Why Doesn't Lena Dunham Want a "Victoria's Secret" Body? Hers Is More Powerful.

What Women Really Think
March 14 2013 3:31 PM

Lena Dunham Doesn't Want a Victoria's Secret Body. Hers Is More Powerful.

Lena Dunham is asked about her body. Again.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

When Playboy landed an interview with Lena Dunham for its latest issue, it sat down one of the most successful writer-director-producer-actresses on television today and gave her a hypothetical: “If you woke up tomorrow in the body of a Victoria’s Secret model, what would you do for the rest of the day?”

“I’d be really disoriented and wonder what had happened in the night,” Dunham responded. “I don’t think I’d like it very much. There would be all kinds of weird challenges to deal with that I don’t have to deal with now. 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. The people who talk to you are the people who are interested in you. It must be a big burden in some ways to look that way and be in public.”


Given the body shaming heaped on Dunham since she first disrobed in Girls, you might think it would be a relief for her to move through the world as conventionally beautiful for a day. Dunham doesn’t see it that way. If she were Victoria’s Secret hot, she’d have to deal with another type of body policing. The constant attention over her dimensions would be coded as praise, but it would remain dehumanizing. The same men who take to message boards to complain about Dunham’s nudity would still be angry, but their aggression would be channeled into commentary on how they’d like to have sex with her. She would be asking for it for “flaunting” her body on TV. Her nudity would be viewed as pornographic, not artistic. You can bet she’d be accused of leveraging her looks to grab at money and success she hadn't really earned.

In other words, changing Lena Dunham’s body wouldn’t change everyone else in the world. As James Hamblin wrote in the Atlantic this month, a growing number of studies suggest that “our culture discriminates against both the too-beautiful and the not-beautiful-enough.” And that’s particularly true of women. After a Slate email thread blew up about Dunham’s comments, Ellen Tarlin responded to the men in the audience who balked at the idea that anyone would refuse an upgrade in the looks department. “You think you’d be happier if you were better-looking, but would you feel the same way if you were in prison?” she wrote. “You don’t associate being attractive with any sort of threat, but for women it can be.”

We like to believe that attractive women exert sexual and economic "power" in our culture, but the systems set up to capitalize on their bodies—pageants, Playboy, porn, pop music—are rarely controlled by the women in front of the camera. Often, they are dominated by men. Sometimes, they're explicitly exploitative. Lena Dunham has said that she gets naked on screen in an attempt “to feel some kind of ownership of your own body, the way getting tattoos does.” As a producer, director, and writer of her own show, Dunham has a lot more ownership over the way her body is viewed than models in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show do. It’s a rare power that Dunham wields, and she’s not eager to surrender it in exchange for a big rack.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They just aren’t ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

A No-Brainer Approach to Fighting Poverty: Better Birth Control

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 16 2014 11:56 AM Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet
Business Insider
Sept. 16 2014 1:23 PM Germany Has Asked Google to Reveal Its Search Algorithm, but That's Not Going to Happen
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Sept. 16 2014 12:59 PM Ethereal Views of Earth From Way Up High 
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 12:33 PM Slate Exclusive: Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.