘perfect’ images, there’s so much grace and beauty in everybody.

  8. I agree 100% that most women these days have very little real data on what other real women look like naked. My mother’s family is Finnish and with that background comes the lovely sauna tradition. From childhood, I was aware of how a variety of women of different ages and shapes and sizes appear in the nude…and they do not look like the women in the media, for sure! I credit this experience with giving me a much better grounding in reality and a better ability separate fact from fiction (i.e., the made-up flaws) that helped (but didn’t completely solve) the usual body image problems that young girls, young women, and even women old enough to know better have. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

  9. I’ve discovered this year that Korean spas are also a really good place for this. Not that Asian cultures don’t have their own complex issues with body image (see the blog Thick Dumpling Skin for the experiences of Asian-Americans in particular), so perhaps this is just because I don’t speak Korean, but in the shower and sauna rooms, everyone’s just totally butt naked and going about their business getting clean and you stand out more if you’re too self-conscious to totally drop the towel. There’s such a variety of ages and shapes and sizes! So if you haven’t been before, I highly recommend it, at least once, as an eye-opening experience.

  10. She’s too young to be so slack and sloppy. For those who have not seen the series–watch it. Nothing subversive–fantasy-land.

  11. Such an awesome post! “…maybe we’d all be less inclined to obsess over the “flaws” of our bodies because we’d understand that there is nothing freakish or wrong about us, that we are all lovely just the way we are.” Well said. I remember in my teens and in college I looked far and wide for positive body images of women in different shapes and sizes in media, and it usually disappointed me. I haven’t seen “Girls”, but after watching the Golden Globes award show and reading this and being a part of that generation, it makes me extremely interested in what its about. I’ve heard that it’s more “real” compared to other T.V. series and Lena actually looks like a normal woman with a normal body, which is refreshing and greatly appreciated.

  12. Reblogged this on Good Wombs… and commented:
    I used to love the freedom of being in the locker room at the YMCA. That is, until I was changing and I felt a little hand on my butt.
    “What’s that?” a mid-ranged kid asked his mom.
    “Oh that’s a tattoo!” she said, still changing, not coming over to remove the hand on my butt.

    I still chose to be that aggressively naked person even when I moved back home & joined 24 Hour Fitness. Especially in Southern California, where everyone showers & changes at home, or runs to the bathroom– yes, they squeeze themselves in tiny stalls, putting their clothes on the toilet or the floor. But then I got a job teaching and I thought, “Geez. This is not good.”
    Respecting and appreciating all body sizes is a wonderful thing, but seeing my 9th grade English teacher naked would probably have scarred me for life.

    So now I go home & shower alone like a wimp.

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