A few years ago, a super smart and successful woman I know bemoaned the response that losing a few kilograms prompted among her friends, colleagues and family.
The ‘accomplishment’ was greeted with a virtual tickertape parade of compliments, public endorsement and universal admiration. It irritated her.
Of all the noteworthy and tremendous things she had actually accomplished in her life - giving birth, building a career, raising children, sustaining a marriage – why did the benign achievement of shedding a few kilos overshadow it?
The answer lies in the fact that for women our value is still heavily weighted towards our weight. And not towards a realistic weight, but towards an unrealistic hypothetical weight: the less you weigh, the better.
Which is how Lena Dunham, the uber talented writer and actor, found herself on a magazine cover being celebrated for her weight-loss. Alongside a picture of a slender Dunham, the magazines coverline claimed to reveal 20 of the actor's "secret slim down tips."
The unauthorised story infuriated Dunham who has spent her career directly challenging the notion that being successful and thin need to be synonymous.
She has done this by baring her beautiful, unenhanced body on television many times over. Not airbrushed. Not starved. Not hairless.
Just a typical body that looks far more like the average woman than the women we are accustomed to seeing in TV and movies. In the cult TV series she wrote and starred in, Girls, Lena straddled the chasm that exists between the women we usually see on the big screen, and the women most of us see in our bathroom mirrors. Bodies which jiggle, skin that is stretched, with curves, lumps and bumps.
Dunham is not a size zero- and the kicker? It’s not even remotely definitive. In Girls her body is not a central cause for angst, humour or concern. She is just a regular woman with a regular body. That is absolutely intentional so it’s hardly surprising that Dunham was incensed by her depiction as a pin up girl for weight loss.
“I have no tips I give no tips I don't want to be on this cover cuz it's diametrically opposed to everything I've fought my whole career for and it's not a compliment to me because it's not an achievement thanx,” she wrote on Instagram.
She offered up 20 of her own “tips” that include having an anxiety disorder and the resultant nausea that accompanies it.
And behind the sarcasm is something more sinister. Dunham has been seriously unwell in recent weeks with several public admissions to hospital with endometriosis. This hasn’t happened behind closed doors. She has been open about that – posting updates on social media about her health. Similarly, she has been open about her experience of anxiety.
Just for a moment, consider a world which celebrates a woman for losing weight because she is sick. Surely that has to be the day we stop and contemplate the futility and cruelty of our obsession with thin?
Fighting that obsession is hard. It’s deeply engrained. In this realm, as individual women, we are probably harder on ourselves than anyone else is. But is it any wonder when we are bombarded with reminders that losing weight is the pinnacle of a woman’s achievements?
As a woman who has had three children and endured a couple of different illnesses over the past 15 years I have occupied a variety of different shapes – represented by different numbers on the scales.
When I catch a glimpse of myself in a photo from ten years ago, my impulsive response is to cringe. And not because of the bony, unwell woman in the throes of Crohn’s disease I see.
I cringe reflexively because I am a lot better now, so I am bigger. The fact I have to consciously remind myself of that never fails to baffle me. What sort of crazy person would want to be unhealthily thin?
The sort of person who has subconsciously absorbed the narrative about a woman’s worth and her weight being inextricably and inversely linked.
The only upside to seeing Lena Dunham’s being celebrated for losing weight because she isn’t well is that it makes sense of the absurd. There is a reason we subliminally accept that weight loss is a significant feat worth fawning over.
In most cases, it isn’t. But we are fed that line often that it’s hard to remember our worth doesn’t actually fluctuate with our weight. Next time you forget, listen to Lena.
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