Lay off Lena Dunham

My husband and I watched Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” over the holidays. I loved the movie and love that a twentysomething woman wrote and directed her own film. I felt appreciation and gratitude for Lena Dunham, that she has the talent, guts, drive, and luck to get her perspective out into the world.

lena

I have been kind of amazed by the level of vitriol hurled at Dunham from young people, old people, men, women, internet bloggers, print media and on and on for her show “Girls.”

On Reel Girl’s FB page, I posted the latest deluge, the horrific comments from Gawker mocking Dunham’s memoir. How dare she write a self-absorbed memoir! WTF? How long have women writers been mocked for being “confessional.” Is Phillip Roth “confessional?”

Did Jerry Seinfeld get shit for being spoiled? As I recall, he was admired for it because it was funny. His show was a comedy. What about “Friends?” What about most shows on TV?

Lena Dunham, like all writers, is influenced by her own life and experiences. She is a middle class white girl. But for some reason, people expect “Girls” to be some kind of ethically pure representation of, what, I don’t even know.

I get the frustration with the lack of diversity in the media. My whole blog is partly inspired by the nonsense that one narrative and one perspective dominates. But the solution to that myopic view is not to burden the one young woman who finally gets her own show on national TV, who gets to write and direct it, with representing everyone else’s narrative.

And then, on top of that, to get mocked for her body type? I LOVE that Lena Dunham doesn’t look like everyone else on TV, especially when it comes to how young women are almost always portrayed, regardless of ethnicity. Young women on TV are skinny, unless they are the fat girl, or the fat friend, never the protagonist, as Dunham is, never the girl with a boyfriend, or many boyfriends. Too many, obviously, Dunham’s character is a slut with no self respect…

In the New York Post, Linda Stasi writes:

“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.”

 

You can read the whole bitter review here.

Today, on Slate, Alyssa Rosenberg responds:

If critics are going to turn against Lena Dunham, I want to know why they aren’t mad at Louis C.K.’s sloppy backside, too.

 

I recently blogged about Louis’s fantastic representation of fatherhood. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before on TV. “Girls” is not like anything I’ve ever seen on TV either. That’s a good thing.

I hope that Lena Dunham gets more power, influence, and money (yes, through product placement to make her show economically viable, she should be doing that) and uses her position to help to get other people’s stories out into the world. But shitting all over the occasional person who manages to defy Hollywood’s cookie cutter stereotype to tell her own story in mainstream media only helps to keep all “alternative” stories repressed. I suppose that’s the point.

When Oprah called, SF non-profit answered

About-Face is a San Francisco based non-profit whose mission “is to equip women and girls with tools to understand and resist harmful media messages that affect self-esteem and body image.” About-Face has received all kinds of recognition for its great work. Most recently, as you can witness all around San Francisco, teenage girls in About-Face’s programs led a project to put “static-cling” stickers on dressing room mirrors with empowering messages such as “YOU: absolutely no Photoshopping necessary.” This effort is going national and was just featured in O The Oprah Magazine.

Jennifer Berger, Exceutive Director of About-Facewww.sfgate.com 

Jennifer Berger, Executive Director of About-Face, “Quit Playing Barbie” shirt available at About-Face

Jennifer Berger is the Executive Director. This is my interview with her:

What is the main challenge for About-Face right now?

There’s awareness of media’s impact on girls and women’s sense of self-worth and some notable positive examples, but not enough action to really create change. And somehow most people seem to think that sexism is over. We can hear about celebrities who admit that they have had eating disorders, or that they feel pressure about their weight or appearance, but they aren’t going so far as encouraging an improvement of the system itself. And Lane Bryant’s lingerie commercial does something positive for women of size and challenges fatphobia. But that needs to be more than a one-off campaign here and there. About-Face is leading the charge in terms of actually changing culture. Awareness is awesome: action is better.

I blogged about Lane Bryant — I was happy to see another body image on TV and shocked that network executives were so offended by real breasts that they censored that commercial, but I was not so psyched about the whole idea that larger women can be exploited on TV too! Yay! Getting women of all sizes in the Victoria’s Secret show is not a goal of mine. I don’t get the whole fat women beauty contest thing, like Mo’Nique hosted a few years ago. I don’t think that’s empowering.

