Monday, April 1, 2013

Lena Dunham and The Beauty Experiment

Many more "girls" look like this than any Victoria's Secret model

I don’t read Playboy, I’m not informed enough to know whether people do “read” Playboy but I read an interview they did with Lena Dunham. In this piece, she is asked what she would do if she woke up in the body of a Victoria Secret model.  Lena mentions she’d be freaked out I don’t want to go through life wondering if people are talking to me because I have a big rack. Not being the babest person in the world creates a nice barrier.” As I read, part of me admired how grounded she sounded but a much larger part of me thought yeah right and I wouldn’t want to have a house on the beach in Hawaii, what would happen if there was a storm? This was all before I had ever seen a single episode of Girls. Let me be honest, this was before I binged on HBO on demand’s first two seasons of Girls.

Have you seen the show? I know I was late to the party; Girls follows a group of 20-something friends living in Brooklyn. As much as I hate using the word, it feels like an “honest” glimpse off dating, work, friendship and all the messiness involved with finding your way. The characters are quirky, the main character Hannah is played by Dunham who also directs the show. Dunham is often undressed. There’s nothing unique about that except for Dunham’s seeming total lack of self-consciousness about her body. In one episode, Duhnam plays ping pong in her underwear in the way a young child would before they realize clothes are worn for certain activities.

Let’s be clear, Dunham’s body is very average. This is not the busty, bronzed, groomed and posed world of Victoria’s Secret. This is basic underwear, lumps and bumps, the things we all tend to cover up. I work with women all day long and I could not figure out where such a lack of body angst comes from. After all if you create a show, you can decide when and how often you disrobe.

While away last week, I read The Beauty Experiment. The book’s author Phoebe Baker Hyde was living in Hong Kong with her husband and young daughter. She felt she was overly distracted by the trappings of appearance. For one year she goes on a beauty fast foregoing makeup, buying new clothes, paying for haircuts, hair removal- you name it. The premise was if she was fixated on her looks, what else was she missing?  In some manner, when Hyde frees up time previously spent on makeup application and shopping she feels liberated. In other ways, new insecurities flourish with a bad haircut, old clothes and no “concealer”. At one point in the book when Phoebe shares the concept of her experiment with friends, one friend replies “you’re not one of those women”.  While she may not have ever been covered in jewels and decked out every day when it comes to that critique or as Hyde calls it “The Voice” most of us are “those women.” Whether it’s appearance, parenting or related to our professions, we can relate to Hyde’s frustration  “the distance between me and the person I needed to become seemed insurmountable”. As with Dunham, in The Beauty Experiment I saw something real, something most of us don’t share that much or aren’t proud of.

I was disheartened while reading a scene when Hyde looks through teenage pictures of herself and laments that her boyfriend-less, chubby 16 year old self and her 30-something self are in many ways the same. I would hope that The Voice is softened, at least a little, with age. This week, we were away in Mexico. I’ve mentioned it before but Mexico was the first vacation I took with my then boyfriend and now longtime husband Marc. At one point in the trip, Marc joked “oh my god do you remember yourself then?” How could I forget, I ran laps around  “the trail” the size of a tennis court because I was losing my mind without a gym and changed multiple times before getting dressed to go out. Almost 20 years later, I remember my blue bathing suit and bad beach hair but cannot name the hotel we stayed in. 
Why did he marry me?

  Last night, as we sat with the boys enjoying our last guacamole of the trip and a not-so-Santana-ish mariachi Oye Como Va a young and lithe college-aged woman jogged past our table.  On a street full of restaurants, she stuck out like a sore thumb. “What- she just has to get in a workout before going out” Marc observed. There’s hope for the Mexico jogger. While we had an active trip, I didn’t go to the gym the whole time. I may never be a “Lena” but “The Voice” is very different than it was in college.
Do you worry you spend too much time thinking about your appearance? How do you think you become “a Lena”? Do you find your “Voice” has changed over time? What would your Beauty Experiment or “fast” look like? 


  1. I saw one episode of Girls and honesty, I just don't get it. It's just not my thing but I realize I'm in the minority here.

    I don't spend too much time worrying about my appearance. I feel like as long as my hair is semi-under control (thanks to Japanese hair straightening) then I'm okay. I wear no makeup, and pretty much stick to black and gray so that getting dressed for work is easy.

    I was in NYC last week (missed you!) and didn't go to the gym even once. So glad I'm not that stressed-out "jogger" anymore.

  2. And see I find Girls smart and sarcastic, sory of like you Ameena. Have you always been worry-free when it comes to appearance? Or does it come with not being 20?

  3. I love "Girls". I cringe sometimes when I watch it because I remember being "there" and I think they do the most amazing job of portraying that very specific time-period in ( girl's) life when you are just a hot mess. People in their 20's are half-way between "getting it" and having their heads so far up their asses they can't see straight. And I was a "Girl's" girl in my 20's that's for sure.

    I admit I was really turned off by the nudity at first. Then I read a blog post (can't find it...) and it made me realize that my uncomfortable feelings surrounding Hannah's nudity was largely due to having been so socialized to think a woman who looks "average" looks "bad". We are all so accustomed to the Victoria Secret-esque body as being "allowed" to be nude in public but the rest of us need to be modest or ashamed...or at the very least, clothed!

    I digress.

