In my own little corner of the social media world, I’ve been a pretty vocal critic of the cult of personality surrounding Lena Dunham. I can’t really comment on her show Girls, because I’ve only watched clips of it online (I don’t have HBO), but nonetheless Dunham’s rise as an It Girl and the heroine of all things “real woman” has been well-documented online and in print and has been, for me, unavoidable. As such, I feel it’s appropriate to respond to the assertion that one is a Bad Feminist and Not Cool if they don’t worship at the altar of Dunham.
Lena Dunham is treated as a revolutionary because she is not stick thin, and she appears naked on TV — a lot. As a result, she is purportedly on the cutting edge of television, and though I get why people see her audacity as “brave,” I don’t really think embracing a young, supple, pear-shaped white girl with a teeny tiny belly is all that revolutionary. However, I think it says a lot about how sick the media landscape is currently that Lena Dunham’s naked body can be perceived as revolutionary, and so maybe she is revolutionary in that regard. Her brilliance lies in taking what is effectively a baby step and making everyone think she’s landed on the moon.
I recognize that my unwillingness to give Dunham more praise than I think she deserves is because I, too, am an average-looking woman with brown hair and brown eyes of what used to be a medium build but which – after pregnancy and childbirth – has become much more “blobby” than Dunham’s. Unlike so many people I know who can’t get enough of her, I don’t relate to her and project myself onto her because my proud blue-collar background can’t see past her world of privilege, a world she has denied has anything to do with her success. I don’t dispute that “privilege alone can only get you so far,” as Geri Silver put it in her defense of Girls on AlterNet, but I am personally insulted by the fact that Dunham not only isn’t gracious about the advantages her privilege has afforded her, she acts as if those advantages don’t exist. (And then shouts-out her former babysitter Zac Posen for designing the dress she wore to the Golden Globes.) As a result, I relate more to Melissa McCarthy, you know, the woman Rex Reed called a “tractor-sized female hippo humongous creep gimmick comedian.” Dats ma peeps!
As my friend Laura Mannino pointed out in an essay for HLNtv.com, it’s not Melissa McCarthy’s job to be hot for Rex Reed, nor is it Lena Dunham’s job to be compelling to me. Dunham appeals to and inspires lots and lots of women, including VH1’s Kate Spencer, who says, “Lena Dunham is really the first woman I’ve ever seen on-screen who looks like me. But not only that – she’s comfortable in her skin, in her nakedness, in her sexuality, and as herself.”
Maybe that’s why I don’t relate to Lena Dunham. Maybe it’s not just her privilege that is in the way of my love. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t look like me. She probably looks like what I looked like when I was her age, but I’m 10 years older than Dunham. What I look like now is a mom with stretch marks and a C-scar, and I would LOVE to see a woman who looks like that naked on television. But unless that person is me, I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. I did, however, see a whole bunch of naked women who look like me just yesterday in fact, during my first transformative trip to New York’s one and only Spa Castle.
My friend Clea bought us passes to go to The Castle (that’s what we’re calling it now, pass it on) for my birthday, but she didn’t tell me anything about the place before we got there. I’d heard tell of it from various friends throughout the years, and when I arrived in the lobby, I actually thought – based on the infamous “cupcake in the shower scene” – that it would be a really interesting place to film a scene for Girls. I had no idea what to expect, so I was a bit more than shocked when we got to the women’s locker room and I saw an Asian girl sitting on a bench, fully nude, and like, totally chill about it.
Now, of course women are naked in women’s locker rooms. I know this. But the locker room vibe I’d become accustomed to when I went to the gym in New York (oooh, feel the burn of that past tense!) was one of polite modesty. The tacet implication seemed to be, “Sure, we’re all showering and changing, and you’re gonna see a flash of lady parts here and there, but keep it to a minimum, and definitely don’t stare.” Here at Spa Castle, everything was different. Just as soon as my brain had soaked in the brave revolutionary audacity of the pretty naked Asian girl on the bench (character idea for Girls Season 3!), I looked up and out into an area where there were AT LEAST 20 OTHER WOMEN WALKING AROUND COMPLETELY NAKED LIKE IT WAS WHAT YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING. Because, it turns out, it was.
