I don’t like internet controversy…
Not because it shouldn’t exist–you should always be standing up to things you don’t feel are right–but because people can be such assholes when they’re safely hiding away behind their screens.
After accidentally getting into a Facebook argument with a scary gun-nut a few years back, I’ve made it a policy to stay away from the Facebook comments sections. If I thought arguing with someone on the internet might actually make a difference–if I could shine a tiny light on someone’s blinding ignorance–maybe I’d still do it. But I think arguing with someone on Facebook is an exercise in futility. The worst kind of waste of time.
Which is why I don’t really write about controversial stuff here. Books and writing are my way of escaping the scariness of the world. I don’t want to bring any negativity into this space. But I got into a conversation into a friend the other day, and it’s been bothering me, so I felt the best thing to do would be to write it out.
We were talking about Lena Dunham.
I’m aware some people don’t like her; they point to her vulgarity, and more often than not, that controversial passage in her memoir. (I haven’t read it yet, and I make it a policy not to comment on things I haven’t read.) My friend, during this particular discussion, was lamenting Lena’s prevalent nudity on Girls. “I just don’t want to see that!” she said.
“No one’s forcing you to watch it,” I pointed out.
“But people on TV just shouldn’t look like that,” she said. “We watch TV to see better-looking people than we have to deal with in real life.”
“But I don’t think that’s how things should be,” I persisted. “I think there needs to be way more than just pretty people on TV. Otherwise people see them and think it’s the norm, and it affects people’s self-esteem.”
“If your self-esteem is affected by seeing an attractive person on TV, you have bigger problems.”
We were interrupted then, and we didn’t have the chance to get back into it. So I need to say here what I didn’t have the chance to say to my friend. (I’m better at writing than speaking, anyway.)
I love that someone who looks like Lena Dunham has become who she is. And I think it’s so important to have someone like her in a highly visible place.
Let me explain why, by telling you a little story about teenage me.
I have never been marginalized in the way so many people have. I am white, straight, Christian, American. I’ve never had the perfect body, but I’ve never been what you’d call fat, either. But there was something about me that caused me to shrink up inside myself and hide there from the ages of thirteen through seventeen: I was a very awkward-looking girl.
Frizzy reddish hair, big nose, acne problems, no sense of fashion, no skills with makeup or hair tools to help hide my flaws. I have since grown out of that stage–thank God–but insecurity about the way I look is something I’ve carried with me since age twelve. I don’t go out without makeup. I cringe at bad photos of myself. When I pass a reflective surface, I always check it to make sure I don’t look horrible.
And I don’t think this can be chalked up to simple vanity. I think it’s the fact that as a young, incredibly impressionable girl, I equated being pretty with being happy. The evidence was all around me:
In the catalogues and magazines I read Seventeen, YM, Delia’s (most of my teenage-hood took place in the ’90s). I can remember flipping the pages, looking at these girls with perfect bodies, perfect hair, and most upsettingly of all, perfect skin and noses–and actually tearing up. They were all so carefree, smiling in the arms of boys who would never look at me that way, laughing away the day in a body I would never have. I would never look like these girls. Therefore I would never be happy.
In the books I read I read the Sweet Valley series–first Twins then High–for way too long. Twins with “perfect sun-kissed blond hair, eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean, a dimple in one cheek”–the envy of everyone in school, constantly surrounded by their equally beautiful friends and adoring boyfriends. There was always one “plain character”–Elizabeth’s best friend, named Enid–who was never as happy as everyone else. Again the message was clear: the pretty girls are the happy ones.
In the TV shows and movies I watched I remember desperately searching the big and small screen for someone–anyone–with acne. Or a big nose. And I noticed something. While the boys on TV were often allowed to get away with looking less than perfect–the girls never were. They were always perfectly shaped, always beautiful, never with a hair out of place. They had perfect skin, and tiny noses. No one looked anything like me.
They were happy. And I wasn’t. And it was clear to me why: in order to be a happy person, I, especially as a girl, needed to be attractive. All my problems could be chalked up to the fact that I was ugly. Simple.
I wonder if I would have come to a different opinion had there been someone like Lena Dunham on TV back then. Had there been books around like Eleanor and Park and The Duff. Had catalogues contained anything but the physically perfect.
And it’s not just me. That’s why diversity in the traditional sense is so important–because people who are not white and not straight also need to see representations of themselves in the media. Because there are young, impressionable people watching this stuff. People who feel alone, who feel insecure, and are just looking for someone to relate to.
Now, as an adult, I can look at a beautiful woman and not feel despair. Because I’m secure in who I am, and because I know now that being beautiful is not the be-all-and-end-all of life. But it took me years to learn this. Hard years. High school was easily–easily–the worst four years of my life. The pits of despair I spent time wallowing in are something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
So in conclusion, we need diversity in all its forms represented on TV. All races, all shapes, all variations of sexual orientation, all nose-sizes. I’m happy that we’re moving towards this–I don’t think Lena could have done what’s she’s doing now twenty years ago–but I still think we have a long way to go.
And if you disagree with me about this, that’s fine! I just ask that you not be an internet-asshole about it. Thank you 🙂
Image found somewhere here