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Fariha Roisin Headshot

What's My Body Got to Do With It? Body and Beauty Standards and What Lena Dunham Is Doing for It All

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A friend of mine casually emailed me the other day. He told me how he was coming to New York and how he was wondering if I'd introduce him to some of my lady friends. Though not quite the Emma Woodhouse matchmaker, I figured that I'd happily oblige. However, it was the sentiment that followed that utterly and contemptibly bothered me: He finished the email with names of girls that he had "noticed" on my facebook and without missing a beat I immediately noticed a trend. They were all skinny; conventional; blonde. My initial reaction was an eye roll, then I eye rolled some more. I wanted to laugh, not wanting to feel bitterness but I realized that my resentment had nothing to do with my beautiful blonde friends, it was him and his clichéd male inclinations. Through him I felt what I have been feeling for a while now: society telling me that there were, and are, inevitable beauty standards.

I grew up in Australia. From memory I was one of maybe a handful of brown kids that attended my Brisbane primary school in the '90s. That was around the time that I noticed a) I was different b) That this affected my 'beauty' and surely how boys interacted with me, or rather, how they didn't. I was never, ever, one of the pretty girls that wore their skirts high with primmed socks and perfectly immaculate braids. Mothers never fawned over me. Instead I was a short, sweaty, dark-skinned little thing that always covered her face with hair because she couldn't bear anyone to actually look at her. I was the brunt of many different racial slurs, 'black piece of charcoal,' being the one that stung the most and I knew the pejorative way in which the melanin in my skin was approached meant one thing: not only was I not pretty, but that I'd never be pretty enough.

Skin color aside, girls of color are not the only ones who sometimes feel as if they are surely not pretty. I'm sure my skinny blonde friends feel it too, sometimes. But the problem lies with with these 'beauty' standards as they are, undoubtedly, limiting. They immediately devalue anyone not in, and of, that equation and they also dictate what we supposedly deserve: The jobs, the men, the happiness. We think skinny, pretty people deserve good things by virtue of being pretty and skinny. It's how we operate. Ugly fat girls don't deserve the job, the house or the guy because that's not our society's idyllic. If they, on the off chance, have a semi successful life, we deem them to be lucky, but never well and truly deserving, "I mean, she's not even pretty."

Being a woman of color, I have definitely had some structural problems with Lena Dunham's Girls. She's had her fair share of racially based criticisms that are fair, but one thing that's really infuriated me is the reaction to her fifth episode in Season Two, "One's Man Trash." The title is specific to the story line but perhaps also a preemptive commentary to the inevitable criticism Dunham was anticipating i.e., OK sure maybe you're not into the idea of having sex with Hannah (or Lena Dunham) but there are men out there that are, and surprise, they are also good looking themselves.

The episode begins with Joshua (Patrick Wilson) going to Cafe Grumpy to complain about someone dumping trash from the cafe into his trash can. He talks to the manager and regular frequenter of Girls -- the already caustic, Ray (Alex Karpovsky) who is quickly infuriated by the idea that one of his hard trained employees would do such a thing. As expected, the confrontation quickly becomes heated. After Joshua leaves Hannah runs after him. He welcomes her into his Greenpoint pad and she enthusiastically indulges in her rich man fantasy. She tells him his place reminds her of a Nancy Meyers movie, he seems flattered. They drink lemonade. She smiles. He smiles. She's about to leave but then kisses him on the mouth. She stops almost immediately, backs away and apologizes profusely. He says noting. Then he kisses her.

And thus begins a two-day romance.

It's beside the point to mention that structurally this episode of Girls is near perfect. It's languid and dreamlike qualities pull you into the magic of these moments in time that seem to exist on their own. We've all experienced that phantom like quench of passion that has a nostalgic quality to it even whilst you're in it because you know its perfection is surely ephemeral. So, needless to say, as a piece of art it is brilliant. But the people don't seem to be focusing on that. What we all seem to be interested in is the fact that Patrick Wilson is way too hot for Hannah, you guys. Like, nobody who looks like that would a) Even think about sleeping with Hannah b) Then actually have the impertinence to enjoy it c) Then actually tell her she's 'beautiful.' All he, realistically, would surely feel is remorse/self contempt, but hey sex is sex, right? Even bad sex, with a supposed undesirable.

In many ways the presence of Lena Dunham, where her body is not being shamed -- as no conversation is ever geared towards her weight -- normalizes beauty standards. The fact that she's the lead of a TV show and not the random/token anything, normalizes body standards. I feel that as a society we forget that in actuality women come in many shapes, colors and forms and the audacity to assume that we're not pretty enough if we're not x/y/z not only perpetuates the notion of negative body and beauty images. Moreover this theory also operates and thrives under the presumption that this way of thinking is right, or rather 'normal.'

The trouble is that the commentary that's been saying Hannah's essentially not good looking enough for Joshua derives from latent misogyny and societal double standards. Why is it that we never complain when the 'fat' non conventional dudes à la Seth Rogen get the girl? How is that realistic? Perhaps the idea of Hannah getting with Joshua is so frustrating because it defies the standards in which the supposed norms of society abide by. When these guys ask, "Why are these people having sex, when they are so clearly mismatched -- in style, in looks, in manners, in age, in everything?" they wreak with a certain naiveté and dismissiveness. We don't live in a romcom world where partners seem so utterly compatible that their union is a sight to behold; where bodies are sinuous and mold into one another. Nothing to do with sex can ever be simplified. It is nuanced, complicated, never explainable, and always varied.

In a lot of ways capitalism has created beauty, a beauty that is deemed to be marketable, a beauty that is supposedly 'earnest' and 'desirable.' We're fed that beauty through advertising, Hollywood and porn, never realizing that it's calculated and examined; weighed and evaluated into a perfectly packaged digestible entity. But there is no right and wrong beauty, and the sooner we are able to accept that it 'doesn't always fit the mold,' the closer we get to having one hell of a party.