“This is a NUDE area,” the sign warned. “If you are not comfortable using these pools naked, please wear your bathing suit and use our co-ed pools upstairs.” I turned to Clea and said, “Why didn’t you pre-game me for this?! I’m not prepared! I mean, I shaved because I figured there’d be some nudity in front of the body scrub lady, but I didn’t know the whole thing was a big naked fest! You’re lucky I was never violently raped, because I don’t think I could handle this,” I chuckled, nervously.
I don’t know when I became a woman who would have that kind of reaction to a room full of naked chicks. Like Lena Dunham, I was that girl in college who walked around naked all the time. But after being married for seven years, I guess somewhere along the line I stopped being naked in front of large groups of people. In fact, prior to yesterday, the last time I was naked in front of a stranger (with the lights on) was when I gave birth in 2005.
Thankfully Clea had been to The Castle before and just gave me that “whatever, let’s do it!” look only your friend can, so I followed her into the Nude Pools on the Isle of Lesbos and began my Sapphic journey into Sisterhood. I mean, okay, there was nothing Sapphic about it, but isn’t that always the concern straight people have – no matter how liberal, progressive and experimental we are – when we’re naked around members of our own sex? At least if it’s been a while and/or doesn’t happen on the regular. “Oh my God am I gay? Is this gay? I just looked at her boobs, do I want to have sex with her? Oh my God that’s a pee-pee area. I saw it. I laid my eyes on it. OhGodThere’sAnotherOne. Okay. I knew it. I’m gay.” It took me a minute to remind my awareness that not all nudity is sexual (now there’s a concept worth exploring!) and that none of us women were at Spa Castle to get laid. Well, not in the Pools of Aphrodite’s Tears, anyway. We were there to relax, so I did.
I didn’t talk to anyone but Clea until after I got my body scrub – a spiritual experience that opened me up to joy and love, so much so that as I began hopping from pool to pool, I started to make small talk with the other barenaked ladies. I mean, you can only stand next to someone for so long knowing that you both have jets streaming onto your back, belly and butt before you stop to say hello. Everyone seemed so genuinely happy to be there, having so much fun like kids do at a pool party, I eventually forgot that we were all naked. Instead it seemed like we had all arrived in our birthday suits, each of us buying into the theme of the party as a present for the benefit of the rest. After a while, I started to think, hey man – we should all come here and do this more often.
As I looked around the Vulnerability Ponds, I stood in awe of the varying and beautiful bodies all around me. I couldn’t help but gawk a bit at the Asian women who had come there together, scrubbing each other even at 60-something years of age. I loved seeing their pot bellies – I assumed in most cases from having children – and the intense red circles left all over the back of one woman who had obviously undergone a cupping ritual. I’m not sure that all the Asian women there were Korean, but I found it fascinating when Clea told me that body scrubbing is an important part of Korean culture, and that Korean women believe that it helps relieve them of toxins. I thought about what it means to get naked with your female friend and help her scrub her body of impurities, about what a deep and touching bond that implies. I thought about what it meant that this was something I was doing with a friend, and about how I hadn’t been so vulnerable with a friend in a very long time.
I saw women of every age, shape, size, color and of several different nationalities. I saw a black woman with a big, high ass just like mine, the kind that is really fat on the sides. I instantly thought, “Yes! A black girl with my butt!,” which I have always thought of as (because I have always been told is) a black girl butt. I saw black girls with white girl butts! I saw white girls with big boobs and little hips, big hips and little boobs, all of varying degrees of flabbiness. I noticed a lot of tattoos. I even saw a lady with a C-scar paunch, and I was so, so, so, so happy. I wanted to give her a fist bump that would explode confetti in the air! Most importantly, though, I saw all kinds of pubic hair. Some even more bountiful than mine. Sweet Lord Baby Jesus that felt like a win for Humankind.
So I guess I don’t need Girls or Lena Dunham to represent me, nor do I need to see myself in her. All I need, when I want to see “real women” naked in order to know that I’m not alone, is to take a trip to Spa Castle. And Lena, if you want to come along, you’re welcome. They have dessert there, but you can’t eat in the pool.
Photo via NY Spa Castle.