There’s a scene toward the end of Lena Dunham’s 2010 indie Tiny Furniture in which we see the lead character, Aurora – played by Dunham – naked in the shower. At this point, we’ve already seen her exposed body in a cutaway to a film she made in college, which shows Aurora brushing her teeth in a campus fountain while clad only in two tiny scraps of bikini material, and we’ve heard how the world reacts to the sight of her nude (“Put on some pants, or a burlap sack,” writes one Internet commenter), but this scene is more intimate. She’s on her hands and knees, tattooed flesh just barely visible through the fogged-up shower door, murmuring the words she wished she had said to a disappointing lover earlier in the night.
I watched Tiny Furniture for the first time in a dorm bed in rural Ohio, on a college campus just over an hour from where Dunham went to school, and I instantly felt uncomfortably seen. I am – like Dunham – a cis, white, New York City-raised private-school girl, which should signify less that her work is inherently universal and more that I was its target audience, but at the risk of undercutting my point with an exhausting privilege disclaimer, I’ll just say this: When I saw a glimpse of Dunham stripped bare on her shower floor in Tiny Furniture, something happened in my brain that I still think about to this day.
I wish I could say that was the moment I accepted my body in all its worldly glory, but nothing could be further from the truth. I was terrified of being seen the way Dunham was showing herself, so afraid of being perceived that I had ill-remembered, compulsory hetero sex with the lights off and even brought a book into the dorm shower to avoid being alone with my naked body (earning me endless good-natured mocking from my friends, to whom I passed off the habit as a mere ADD quirk). I didn’t want Dunham’s body – early into freshman year of college I’d more or less stopped eating full meals, replacing them with vending-machine candy bars and Pinnacle whipped cream vodka – but I wanted her ability to show it to the world, to capture herself vulnerably for the sake of art without letting the need to be seen as thin come first. I couldn’t seem to get there, and when I was rejected from an Advanced Fiction workshop because the professor felt the story I’d submitted “wasn’t open enough”, it seemed like a confirmation of what I already knew: I was trapped within the boundaries of my body, physically and creatively blocked by my shame.
Dunham was far from the first artist to use her body as a canvas – Maria Lassnig, Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneemann, and many more paved the way for her – but she was the first person I saw onscreen whose naked physical contours reminded me of my own, at least before my dramatic freshman-year weight loss; and while her nude body didn’t instantly transform me, it taught me something about the kind of story I was allowed to tell (even just to myself) about the way I looked.
Dunham also appeared nude in her Tiny Furniture follow-up, the hit HBO series Girls, enough times to poke fun at herself for it at the 2012 Emmys, and plenty has been written about her propensity for showing her body in her work. Before there were ad campaigns and press junkets and sexist journalistic lines of inquiry into why Dunham felt empowered to do so, though, there was just Aurora on the shower floor, naked and wet-haired and vulnerable, trying to assert what she wanted. I’m not an unreserved Dunham stan; there have been times when the things she’s said made me angry, and times when I just haven’t liked the work she’s put out. That’s okay, though, because I don’t need her to be a hero or a girlboss or a totem of bodily enlightenment; I might have needed her to be all those things when I was 18 and hungry and afraid, but I don’t anymore. Furthermore, I recognise the cognitive dissonance of a well-to-do white woman receiving critical acclaim for showing her naked body onscreen when, just two years ago, one of the most famous Black female singer-songwriters in music history was charged with disorderly conduct for doing the same. Until people of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual identities, and body sizes (not just white women like Dunham and myself) are free to embrace or analyse or simply display their physical forms without fear of retribution, there’s no point in arguing about whether we’ve won the so-called “body wars”.
There’s endless work left to be done, but for me, part of that work starts with honouring the lineage of artists and creators who taught me that my body, as it existed in college (barely heavy enough to menstruate) and as it exists now (fat), is not something to hide from myself or anyone else. “I know that my body could never be inappropriate,” adrienne maree brown writes in Pleasure Activism, and that’s a lesson I’m still trying daily to learn, but Dunham’s work helped me begin the journey of self-reeducation – and for that, I have to be grateful.