    In answer to your questions: I often ask myself "If I was 100% content with my looks and had zero fear about them changing...what could I accomplish in this life?" And the answer is - probably a lot more than I do now. For one thing I would not spend so much time googling around looking for the 'beauty holy grail' or calculating how many CC's of retinol I could buy without Andrew noticing the money missing. And what about the mental space that would open up? Maybe I would exceed my wildest career dreams and get an MBA from Columbia...maybe I would write a book...maybe I would just become more well-rounded and interesting because I would know more about things that have nothing to do with appearance.

    Over the past 3 years I have spent a lot of time working to soften "The Voice" and now it's much kinder than it was when I was in my 20's. I can only hope it continues to soften because it has freed me up in many ways.

    As for exercise on vacay, I am torn. On the one hand, I LOVE moving my body and I think vacations should be all about doing what you LOVE. However, I am not going to forgo dinner and drinks or skip out on an hour of beach time just for the sake of vanity. In my 20's I would have been the jogger. Nowadays... I probably would hit the gym only if it sounded fun and everyone else was asleep. Or if I was going to be there for more than 5 days...

    A good friend of mine is a Beauty Blogger ( and she did a "Month Without Mirrors" experiment which I am in awe of. I do notice that the less I look the better I feel. The more I scrutinize the more likely I am to see flaws. And what you seek you shall find.

    My beauty experiment would either be to follow my friend's stead and go without a mirror for a time-period or just get a lobotomy that removed the vanity center of my brain.

  4. great chat food for thought I accept I am not as slim as before but have to work on losing more being healthier as makes me happier

  5. I think acceptance is key, I also think there's no problem realizing a certain way of eating or clothing/whatever measure makes you feel better. Funny, one of the conclusions in her Beauty Experiment was that self care was more/as important as all the primping- sleep/nutrition the things that make us healthier (and often happier).

  6. Great commentary Cameo- miss your blog. Agree that our thoughts re nudity in Girls is about what we're used to seeing. It also reminds me at times of locker room nudity, enough is enough ha. Baker Hyde found great relief and increased creativity covering the mirrors. Funny, for me I feel vacation does this, being outside and not having to "dress" for work etc frees up a lot of the looking. And I'm not anti-exercise while away but with the kids/constantly doing something it often feels why gym? This trip I liked the break but others I love extra activity. I'm just happy I can enjoy breaks. I think The Voice always needs work it's from here that all the other stuff stems.

  7. Sam @ Mom At The BarreApril 2, 2013 at 4:46 AM

    Girls really grew on me. I enjoy it now. It's definitely cringe-worthy but there really is something admirable about Lena Dunham's "don-t-give-a-$%*^" approach to nudity.

  8. we probably cringe as we still give a s#(!, right?

  9. First - I kind of hate girls simply because it is too real. Really takes me back to that specific point in my 20's (that so many post-college girls go through) that just feels so empty and lacking in self worth based morality. Second - when I was in college I was actually less self conscious than now. I always wanted great hair and makeup - but I enjoyed just working out and all things girly. After gaining 90 pounds, then losing it I am more self conscious than in my 20's. Mostly b/c I saw how awful people who are overweight are treated. Even a girl who just has to lose 20 pounds is so badly treated by sales people, bosses, the list goes on and on- I really never had a self imagine problem until I saw this awful treatment. After losing the weight I'm self conscious about everything (being girly is no longer fun it's a chore). If my arms aren't as tone or I'm not tan I'll make sure I wear a cardigan - but then I'll show up to an event and see women who are very overweight wearing what they want showing their arms, etc., without seeming to care about covering up. I wonder if these women are just used to being their weight and have accepted their bodies, in a way I can't now. However, I do think the body image expectations are just out of control now thanks to airbrushing and model demands. My boyfriend (along with a lot of men) is now obsessed with the gap between the upper thighs and is always looking for workouts to make that happen -not understanding that it's mostly genetic..

  10. I haven't seen Girls so I can't comment on that, although in general I think that a self-confident woman who doesn't look like a VS model is probably a good thing overall. I've seen interviews with Lena Dunham and she seems funny.

    My appearance issues have certainly changed over time. I've never been overweight but never been stick-thin either. I've always wanted to be a little thinner (maybe 5-10lbs). Even as I get older and I'm maybe 10-15 lbs heavier than I was when I was in college, I still just really want to drop a few pounds. What I think is interesting is that I would LOVE to get back down to my college weight, or even just a year post college. But back then I really wanted to drop a few pounds. I guess I didn't appreciate what I had then, and maybe in 10 years I'll feel that way about my current body!

  11. I hear this a lot and I think it's common and also a little upsetting. I think the key is appreciating what we like about our current bodies, appreciating what our bodies do for us- I think then we can work toward tweaking but need that basic "I'm pretty good and like these things about myself physically". If it's all focused on what needs to change there is never satisfaction. Thanks for sharing that.

  12. Wait- what's this "gap" I have no idea what that is...
    In the Beauty Experiment she discusses exactly what you mean about attention paid to thinner or more attractive people. Interestingly that's what Lena didn't want which I find very unusual. I completely understand what you mean about some people covering more than others Whitney. You can have 5 women who are the same size with all different levels of body confidence. It's not really related to weight all that much. I think you're a testament to that. I hope in time you feel "beauty" or radiance is less of a chore, the arms are out and that there's less angst. We can all aspire to that. Some days are better than others.

  13. Once again, I am late to the show...just now hearing about Girls. Overall my "voice" has definitely quieted since I was younger, especially in regards to my body-I definitely can say I exercise and eat well mostly for the way it makes me feel, and not for being a certain weight. Now I just need to work on the voice that catches each new wrinkle in the mirror. It's a work in progress -)