'On Hannah and Rae' – With Love and Swallow

In the last week—since 'One Man's Trash', the fifth episode in Girls' second season, aired—conversations about Lena Dunham and her body have increased tenfold. I didn't even think that was possible, but apparently the notion of the irresistible Adonis that is Patrick Wilson wanting to stick his dick in someone who looks like Hannah Horvath was so incredible to so many people that the worth of her body was analysed by every major (and minor) media outlet to the point where no-one was happy, no questions were answered, and everyone was left with an unsavoury taste in their mouths.

(For the record, I agree with the likes of Vulture's Matt Zoller-Seitz and xoJane's Emily McCombs on almost all topics, but especially on the following:

"He’s heterosexual and recently separated and totally alone in his nice big house, and she’s smart and energetic and came on to him in a way that left zero doubt that she’d be into it, so duh, sure, why the hell not" – MZ-S

"Aside from being sexist and sizeist and just plain fucking rude, this idea that you have to have a thin, perfect body and the face of a model in order to be sexually attractive is just patently untrue. Sexual attraction is oozing and amorphous and refuses to live in boxes. Regular women, women who look like Lena Dunham, or me, get laid easily and often. Some men who look like Patrick Wilson are attracted exclusively to women 3 times Dunham's size. Men who look like Patrick Wilson get rejected by women who look like Lena Dunham." – EMcC)

I'm glad Girls is being talked about so widely and extensively because it means it's being watched (even if it is being watched by people who think girls whose bodies don't look like Marnie's aren't worth a second look). But, while people are paying so much attention to what those wacky Brooklyn gals will get up to next, and whose preconceived notions of femininity their boobs are going to challenge, they're ignoring a show that could actually teach them a thing or two about how girls' thoughts about their bodies take up such a dangerous amount of their emotional time and energy. Shows that put the female body so brutally and honestly front-and-centre that it makes it impossible to look away or to talk of anything else.

Hannah's cries of how she's "12 pounds overweight and it has been a struggle for me my entire life!" seem even more superfluous when stacked up against a moment in episode two of UK network E4's new show My Mad Fat Diary, when our heroine, 16-year-old Rae Earl steps onto the scale. At just over 16 stone, Rae is much bigger than everyone else in her life and spent four months in a psychiatric hospital dealing with image-related anxiety and anxiety-related self-harm before the series begins. After a particularly horrible discussion with her life-long friend Chloe—who is leggy and busty and flip flops between comforting Rae and rubbing her insecurities in her face—Rae heads home to step onto the scale and declares via voiceover, "I am a body dysmorphic, without the dysmorphic; I am bulimic without the sick; I am fat." In one of the series' most stunning dream sequences, Rae then lowers a zipper that runs down her back and sheds her "fat self", revealing the curvy lingerie model that appears underneath. She drags her flabby shell down the stairs of her Lincolshire townhouse, takes it into the backyard and sets it alight.

This idea of "the skinny person hiding inside every fat person" is a common one. It's the long-long cousin of "you've got such a pretty face; if only you could lose a few pounds". It's the idea that there's something better in store for fat women if only they could pull that zipper down and step out of their skin. As well as being really offensive and insulting, this idea is also something that we don't see articulated in depictions of fat women on TV.

One of my pet hates in film and TV is the use of fat women to play roles that are just "fat woman". These women don't have flaws or personalities, they are just vessels for punchlines. Think of the difference between Melissa McCarthy's character in Gilmore Girls and her character in Mike and Molly to see my point. While it would have been easy for Rae to be reduced to just a ball of issues and insecurities, My Mad Fat Diary manages the difficult task of taking us inside the mind of a girl, who just happens to be a teenager, who just happens to be overweight, who just happens to be living with a mental illness. These are not the traits that define her. She defines herself by her love of The Stone Roses and Oasis and Beastie Boys (did I mention the show is set in 1996?), by the boys she has crushes on and the ways she and her new gang spend their weekends. Rae is more than just her body.


While it's not fair or right, I can kind of understand why there are thousands of articles written about Hannah/Lena and her body, and comparatively few about Rae's. It's easy to talk about Lena Dunham's body—to dissect it and tear it to bits like a premature autopsy—because her body is easy to see and to understand. It's easier to stomach (no pun intended) a soft, round belly and legs rub together than it is a body like Rae's; one that is so filled with hurt and harm, one that doesn't fit into clothes and forms a barrier between the person inside it and the people in her life.

It might not have been shown on the covers of magazines before Girls, but a body like Lena's is easy to accept because it's something we all know. The people being challenged by seeing Lena naked in every episode of Girls are probably also challenged by the sight of women breastfeeding in public or the idea of burlesque dancers; they don't know how to deal with women whose bodies do not exist solely for their enjoyment and consumption. If Lena Dunham isn't trying to look "sexy", why does she keep making us look at her tits? That's my impression of a writer at Slate or GQ.

Lena Dunham is not representing all of us. Her characters aren't reflecting every 20-something girl, no matter how much the title of her show or the "plainness" of her face might make us occasionally forget otherwise. She is not speaking for all us (and nor should she), but she is speaking about some of us. For those of us who aren't ashamed to admit it, the characters in Girls help to normalise what our lives can be like. In the same way, My Mad Fat Diary  is painting a picture of what it can mean to be a teenage girl dealing with the burden of being a teenage girl. It is not the story of every mentally ill person, every teenager living in Lincolnshire in the 1990s, nor every fat girl dealing with crushes and clothes shopping and pool parties. Rae doesn't represent all of us but, like Hannah, she's ticking a few boxes that, up until now, have gone unchecked on TV.

Published on With Love and Swallow (my now-defunct blog) on 19 March, 2013.