I have to agree with you. This need for women (and now men) to compete against each other around beauty is so ancient but so useless right now. I would like to see us all walk around, with both men and women finding beauty in each other’s diverse shapes and sizes. Another vision is for us to simply not be so concerned about outer beauty as a culture.

I love how About-Face is action based. Instead of just criticizing and reacting, About-Face is actually doing something to create change. What are some of your projects?

Our Gallery of Offenders, where we give addresses and tips on writing productive complaint letters, is the most visited part of our web site. It’s really interesting to look at and fun to put together.

Activism is at the heart of About-Face, so our major method of creating change is our Take Action groups, where we inspire and enable teenagers to take action in their own ways. The girls come up with all of the ideas for their action, and we help them make it happen. One group created these awesome static-cling decals for fitting rooms and then slapped them up all over San Francisco. There’s a great video on our web site.

Of course, that kind of brazen activism isn’t for everyone, and we introduce the idea of media-literacy and critical analysis in classrooms all school year long. This past school year, we worked with 1,200 young women and young men in schools and we’ve seen some fantastic results.

Panasonic ad from About-Face's Gallery of WinnersPanasonic ad from About-Face’s Gallery of Winners 

About-Face was recently mentioned in O The Oprah Magazine. What do you think of Oprah’s public battles with her weight and numerous talk shows on the topic?

As we all know, Oprah has had a problem with her feelings about her weight for years and years, probably brought on by the intense media scrutiny she experienced earlier in her career. She’s a woman whose natural weight is probably on the heavier side, but she’s in the spotlight constantly, so she feels the pressure so intensely. Every time there was a fashion designer on with models, she’d make a comment about how she could never fit into those clothes. It made it OK for women everywhere to hate their bodies because Oprah did.

Last year, in a show in January 2009, I think it all came to a head when she announced on her show that she had “fallen off the wagon” as far as controlling her weight. It was like she said, “I’ve been so bad, and if you’ve been bad too, you can understand, right?” Personally, I sat on the couch and cried while watching that show. Here was the most powerful woman in our culture, arguably, saying she STILL wasn’t good enough. And the cover of her magazine showed the current Oprah standing next to the skinny Oprah. It was like she smacked herself in the face!

But in a recent show in mid-May and in her magazine, she interviewed Geneen Roth, author of the book Women, Food, and God, and seemed to have a revelatory breakthrough around weight. Oprah blew me away when she said, “What I realize when I look at that cover is that I publicly shamed myself. And in that cover, what I was saying is that the thin me deserves all the praise and the accolades. The thin me deserves to be loved, but the fat me does not…It’s your own self-loathing that does that.”

I have hope for Oprah and her own healing. I support her all the way, but I would love to see her also help shape our culture in a way that incites us to accept ourselves as we are.

Ad for Element skateboard's from About-Face's gallery of WinnersAd for Element skateboard’s from About-Face’s Gallery of Winners 

What do you think about Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity campaign?

Yeah, I’m glad you asked that, because I worry that my answer to the previous question sounds like I think health is not important. The concerns around the “obesity epidemic” are around health, and we are concerned about health, too. But physical health only comes from mental health. Self-acceptance leads to healthier behaviors, because you love yourself more and treat yourself with respect.

Our message is to encourage girls and women to see themselves from the inside out, not from the outside in. That is, eat and exercise healthily because you have respect for yourself and your body, not because you want to get thin or avoid being fat.

Did you see, a few weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times cover story on obese moms delivering unhealthy babies? I was thinking: that’s just what overweight women need to hear– you’re bad moms too!

I’m not an expert on OB/GYN issues, but when we see a statement like this, from the New York Times article, we should pick it apart and be fully informed:

“And medical evidence suggests that obesity might be contributing to record-high rates of Caesarean sections and leading to more birth defects and deaths for mothers and babies.”

And unfortunately, there could be some avoidance of fat women happening among doctors. I have heard more than one OB/GYN say to me directly that they don’t want to deal with an obese woman. Could the doctors be deciding to do C-sections because they don’t want to “deal” with a woman’s body that is unwieldy for the medical staff? That’s just a guess on my part, but my point is that we need to look at all sides of this issue and really challenge our own beliefs.

Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, & more fat jokes

Garfield isn’t the only cartoon hero relentlessly mocked for his weight.

I was shocked at the continual stream of fat jokes while watching the animated hit, Kung Fu Panda. The story is about a panda, Po, who dreams of becoming a martial artist instead of a noodle seller like his father. What holds him back is his weight. The Furious Five, a pack of martial artists he idolizes– who are all male except for a token female voiced by Angelina Jolie– constantly make fun of Po’s weight. When these characters mock Po, surprisingly they retain their hero status; they are not portrayed as cruel bullies. Kids watching this movie see that it is OK and justified to put Po down for his body size. It’s espcially odd to witness teasing behavior shown as acceptable and funny, because making fun of others is a constant theme in kids movies; but it’s always potrayed as bad and wrong, acted out by the villians, not the good guys. Unless, I guess, the teasing is focused on fatness. Then it’s OK, just funny and true. Po’s teacher, Si Fun, constantly beats him up to convince him to quit his training, because he’s too fat to succeed. This prediction seems justified also.

In one scene, Po explains that the brutal training and beatings he suffers are mild compared to the pain

he experiences every day “just being me.” Then he looks down sadly at his big stomach, equating “me” with his body size, obviously  feeling a lot of shame.

Po explains that when he’s upset, he eats. The turning point in his training comes when Si Fun realizes that Po can be motivated to perform amazing acrobatic feats by a jar of cookies on a high shelf. They begin to train with food as a reward. Po does pushups over hot coals while trying to slurp noodles from a bowl of soup. Po and Si Fun battle over a bowl of dumplings. It’s good, I guess, that Po doesn’t end up becoming thin in order to be a master. But the way this movie uses fat and food to advance its plot line and character development  is truly odd and confusing if you’ve taught your kids– as I have–  not to experience food as a reward and not to think fat people are bad, or to be made fun of, or that they are not as good as thin people. After about two hours of fat jokes, my kids came out of the movie with lots of questions about why being big is funny and bad why don’t I think so too?

Another popular  animated movie, Wall-E (also named for its star male character) has a central plot line where the fat aliens are mocked. The aliens have evolved into an existence where machines do everything for them. They are fat, lazy, and nasty. Lucy asked me during the movie, “Why do they all look like that?” I guess I was supposed to say, “because they don’t get exercise. They’re lazy.”  The message that fat people lie around all day and that if you don’t work out, you will look like a fat, pink alien is not something I want my daughter to learn. She’s six years old. I’d rather her do the monkey bars and play soccer because she loves it and it’s fun. I’d like my girls to learn to use their bodies out of joy and pleasure, not fear, for as long as possible– their whole lives?

Fat Reality Shows

With Carnie Wilson’s “Unstapled” and Kirstie Alley’s “Big Life” debuting this season, I count six reality shows about fat people including “The Biggest Loser,” “Biggest Loser: Couples,” “Ruby” and “Celebrity Fit Club.” As America’s weight obsession baloons into ever larger proportions, so do Americans.

Wilson and Alley’s new programs are strikingly similar, both featuring women who famously, very publicly lost weight (Carnie with a stomach stapling broadcast live on the internet, Alley as a spokesperson for Jenny Craig) then gained it back, now returning to our screens to lose it once more.

A long article in this week’s People Magazine details Carnie’s new show. This time she will be guided by Oprah phenom and protege, Dr. Oz. After dramatically weighing Carnie on camera, Oz reported to his audience that she is “morbidly obese.”  But no worries: Oz and “his team” have  prescribed a 90 day program that includes “daily excercise and food journaling.”

Carnie tells People, “I made these beautiful, lean ground meatballs,” but Dr. Mike Rozien, Dr. Oz’s “enforcer” told her: “Dump the meatballs.” People then asks her, “Do you like to excercise?” She says: “I loathe it. I just want a big tub of buttered popcorn, and I want to lie on the couch and watch a movie.” Carnie goes on to say, “I don’t eat what I bake. I’ve never had a slice of my own cheesecake. I’ve only had a bite.”

