February 09, 2017

The Impact Of Lena Dunham’s Body On Screen

This article was condensed and edited for Stylist magazine (issue 8th Feb), but I wanted to publish the full unedited article here on my blog.

I recently unearthed some teenage diaries I’d forgotten all about. My past diaries have been quite light-hearted, endearing and even something to read on stage at Cringe, a New-York founded pub night where attendees read the squirmiest pages of their diaries out loud. However this diary had a darker tone. Prittsticked onto every stiff page were images of models bodies, lingerie shots and protruding ribcages cut-out from glossy magazines with the same words underlined in my swirly 14-year-old handwriting in scratchy biro ink: “I want to be this thin.”

In 2012, I’d already been living in London for two years, but I was broke and the only TV show that seemed to be talked about was Made In Chelsea which made me feel even poorer and Sex And The City re-runs which mocked my current unchic lifestyle. I remember my flatmate flicking through the channels and that was the first time I set my eyes on Lena Dunham and the cast of GIRLS. I’m ashamed to say my first instinct was judgement, recoiling slightly at the rawness of the sex scenes. I quickly realised that my defensive reaction was a sign of just how many Hollywood movies and millions of airbrushed bodies I’d be exposed to and what I — strangely— had perceived as “normal”. Had I been brainwashed? I was judging Lena’s body just as harshly as I judged my own. I was conditioned to dislike the sight of any body that resembled mine.

You know, it shouldn’t be revolutionary, seeing a white woman’s body that is larger than a size 12, naked and feeling confident on screen, but it is. On the surface it is as revolutionary as having size 6 feet (the UK national average), but, the point is, the average woman was not being shown to the world. Packaged-up perfection was being sold to us instead. We now live in a post-GIRLS world which means we will always have an important reference point. A marker of true boldness. It is revolutionary that Lena Dunham portrayed a body in an unfiltered way and showed the world realistic bodies and sex scenes on a popular TV show. It changed everything. It changed the way I saw my body.

It’s not just the sex scenes either, in GIRLS we see a strength and complexity in the way Hannah in particular displays and uses her body. In Season One, she tries to seduce her boss (a recurring theme); in Season Two we see Hannah attend a party in the iconic nipple-exposing mesh top with zero self-consciousness and in Season Five we see Hannah take up running. In an Instagram post Lena describes the feeling she had during her training sessions to prepare for the scene: “I felt strong, swift and proud.” We also see Hannah attend a group dance class wearing just a sports bra and work out confidently to Tinashe All Hands On Deck. These seemingly smaller moments were just as important to me, it was all spelling out the same message: celebrate your body. The little teenage girl inside of me was unlearning all of the bullshit I’d been previously fed on billboards, glossy mags and adverts by watching Lena in action.

Lena has also stayed in charge of her image over the years and the increasing levels of fame. From re-posting intrusive paparazzi shots and turning it into a positive (she recently posted on Instagram “When paparazzi follows you but you’re not even mad cuz you love your look”) to refusing to be Photoshopped, these are ways in which women in the digital age can take back control of their body. This month, Lena is on the cover of US GLAMOUR with her un-airbrushed thigh on the cover. We’ve seen cellulite circled in red pen and nastily pinpointed on the cover of gossip magazines for years, but this is different, this is a woman in control. However, we need to stop calling it “brave”. It’s simply an act of normalising our culture’s obsession with “perfect” bodies. When we stop calling it “brave” we will have won.

This incredibly empowering experience of seeing myself reflected back to me on screen and in magazines has made me so passionate about how everyone should be able to see a reflection of their own reality back. As Marian Wright Edelman once said: “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Because of GIRLS we’ve had honest open conversations not just about body image but race, class, privilege, feminism and the workplace. We have to thank GIRLS for furthering these conversations in the mainstream. We have to thank Lena for not being afraid to come of age in the public eye and helping us learn and mess up alongside her. So, Lena, thank you, for allowing me to realise that I don’t hate my body. I love my body. 

IMAGE: Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke Model Sheer Lingerie in Unretouched Campaign. Learn more about Lonely Girls Project here.

  • I loved this so much, Emma. Lena also helped me love my body – it’s a wonderful feeling.

My Book

“In love with Emma Gannon’s Ctrl Alt Delete. So funny & smart, and reminding me of some of my own cringe teen Internet exploits!”

– Anna James, former literary editor of ELLE

"Funny, honest, and nostalgic!"

– The Debrief

“Emma Gannon is a bright spark of light in the world. I seriously dig everything she makes”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Big Magic