Forget Barbie on the cover wrap of Sports Illustrated's 50th annual swimsuit issue.
My personal bathing suit hero is 27-year-old Lena Dunham, who has done more to improve the self-esteem of young women in her scant career than the iconic plastic doll has ever done, despite a 55-year career that has seen her transformed from princess into pilot, police officer, paleontologist and presidential candidate.
In last Sunday’s episode of “Girls,” Dunham’s delightfully transgressive HBO series about an annoying quartet of self-involved, post-college adultlets, Dunham spent most of the 30-minute show, set in a resort town on Long Island’s North Fork, in a green string bikini. (HBO, unfortunately, did not provide a full-body image of Dunham in her two-piece, so we grabbed an image from the episode's trailer.)
Dunham's character, Hannah Horvath, did everything in a half-naked state: she went to the beach, she rode a bicycle, she swam, she danced and she curled up on a couch, all the while wearing nothing more than four small triangles of fabric.
What is so fabulous about that?
Dunham is the physical antidote to the poisonous Hollywood rule that a successful actress must appear to be on the verge of starvation at all times. Dunham is a pear-shaped chubette. She is zaftig. She is pleasantly plump. And she embodies the kind of self love we'd all like to see in our daughters.
On Sunday's episode, Hannah hears a group of men making fun of her as she is bent over peering into a shop window. She turns around and sees it's her old college boyfriend, Elijah, now gay, with three friends.
“Nobody was making fun of you,” says Elijah, played by the actor Andrew Rannells.
“I heard you,” says Hannah. “It’s a good thing I’m not as susceptible to criticism as I used to be.”
Think about the female stars of your favorite shows: Julianna Margulies of “The Good Wife,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Veep,” Sofia Vergara and Julie Bowen of “Modern Family.” Not an ounce of visible fat on a single one of them.
Consider the weight of virtually any female movie star.
Thanks to Hollywood and the impossible physical ideal that’s elevated by the culture everywhere we look, our view of what an enviable female body looks like has become almost irreparably warped. The actress Jennifer Lawrence, with her tiny waist and curves, is held up as a feminist role model because she talks about how she loves food and refuses to lose weight for a role. (And good for her, but here’s what most young women think when they hear that: If she’s fat, then I am a cow.)
I have no idea how Dunham, who was born and raised in New York City, where women are subjected to just as much tyranny over body image as they are in Hollywood, has managed to free herself of the body dysphoria that plagues so many women, especially young ones.
But she has my gratitude, both as a woman, and the mother of a young woman, for being the sort of real life role model that Barbie, or even her living, breathing Sports Illustrated swimsuit sisters, could never be.
And because of that, I thought Dunham should have the last word:
For those of you desperate to own the bikini I wore for the entirety of tonight's episode, it's American Apparel. Oh wait, no one asked!— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) February 17, 2014