Her Body, Herself: The Right Size & Shape of Girls
Check out the first six installments of Susan L.M. Goldberg's ongoing series dissecting HBO's Girls:
The majority of critical discussion of Girls revolves around Lena Dunham's body. Without it or, rather, without her willingness to continually use her body as a plot device, Girls wouldn't have half the following or 3/4 of the critical acclaim. While the show may discuss a variety of issues facing Millennial women, critics continually revert back to Dunham's naked antics, turning discussions about body fat into the stuff of high art.
How deeply does the cult of goddess feminism impact our understanding of the individual woman? How does the idea of goddesses, reinvented in our popular culture today, undermine rather than enhance women's happiness in their practical, day-to-day lives? How do women's lives fall apart when they choose to idolize aspects of their feminine identity and parts of their body?
Primordial Goddess worship viewed the female body as the physical explanation of natural phenomena. Menstruation, pregnancy, birth and lactation reflected the cycles of nature. Ancient artwork portrays women in terms of body parts:
"Stylized images of the female body have been found on cave floors, most of them emphasizing only one body part, such as the breasts, genitals, or buttocks; this anatomical emphasis may have linked the feature's biological function with other observable processes in nature, such as animal reproduction, the growth and flowering of plants, or the cycles of the moon.”
Earthly vessels of the Mother Goddess, ancient women were both defined by and valued for their physicality. This trend would continue as polytheistic civilization evolved. For the ancient Egyptians, physical beauty was intrinsically tied to the afterlife and often defined through images of their goddesses. Cosmetics were thought to carry supernatural powers, jewelry was worn for spiritual protection, and the female form was graphically represented in hypersexualized terms. While Egyptian men were given up to 40 costumes to choose from in their daily wardrobe, Egyptian women were continuously clad in tight-fitting dresses that "display[ed] every curve of the body, including the erogenous zones of stomach, buttocks, tights, pubic triangle and breasts, thus putting emphasis on the sexuality of the figure." It isn't hard to draw a clear connection between the ancient Egyptian goddess mentality and today's celebrity culture:
"In ancient Egypt, people were never depicted as individuals, but were made to conform to certain ideals. Every women is painted or sculptured as beautiful, and "even female workers are portrayed with grace and dignity". Quite similar is the idealization of images in Western societies. Models on television and in magazines are often airbrushed through computer manipulation, which creates representations that most women in society cannot achieve."
Mass demand for the perfect body was the state's prerogative in Greece. Ancient Greeks viewed the bodies of their citizens as "public property ...to be watched and commented on." Socrates, one of the famed fathers of Greek thought, was not opposed to doing some fat-shaming of his own, for the good of the state: "Socrates gets involved because the flabby citizen is a public matter, a matter of public concern. Fat is a political issue."
Stereotypical stylized images of women put forth in a culture in which body fat is becoming increasingly political; it would seem that the critical discussion of Girls is as old as Antony and Cleopatra. But does the critical attention paid to Dunham's body reject the physicality of goddess mentality, or merely illustrate how acculturated we are to ancient Egyptian and Greek concepts of body image?
“But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”
Illustrative of ancient goddess mentality, Tina Fey's assessment of American pop culture defines and values women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds by physical stereotype. This is the belief held by self-termed "progressive" critics who are "ashamed" that Lena Dunham's fat makes them "uncomfortable" because they've been culturally programmed to think of body fat as ugly. That premise has led to multiple pseudo-high art pop critiques of Dunham's proclivity for on-screen nudity as an expression of sexual empowerment and the ability for a woman to be "comfortable in her own skin".
These are odd critiques to be sure considering that Dunham has admitted that her on-camera nudity “does not come from a place of confidence and is a compulsion. And I’m sure I will be working that out in therapy for the rest of my life.” She may be the goddess savior for millions of women with culturally imperfect bodies, but that doesn't make Lena Dunham a goddess in her own right. Her nakedness may indeed illustrate the fact "that many so-called progressive, educated, city-dwelling white people are actually so insulated." But, what is it that they are insulated from? The concept of imperfect bodies, or the ability to view imperfect people for the humans they are instead of making them into the goddesses they're not?
Geert Hofstede, world-renowned founder of comparative intercultural research, observed a direct connection between polytheism and collectivism. In other words, politically and ideologically speaking, you practice what you preach. For ancient Egyptian and Greek societies goddess worship translated into a cultural stereotyping of women that valued their physicality and bodily service to the state. While the goddess feminism of today claims to exist as a reaction against this ancient female stereotyping, it couches itself within the same ancient mindset. Instead of valuing women for being thin and pretty, the goddess feminism that worships Lena Dunham simply seeks to redefine fat as the new sexy, thereby embracing the same ancient mindset: The body is the remedy for the collective need. Progressive mainstream media embraces this goddess feminist routine with its own prostitution of the female image; take, for example, this critique of the Huffington Post:
A woman's body part is a priority. Real women's issues, not so much. ...how items like "Rihanna's Battered Face (PHOTO)" and "Valerie Bertinelli Gets Back In Her Bikini" key into HuffPo's liberal identity remains a mystery to me. But I'm confident that any item that reaps a lot of pageviews can some way, somehow, be justified as "liberal."
Both ancient goddess worship and contemporary goddess feminism rely on the graven image as the foundational element upon which their ethos is built. Egyptians had paintings, Greeks had sculpture, goddess feminists today have photographs and film to indulge their faith. Perhaps this is why God issued strict warnings against the use of graven images that tend to reduce an individual to a mere physical expression, or, what's worse, to force a collective aesthetic onto an individual soul. For God, love transcends physical appearance as an inward and outward reflection of the soul. This is illustrated in Torah where we are commanded to love one another as we love ourselves, not to love one another based on how pretty we look.
Camille Paglia observed, “The search for freedom through sex is doomed to failure.” As long as goddess feminism remains chained to ancient cultural notions that force the individual mind to depend upon collective opinion, they will continue to enslave the individual body in the prison of the collective mold. So much for your issues, Lena Dunham; you have a duty to fulfill.