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Naked if I Want To: Lena Dunham’s Body Politic

Critics can't stop cringing, but the "Girls" star's prolific nudity harks to a decades-old feminist art tradition.
 
 
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In Hollywood, it seems you’re only allowed to be naked if you’re Megan Fox. If you’re not, you had better be apologetic about it, like Melissa McCarthy in “Mike & Molly.” But God forbid you’re a woman with an unconventionally beautiful body and you’re okay with it. That’s when people like  Howard Stern start to get hysterical: Lena Dunham, whom the radio host described as a  “little fat girl who kind of looks like Jonah Hill” and likened her taking off her clothes to rape, has become a feminist heroine largely due to the fact that she unapologetically parades her naked body across the TV screen. Dunham has been both derided and deified for baring her unconventionally beautiful figure throughout both seasons of her HBO series. (And don’t expect her to stop anytime soon, she told Entertainment Weekly in a February cover story: “My point with getting naked is never proven.”) And through her performance, she has established a new body ideal. Carolee Schneemann, the feminist artist who originated nude performance art in the ’60s and was dubbed “body beautiful” for her stunning figure, believes Dunham does more than add a dose of reality to the “deformations” – “the swollen puffed up lips, the emaciated shapes, the huge inflated boobs” – that populate Tinseltown. “There’s nothing deformed about Dunham,” she said. “She’s the ideal of normal.”

Five decades after female artists first started exposing their bodies in public, Dunham has absorbed this feminist art tradition and dragged it into the realm of the mainstream. In the second season premiere of “Girls” earlier this month, the 26-year-old actress, writer and director’s body took center stage three times in a space of 30 minutes: once before the credits as her character Hannah Horvath bounced on top of her boyfriend, once when she changed her dress in front of a friend and once in the closing scene when Hannah stripped off to reveal her thong to the camera. Though only three other episodes have aired since then, Dunham has appeared naked, in some form, in all but one. In the third episode, Hannah gets high on coke and trades tops with her dance partner, who, unfortunately, is rocking a yellow mesh shirt. Hannah removes her top in the middle of the dance floor to reveal her naked chest, which is barely covered by the Day-Glo fishnet she proceeds to wear through a Metro Drugs. “I usually hate when you wear your nipples out in public like that,” says her gay ex, Elijah, mid-snort. “But you look so beautiful right now.” The latest episode of “Girls” contains Hannah’s most low-key nude scene of the season so far, in which she briefly flashes her breasts in a bath.

The second series’ surge in flesh sparked a parallel surge in press that had been brewing since the first season. In December, Hello Giggles had already published an article entitled “Why Lena Dunham’s Body Matters (and Why It’s Ridiculous That It Does)” only to be eclipsed by the show’s racial anemia. But now that season two has kicked off with a black cast member, “it’s time to properly freak out about Lena Dunham’s body,” as the Daily Beast puts it. New York Post TV critic Linda Stasi called first dibs on the wunderkind for having “giant thighs, a sloppy backside and small breasts,” while Stern added, “I don’t want to see that.”

“People are saying, ‘How dare she show her body? She doesn’t have the perfect body!’” said Danielle Knafo, author of the 2009 book “In Her Own Image: Women’s Self-Representation in 20th Century Art.” “But in the ’60s, the women with the perfect bodies were showing their bodies, and they were accused of the same thing.”

 
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