Zanthe Taylor M.F.A.

A Million Meals

Looking at "Girls"

The thoroughly modern problem of body image.

Posted May 09, 2012

Sometimes I wonder whether I have an exaggerated sense of how dysfunctional people’s relationship with food has become. Perhaps marriage to someone who treats eating disorders has inflated my worries? Or maybe living in a neighborhood where every other person is on a special diet, from gluten-free to vegan to Israel-boycotting, has skewed my perspective? But two recent experiences with younger people have confirmed my sinking feeling that we are really letting food gatecrash its way out of its rightful place in our lives.

The first inkling of how closely we're flirting with the edge came during a conversation with a twentysomething woman who is well-educated and an accomplished dancer. She’s the kind of young woman you’d be happy to have your daughters become: smart, articulate and thoughtful. We were chatting about how people her age feel about food and she said she doesn’t even know what it means to have a normal relationship to food and eating. And this from a young woman who comes across as exceedingly well-adjusted for someone her age. She described feeling that the majority of her peers have issues of some kind with food, weight, and/or body image.

The second confirmation came from the new HBO comedy Girls. After four episodes, I’m hopelessly smitten by this show. The creator, head writer, director and producer is 25-year-old Lena Dunham (that’s on the off chance you haven’t been inundated by the deluge of press she’s received), a wunderkind of the sort who normally sends me screaming. While the show is clearly a granddaughter of Sex and the City, with its quartet of girlfriends experiencing friendship, love and sex while immersed in New York life, Girls is completely stripped of the glamour and fantasy-fulfillment that were essential SATC ingredients. This is a grittier New York of shabby apartment shares, unfulfilling internships, and unpleasant hookups with icky men, which is one thing to recommend the show.

But what’s won me over most fully about Girls is its take on body image. The show has received enormous attention for the “real” body shape of Dunham and her co-stars. Dunham is particularly doughy, and has made no bones about showing us her naked body, despite how far it veers from the aesthetic ideal we’re conditioned to expect on screen or page. She has wide hips, fleshy arms, and small breasts. Even her co-stars, each prettier than Dunham though less mesmerizing, are rounder than the average starlet. Marnie, the beautiful one, has a poochy tummy, and Jessa, with a Botticelli face, has round thighs and a zaftig bottom (referred to in the last episode as "Beyonce's ass," though I'd add that it's not attached to Beyonce's endless long legs and tiny torso).

Just seeing these funny, beautiful women in major roles is soul-healing enough, but the show goes one step farther by making it clear just how large a role disordered food and body image plays in the lives of young people these days. Dunham’s character Hannah is shown eating a cupcake in the shower, confesses at a later point that she’s secretly scarfed a cupcake in a friend’s bathroom, and is subjected to endless rude questions about her weight from the awful boy she’s sleeping with. “Four pounds,” he tells her while squashing her belly fat, “You can easily lose four pounds.” To which she responds, “Well, I’ve chosen to focus my energies on other things right now.” I felt like standing up and cheering; losing those proverbial four or five pounds has become an overbearing obsession for so many women these days that one wonders what might happen if they directed the same focus and intensity towards more worthwhile goals. Maybe they’d have their own TV shows.

The point my younger friend made about her peers’ attitudes towards their bodies is absolutely borne out in Girls, in which even the awful boy is obsessed with his (non-existent) belly fat. Former fat kid, present fatty, beautiful girl who has a normal weight—each of them uses the body as a canvas, excuse, location of obsessive thinking. No one knows how to just be normal about food—there’s no such thing any more. I want so much for that to change by the time my daughters are that age, and the only way I really know how is to try and change the conversation we have about food and bodies.

What I cooked this week and last:

About the Author

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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