The best rom-com moments, men who are midwives, hot clergymen and the quest for the perfect non-slutty Halloween costume are all topics discussed with humor on FOX's "The Mindy Project," written by and starring comedian Mindy Kaling. But one subject that does not come under the microscope is Kaling's perfectly, awesomely, average body. In a television arena that pits highly sexualized, highly sculpted women against their (typically) comedic foils -- women with physiques that fall outside of the industry "ideal" such as Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy and Retta -- "The Mindy Project" challenges the idea that body acceptance is a herculean task that inevitably consumes all women. Neither Kaling nor her character on the show, Dr. Mindy Lahiri, have time for that.
Kaling plays the smart, witty, successful Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a partner in a New York-based OB/GYN practice. Initially, the show threatened to take a clichéd track by relying on Kaling's preoccupation with her weight and body image. In the pilot, she rants to a patient: "Do you know how hard it is for a chubby 31-year-old woman to go on a legit date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?" And, later in the episode, in the midst of exchanging hurled insults with a co-worker about his failed marriage, is viciously told, "You know what would really look great? If you lost 15 pounds." The sound of a million female hands joining in one collective face-palm was heard across the nation.
Kaling's considerable writing chops pulled the show off that depressive and uninventive course to give Lahiri much more nuance and depth as a woman who, while she counts many issues as flaws, does not include body image among them. This has as much to do with Kaling's comedic sensibility as it does with her personal outlook about her body, which she writes about in her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? In it, Kaling describes herself as "not super-skinny," but rather falling into a "nebulous, 'Normal American Woman Size.'" With this outlook, Kaling has accomplished something quite provocative (and she did not need to eat a cupcake naked to do it): By refusing to make body criticism a focal point of the show (in terms of plot and character development), Kaling embraces the notion that more women could benefit from spending less time preoccupied with body transformation and more time enjoying and accepting themselves.
Last week, Dove released its "Real Beauty Sketches" campaign designed to shed light on women's skewed self-perceptions. This week, The Today Show featured a segment with fashion/style editor Bobbie Thomas, author of the new book The Power of Style, where she gathered a group of women together in nothing more than bras and shapewear to pow-wow about their respective body insecurities (Why don't we start with the concept of shapewear?). I wonder if the relentless encouragement to talk about, scrutinize and fixate on our bodies is not somehow also part of the larger problem. As if talk alone or trendy media campaigns will somehow magically reverse a century of sexist, capitalist ideas partly responsible for women's body image challenges. Are we brokering solutions to body-shaming or are we collectively reinforcing a host of universal perceived imperfections that only exacerbate the need to constantly transform, modify and perfect?
Kaling gestures toward a compelling alternative both on and off the small screen. On the show, Lahiri is a woman who does not attempt to hide, excuse or explain away her body. After all, why waste time obsessing over a perfectly awesome regular body when there are so many other things worth obsessing over, like the best rom-com moments, hot clergymen or the perfect non-slutty Halloween costume?
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