In a time when adolescent girls are uploading videos of themselves titled, “Am I pretty or ugly?” to YouTube (yes, seriously), passionate, resilient female voices like "Girls" actress Lena Dunham speaking explicitly about her body—and that she doesn’t give a flying fork if you’re impressed by her weight loss—is more important than ever.
Last month, Dunham publicly appeared at fitness trainer Tracy Anderson’s NYC studio opening. This appearance elicited reactions such as Entertainment Tonight’s tweet: “Lena Dunham looked happy and healthy, showing off her slimmed-down frame at the Tracy Anderson studio opening!” and CNN Entertainment’s “@lenadunham is looking more svelte these days.”
That’s so warm and fuzzy, isn’t it? After all these years getting criticized for not showing off her rib cage, Dunham should be grateful for all the approval… right?
“Girls” creator and activist Lena Dunham posted this message on Instagram:
“I feel I've made it pretty clear over the years that I don't give even the tiniest of shits what anyone else feels about my body. I've gone on red carpets in couture as a size 14. I've done sex scenes days after surgery, mottled with scars. I've accepted that my body is an ever changing organism, not a fixed entity- 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. Chronic illness sufferer. Body-shaming vigilante. Sexual assault survivor. Raging hottie. Just like all of YOU. Right now I'm struggling to control my endometriosis through a healthy diet and exercise. So my weight loss isn't a triumph and it also isn't some sign I've finally given in to the voices of trolls. Because my body belongs to ME--at every phase, in every iteration, and whatever I'm doing with it, I'm not handing in my feminist card to anyone.”
Whether or not she intended to, Dunham’s comment raises a few noteworthy points. First, complimenting someone on their looks assumes that will make them happy—or taking it even further, it assumes the person has everything they want. “We have this knowledge, in media especially, that your appearance represents who you are; it’s your label and your branding,” says Dr. Frieda Birnbaum, PhD, research psychologist and psychoanalyst. “This is why the first thing people say to make you feel good is to compliment you on your looks. They think they’re doing you a favor by orientating you to that direction.”
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But clearly, that’s not always the case. Take Dunham for example. She expressly reached out to Tracy Anderson to help her become strong, particularly due to her struggles with endometriosis, a painful condition where the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus. Her intent was never to lose weight (especially not to satisfy the body shamers)—it was simply a byproduct of her efforts to find strength in managing and coping with a disruptive medical ailment. So, praising her for weight loss doesn’t mean anything. Instead, why don’t we laud her for opening up about her fight, giving hope to others who share the same experience?
On top of that, being skinny or getting thinner doesn’t necessarily equate to health. Dr. Birnbaum reminds us everyone is genetically dispositioned to have a certain body frame, but there are too many people attempting to meet the unhealthy expectations of media. In fact, she says, many women who achieve a newfound slenderness find themselves missing their monthly periods because they aren’t eating enough and therefore, not getting sufficient nutrition. In some cases, the health consequences are even worse. Doesn't sound like something you should commend.
So what is a good way to compliment someone? First, note that nobody has absolutely everything going for them, advises Dr. Birnbaum. For example, some people are innately more athletic; others are not. Some people resemble runway models, while the rest of us don’t. Some of us are mathematically inclined; others can barely function with a calculator. In other words, there is no point in comparing two human beings to determine one's worth.
Bearing that in mind, highlight something that has nothing to do with appearances so the person can identify themselves in a positive way. Focus on accomplishments and the content of their character. They're not hard to find. Whether it’s the fact they finally made room in their schedule to clean their house, inspired you to start listening to classical music, or won the Nobel Prize, there’s always something positive you can say that doesn’t place value on one’s outer shell.
That way, you can have something nice to say all the time—no matter what dress size they are. The number doesn’t represent much anyway. As Dunham wrote, the “body is an ever-changing organism, not a fixed entity.” And definitely not something that requires your opinion.
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