Posted February 24 ’13

This is an essay I wrote that was recently published on The Nervous Breakdown:

Attention people in your twenties: I strongly urge you to elect Lena Dunham as the voice of your generation.   She knows what she’s talking about.  Trust me.  Get out your journals and start taking notes.  Let go of everything your mothers and your grandmothers taught you about physical beauty.  Silence the self-critical voice that you so carefully nurtured, the one that still dominates the conversation late at night when you’re trying to fall asleep.  Reject all that brainwashing media nonsense you were bombarded with during your formative years.  Stop those stupid diets.  Do not buy a juicer.  For most of you gluten is not the enemy; it’s time to wise up.   Just hit the reset button, ladies and gentlemen, sit back and watch the TV show Girls.  Lena Dunham is talking to you; she doesn’t have all the answers but I think she does have the solution to one of your biggest problems if you will just listen to her.

I’ve watched Girls right from the start and have been constantly impressed by the honesty, the character choices, the awkward intelligence and authenticity of the writing.  The first time Hannah took off her clothes I was a little shocked that a girl with that kind of body would be “so brave” as to show herself.  She seemed so comfortable in her skin.  I was startled.  My respect for Lena grew as she continued to disrobe.   “Look at that,” I kept saying.  “She’s not embarrassed at all.”  It seemed so exotic, so other century.  I kept watching; she kept taking off her clothes.  No soft lights, no flattering camera angles.  She’d sit on the edge of a bed and let her stomach hang out in rolls, she’d wear clothing that accentuated her flaws—or what I perceived as flaws—without the least bit of self-consciousness.  Each week her adorable, self-involved, deeply flawed but completely loveable character continued to mesmerize me.

The second season started and there she was again, naked.  But after a couple episodes I realized that I’m seeing her differently now.  The shock is gone, I know Hannah too well to be surprised by her taking off her clothes.  I’m watching her more closely, caring about her more deeply.  I wasn’t surprised when she played ping-pong in just a pair of unsexy panties and later walked down a hallway completely nude.  What surprised me was that the little pudgy girl suddenly morphed into a gorgeous woman right before my eyes.  She has hips and a belly and soft arms and legs.  Haunches.   She is big, fertile, absolutely feminine and unexpectedly I am seeing that as a beautiful thing for the first time in my life.  Lena Dunham is changing the way I see the female form.


Let’s go back and start at the beginning.  The Venus of Willendorf, now known as the Woman of Willendorf, was created around 24,000BCE.


She is one of the very first sculptures known to mankind and thought to be an idealized symbol of fertility and beauty.  Look at her body type.  Not a sharp angle on her.  This is what we use to hold up as an ideal.  Granted it was 26,013 years ago but still…


Jump ahead.  1639 Peter Paul Rubens painted The Three Graces.  Look at the body type.  He loved and celebrated big woman.  Men loved big women, fat women.  It’s fantastic.


Another 250 years and we’ve got Pierre-Auguste Renoir  still loving the big ladies.  Here’s Renoir’s Bathers from 1887.  And see how comfortable these gals are, draping and undraping their towels?  Fabulous.


Jump ahead.  Marilyn Monroe.   Many would argue that Marilyn Monroe was and still is one of the most desirable women in the world.  Here she is in 1950.  Notice how all these women are voluptuous, curvy, some would say downright fat.  These ladies put butter on their bread, cream in their coffee and never said no to dessert.  And yet they were sex symbols of their times, loved and desired.   How fantastic to live in a time when the female form was so celebrated.


But then everything changed in the sixties.  We got Twiggy.  Skinny, scrawny Twiggy was our new standard of feminine beauty and women learned to go hungry.


I was too young for fashion when she came on the scene but Twiggy had a direct impact on my life and my generation.  Like many of my friends, I was put on a diet when I was just a little girl even though I wasn’t in the least bit fat.  I was a normal, healthy eight year old choking down cottage cheese and pink grapefruit because from the mid-sixties on you were either skinny or fat, nothing in between, and fat was not acceptable.

So we starved ourselves through the seventies, living off TAB and celery sticks.  I went to an all girls’ high school and everyday after lunch my classmates would rush to the bathroom and throw up before the bell rang.  Hipbones and clavicles; you just couldn’t be too skinny.  And then in the early ‘80s Jane Fonda came along and slapped on another layer, another challenge onto our already complicated self-image with the Jane Fonda Workout.  Now it wasn’t enough to be bone thin; you had to have muscles, you had to be firm, you had to be strong.  Skinny and sculpted was the next order of business.


Like everyone else in my world I rose to the occasion.  I got my leg warmers, strapped on a headband and started aerobicizing six days a week.  It was empowering to build muscle, to get strong.  The exercise made me feel a lot better, gave me more energy.  But we all stood in front of the mirrors, watching ourselves.  We were constantly watching ourselves.  How did we measure up?  How do we get rid of the wiggly spot?  Keep going, push harder. Work it.  In my mind Jane Fonda’s workout was the gateway drug that has led several generations directly into the gaping jaws of extreme body dysmorphia.


Katie Arnoldi 1986

Katie Arnoldi 1986

I graduated from Jane Fonda aerobics to bodybuilding in the mid eighties.   Train harder.  No pain, no gain.  Six meals a day, eat every two hours.  Hit the gym twice a day.  Protein, protein, protein.  You could always be better, there is always a flaw that needs fixing.  These pictures were taken by the great photographer Guy Webster 1986 before I started competing.  I look at them now and see a nicely muscled young woman.  I think she looks great.  But I can remember how disappointed I was when I saw the proofs from this photo shoot.  I thought I looked soft, smooth.  I hated my symmetry and thought my legs were fat.


I was about the same age as Lena Dunham here.    This is the body with which I was making my statement at the time, leaving my mark but I was never content with the way I looked.  My quest was fueled by chronic dissatisfaction.


I kept up the intense training and went on to compete in bodybuilding contests, eventually winning the 1992 Southern California Championship. My first novel Chemical Pink explored the dark side of bodybuilding, self-obsession, self-hatred and the general intolerance of fat in any shape or form.   During those years I imposed upon myself a zero-tolerance policy towards shake and jiggle.  I was no fun, at all.   If you weren’t a bodybuilder, you did not want to hang out with me.  It was all about grilled chicken and steamed vegetables.  No sauce, ever. I look back at that young woman and you know what I’d like to say to her? Lighten up, honey. RELAX.   It doesn’t matter.  Give yourself a fricking break.  You are beautiful and loveable and there is no such thing as perfect.  You are focusing in the wrong fucking direction.

Okay people, so back to Lena Dunham.  At 26 Lena Dunham knows and is teaching the lesson it took me a lifetime to learn.  Girls.  Women.  Stop hating yourselves.  Eat your food, love yourself.  Beauty is from the inside out.  There is no one way to look or be.  Get comfortable with yourself, focus on things that matter.  Enjoy life and don’t waste time on stupid stuff.  Feel sexy, be sexy.   Embrace diversity in form.   There is a place for the upholstered sofa and as well as the straight-back wooden chair.  I was the chair.  Wouldn’t you rather relax on the sofa?   Follow Lena Dunham, she’ll show you the way.  She can teach you how to changes things back.  As far as I’m concerned, she is a hero.