Serena Williams and Lena Dunham Illuminate a Major Gap in the Body Positive Movement
Categories: Body Positivity

Serena Williams and Lena Dunham Illuminate a Major Gap in the Body Positive Movement

Every Body celebrates inclusivity and the representation of human beings in every shape and form. 

While we may not live in the Victorian era, when women were shamed for accidentally showing off an ankle, women are still shamed for what they wear—and some women more than others.  

As we’re all sadly aware, many types of bodies have been left behind on the wild ride towards acceptance, inclusivity, and body positivity. Despite strides toward equality, fat female bodies still make people uncomfortable. Muscular female bodies still make people uncomfortable. Really, any kind of non-conforming female body part makes some people uncomfortable. The answer? Women are told to cover it up. (Or subtly and continuously shamed until they get the message and begin policing their bodies themselves.)

Take Serena Williams. The four-time Olympic gold medallist and holder of 39 Grand Slam tennis titles, a woman more physically fit than most people on the planet, has been the target of an absurd amount of body-shaming over the course of her decades-long career. Williams is often told that her body looks “too strong,” a ridiculous accusation that would never, ever, EVER be leveled at a male athlete. Still, the trolls come out every time a new photo of her shows up online, especially if she’s flaunting her figure off the tennis court. But when the trolls show up, sometimes does JK Rowling, too. Check out her epic (if imperfect) social media mic drop:  

While there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing an internet mouth-breather publicly put in their place by a person with 12.7 million followers, Rowling’s clapback is problematic. Why? Because even though it’s framed in a positive light, we’re still talking about (and judging, evaluating, and categorizing) Serena Williams’ body. If she were to camouflage her muscularity (and her femininity and her athleticism) by covering up, would she’d finally get the body-shamers to hush up? That seems to be the implication.

(BTW, when was the last time you had a debate about LeBron James’ physique?) 

After being subject to ridicule for her character’s frequent nudity on Girls, body-shaming vigilante Lena Dunham’s recent weight loss brought even more unwanted media attention. Dunham upped her exercise game and changed her diet in an effort to control her endometriosis symptoms. The result? A tidal wave of messages “congratulating” her on her weight-loss or shaming her for abandoning the body-positivity movement. In her typical no-bullshit fashion, Dunham called out the gossips:

“I’ve accepted that my body is an ever-changing organism, not a fixed entity,” she wrote, “what goes up must come down and vice versa. I smile just as wide no matter my current size because I’m proud of what this body has seen and done and represented… I refuse to celebrate these bullshit before-and-after pictures. Don’t we have infinitely more pressing news to attend to?”

Because a photo always speaks volumes, Dunham has continued to unselfconsciously share images of her body in any state of dress she pleases with her 3.2 million Instagram followers. She’ll see anyone’s advice to tone it down or cover it up and raise them one latex bodysuit.

But it isn’t just people who spend their lives in the spotlight of fame and celebrity that are subjected to the body-shaming internet hordes. Sometimes it comes from the people that are closest to us, who think that they’re shielding us from the cruelty of strangers by subtly suggesting that we cover up.

“My fatness not only dangerously amplified my femininity (jiggle, boobies, etc.), it was also a visible sign of my otherness,” writes feminist activist and blogger Virgie Tovar, who grew up with a well-meaning grandmother that was constantly trying to get her to cover her arms with a cardigan on even the sweltering-est of days. “I remember each time I would come out of my bedroom wearing something sleeveless or short-sleeved she would gently ask what I was going to wear over my outfit. It felt almost like a reflex.”

Here’s the thing: physical modesty is not something that is frequently demanded of men, ergo IT’S SEXIST, YOU GUYS. From the time when women were told they must conceal themselves from their lust-inspiring ankles to their scandalous wrists all the way up until today, when Twitter trolls (a good number of whom are women themselves) shame Hilary Duff for not losing baby weight fast enough (read: instantly) or trash talk Kim Kardashian for dressing too provocatively, women have been told, for one reason or another, to COVER. IT. UP. 

When it comes to policing women’s bodies, there’s very little difference between telling someone to cover their ankles or their cleavage or their upper arms. The real value in a body isn’t the way it looks, it’s in what it does. Which makes an individual’s shape, size, color, and state of dress generally irrelevant—or, at the very least, not a topic worth talking about. 

How do you deal with unwanted comments about the way you dress? Tell us about it on Twitter.

(Photo via Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)