Loving My Love Handles Like Lena Dunham

Pop Culture

Loving My Love Handles Like Lena Dunham

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Istood under the shower with S, paralysed by the sudden surge of shame. After hours of cajoling and coaxing, I had agreed to shed my clothes, but had shed none of my inhibition. When I saw myself in the mirror, I didn’t find the body I had grown up in. Instead, I found this huge pile of shapeless, hairy mess, which I was determined to dislike. I realised that when I stood straight and looked down, I couldn’t see my vagina because my paunch disrupted the view.

Body positivity was never really my thing. That is also because I had convinced myself that most of my friends, who were slimmer by virtue of having flat stomachs, were better off in every aspect just because they had better metabolisms. I mean, didn’t men have this insane X-ray vision, which empowered them to see through your clothes and reject you for your zero thigh-gap even if you had an insane rack?

I would never have been able to articulate my body insecurities if Lena Dunham hadn’t happened. In a world of lithe, blonde supermodels, a different kind of woman had surfaced on the HBO television series Girls. She was still white, but hey, she looked like I did when I woke up in the morning – fazed and disinterested in everything life had to offer. She had the stretch marks, wobbly thighs, jiggly arms, and a full bush like I did. Except oddly, she liked it that way! The very idea was as life-changing as someone telling me potatoes didn’t have carbs.

I began watching Girls obsessively, with the eye of every Indian girl who has ever been mortified by the uncomfortable attention her body can draw. Girls, for me, was a growing-up manual, fodder for a burgeoning nervous energy which I didn’t want to contain.

The four girls – Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna – are frequently narcissistic and selfish. They are almost irredeemable, but not once do they plead to come across as likeable

Dunham’s obvious acclaim and attention stem from how she had empowered her actors to act through their bodies. There is a lot of nudity and sex scenes in the show but they aren’t airbrushed or merely functional sets to bolster its TRPs. The angst of the characters in Girls is palpable maybe because it unabashedly draws from real life. There is absolutely no filter, no attempt at making things look Instagram-friendly. It allows you to watch television without the facade of dissolving into this no-man’s land of happily-ever-afters. As the characters are coerced to face their problems, the viewer is perhaps nudged to acknowledge their own shortcomings.

The four girls – Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna – are frequently narcissistic and selfish. They are almost irredeemable, but not once do they plead to come across as likeable. Therein lies the success of the unassumingly funny show, which changed the dynamic of how women could be on television. In sharp contrast to the Pennys, Rachels, and Robin Scherbatskys, who struggled to land a chuckle every minute, in the first episode of Girls’ final season, Hannah makes this inept declaration during a meeting with a magazine editor: “I don’t give a shit about anything yet I simultaneously have opinions about everything.”

In the season finale of the series, we see Hannah naked, one last time. A journey from the bathtub to her bedroom while arguing with her mother. She wipes herself, puts on her undies, a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, and almost sprints out of the house, convinced that her new-born son hates her. That’s a young mother struggling with postpartum depression: Her son is a metaphor for every man she has ever dated. I haven’t seen a more honest depiction of a woman dealing with everything that life is throwing at her, than pulling on her undies and bolting. We’ve all done it. We’ve all been there. We know that there is no slow and sexy foreplay in wearing our “panties” as every man no doubt imagines there is. In Lena’s world, it is an undie, it is never a panty.

In the six years that I’ve followed the show, it has made me not cringe at my own nudity. It has freed me from imagining how my body looks to S or any other man. But more than anything, it has enabled me to be kind and patient with myself and my body and look at it through my kind, loving eyes.

Yet, the body is only the first frontier for Girls. The show’s effect percolates down to a much deeper understanding of what it means to be a woman: Not the bikini-waxed, hair-sprayed, prettified version of women that we are used to on our televisions. But our belching, farting, menstruating, hairy – and by extension, “inappropriate” – selves. These are the bodies of the people who occupy most of the world, but occupy very little of TV airtime. Girls taught me that it was OK to be inadequate – to score a 3 or a 5 or whoever-gives-a-fuck on the decorum scale.

This is why every Indian girl, who has been held back by the world’s expectations of goodness, propriety, and unobjectionable fashion choices, should watch Girls. It is clever, poignant, messy, and utterly unpredictable. Just like we are.

It’s like Shoshanna Shapiro would say: “Thank you, it’s really helpful to know you were a fuck-up too.”