Why Lena Dunham’s body positivity is so important

The writer’s recent Lonely campaign drew scores of furious comments, proving that her unapologetic confidence is still more polarising than ever

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Courtesy Lonely Girls Project

Googling ‘Lena Dunham’ has always spewed up hundreds of vitriolic results – so many, in fact, that detailed round-ups of the various scathing op-eds are almost as commonplace as the articles themselves. Over the years, Dunham has admitted that these relentless character assassinations have driven her to take lengthy social media hiatuses and even resulted in panic attacks, yet they continue to surface. Just last week, she appeared alongside Girls co-star Jemima Kirke in a lingerie campaign for New Zealand brand Lonely; a body-positive label that is renowned for its unretouched campaigns and that aims to subvert the heavily-edited, unrealistic beauty standards usually peddled by underwear giants.

Despite scores of articles praising the beautiful imagery and its message of positivity, one op-ed has garnered more shares and comments than almost any other – and, unsurprisingly, it’s the most vicious. Author Samantha Rea calls the campaign a “fake lesbian photoshoot”, which apparently inspired her to leg it down to her local gym in order to avoid ever becoming “lumpy” like Dunham. She also argues that red lipstick is a phallic symbol, uses the awkward term “subtle scissoring”, and draws attention to Dunham “nestling her foot in Kirke’s crotch”. She then concludes that these images are the stuff of “men’s soft-porn fantasies” which are no less guilty of objectification than any other advertisement.

The two key arguments are that Dunham is fundamentally unsexy, yet stars in a campaign which objectifies her and panders to the fantasies of men. Scores of nasty commenters on the article seem to agree with this theory – one describes the image as a “bunch of unattractive fatties with tattoos in dismal underwear”, while another simply calls it “revolting.” Unfortunately, it’s a brutality we’re used to seeing whenever Dunham’s weight is discussed: Howard Stern famously called her a “little fat chick” whose naked body on-screen made him feel like he was being raped, whereas Joan Rivers argued that Dunham’s sex scenes and body-positivity encouraged people to “stay fat and get diabetes.”

“Body positivity is only a message supported when clothes stay on – the moment Dunham strips off she is called repulsive and criticised by many who believe her refusal to bow to Hollywood pressures is promoting obesity” 

Her bikini pictures on Instagram also attract detractors, with comments such as “I just threw up my whole goddamn liver.” The general consensus is that body-positivity is only a message supported when clothes stay on – the moment Dunham strips off she is called repulsive and criticised by many who believe her refusal to bow to Hollywood pressures is promoting obesity.

The fact is, ‘obesity’ is not so easy to define, and it certainly can’t be identified by appearance alone. It has been shown in the past that the fashion and beauty industries perpetuate the opposite extreme – countless tell-alls and documentaries have explained that models go to extreme lengths to stay skinny, whereas anorexia and bulimia have been known to result from the punishing ‘ideals’ which brands like Lonely aim to dispel. Ultimately, ‘fat’ is only directly synonymous with ‘unhealthy’ in extreme cases, and promoting obesity is no less dangerous than proliferating images of women which have been digitally sculpted to achieve an aesthetic perfection which doesn’t exist.

Not only can these images confuse impressionable young people looking to emulate the models shown in the pages of magazines, they can also spur feelings of inferiority. The cult of ‘wellness’ and its growing popularity only seem to further these effects. Despite being based on questionable nutritional evidence, the ‘clean-eating’ trend has blossomed and left many fearing a spike in orthorexia (otherwise known as an obsession with eating the ‘right food.’) Body-positivity should, if anything, be seen as a glorious respite from the countless cookbooks and vloggers telling us to eliminate gluten and stock up on £5 smoothies at WholeFoods – it encourages celebration as opposed to scrutiny and self-loathing.

Still, none of Dunham’s critics are genuinely concerned with her medical health or her physical fitness. The reality is that she is an actress proud to showcase her body but also acknowledge its flaws. Despite not conforming to the conventional beauty standards we’ve all been forced to live by, she still strips off and gets faux-fucked on screen with alarming regularity. This dichotomy spurs on most of the criticism directed towards Dunham – an article published on Slate three years ago saw writers ask essentially describe Hannah as unworthy of bagging ‘hot guy’ Patrick Wilson, with one even writing “Why are these people having sex when they are so clearly mismatched – in style, in looks, in manners, in age, in everything? Why is he kissing her and begging her to stay over?” Another accuses her of living her sexual fantasies on screen, clearly implying Dunham manipulates her role as creator to fake-bang men she could never land in real life. Would these issues ever be raised if the genders were reversed?

Ultimately, this is exactly why I think casting Dunham and Kirke in the Lonely campaign is a genius move. Underwear campaigns are often shot to convey unapologetic sex appeal; they traditionally showcase women that men want to be with and that women want to be. By contrast, Dunham’s combination of an ‘imperfect’ body and rampant on-screen sexuality clearly alienates and angers general commenters in equal parts. Casting her as the star of a lingerie campaign which highlights the obvious beauty of her apparently ‘lumpy’ body is a brilliant and vital subversion of the ads we’re used to.

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