Carnie sounds to me like a woman who has never once in her life lay down on her couch with a bowl of buttered popcorn without feeling horrible and guilty and ashamed. I’d bet the same is true for her meatballs– lean or not. And can you imagine baking a cheesecake and only allowing yourself one bite?

Carnie doesn’t have too few rules about food, she has too many. I worry about her recovery, because I honestly believe that there are more concentrated crazies in the eating disorder/ recovery world than anywhere else on the planet. Think about it– who wants to grow up and become a nutritionist? Food obsessed people. And those are the ones supposedly advising the “sick.”

I know because I was a sick one, not overweight, but bulimic. In my journey to get better, I was told by almost every therapist-expert-nutritinionist from New York to California that I would never recover, but be “in recovery” for life. At best, I could “manage my disease.” Now I think I understand why they say this. Health, to many eating disorder experts and maybe to America, means being just the perfect amount of sick; we’re supposed to be obsessed with food and dieting and our appearance; we’re supposed to have the knowledge and skill to calculate fat grams, calories, time spent excercising and BMI equations like modern day Einsteins. Understanding basic nutrition can be useful, but obsession with it– “healthy” people writing down daily food intake, multitple TV programs on fat people, a first lady’s national campaign that includes the President publicly calling his young daughter chubby– becomes unhealthy, especially confusing and damaging when it’s portrayed as it’s opposite.

Even though I was told I would never get better, I am 100%, over ten years later. What got me healthy was escaping from all the “experts” I encountered over the years; and all of their rules, restrictions, regulations, and diets they all prescribed– all different and contradictory, by the way, just like today with Dean Ornish vs Atkins vs the ever-changing food pyramid vs counting fat grams or calories or whatever’s going to be the trend in 2010– eating local? Works for me, I live in California.

When I was submerged in the eating disorder/ recovery world, I was told off the wall stuff– just like what Oz may be telling Carnie– that I was  ”addicted” to certain foods (or “allergic”) like sugar and flour; these were white powders that had an effect on me just  like cocaine. I paid people $175 an hour to tell me this– that just like a coke addict, if I took one bite of any food that had white powder (bread, muffins, cereal– we’re talking wheat here) like any addict, I would lose all control, eat and eat and eat and never stop. This, by the way, is what every bulimic fears: if she starts eating, she will consume the whole planet. This is a central misconception she must abandon in order to get better; that there is, in fact, always a natural boundary, an end, a stopping.

This is how I recovered– already briefly written about in this blog but summarized here. I stopped writing down what I ate. I stopped trying to convince myself sugar and flour were like cocaine. (by the way, right when I got healthy, I did testing for food allergies, something not one nutritionist or therapist ever recommended to me– guess what? not allergic!)

I stopped thinking being thin was good and being fat was bad. I read an amazing book caled When Women Stop Hating their Bodies and went to a program called Beyond Hunger in Marin. This is what they taught me there: if you eat a loaf of bread, go out and buy more loaves. Same with a bag of chips. Fill your house with anything you’ve ever wanted in abundance and eat whetever you want and replenish it.  As I did that and for the first time in my adult life, allowed myself to eat what I wanted, whenever I wanted, without feeling bad or guilty, I got back in touch with real hunger and real fullness; my eating disorder vanished.

It’s true that I was never “overweight” but I believe obese people, so often, along with bulimics and anoexics, regulate food more than most other people, are more conscious and more knowledgable about health and fat grams and calories than the rest. Most don’t need a national campaign to educate them further.

Oz tells Carnie she “needs to break her addiction to food….she fears passing on her addiction to her daughters. That will motivate her more than a magazine.” Carnie agrees, “I have to be a teacher to my daughters. Lola started to notice commercials on TV with people who are trying to lose weight and she looks at me. She’s thinking about this stuff and its getting to her.”

I wish Carnie would learn to listen to her body and teach her daughters to do the same instead of listening to all the noise on commercials and reality shows, including, sadly, her own. People with eating disorders don’t need more instruction and facts, they need less. Food is not a drug or a moral barometer. Food is food is food. Can we have a reality show about that?