“I am twenty years old and I hate myself,” Lena Dunham writes as the first sentence of her best-selling memoir, Not That Kind of Girl.
And I think, here we go.
On one hand, I’m bracing myself for the blindered indulgence of Girls, Dunham’s controversial HBO show. But there’s also a sense of relief, of someone in the room finally saying what no one else wants to say. This is what thrills me most about Dunham’s work, the way she pulls out all the gooey shameful bits of herself and slaps them on the table with such adamancy that we are forced to love them, and by extension, ourselves. She is like a jack-o-lantern that grimaces wide enough for us to see inside, where a candle casts all sorts of strange and beautiful shadows.
Maybe a bit of exhibitionism is necessary for art-making, but Dunham does it in a way that women are taught never to do: she handles her shit with tenderness and a faith that her stories are both unique and universal. Exposing vulnerability has always been a tricky game for women. I remember in middle school, feeling a compulsion to tell my crush everything about my nightly routine: what books were on my bed-stand, how I kept a foam bowler hat perched on top of my lamp, how I wasn’t worried about that being a fire hazard, exactly how many blankets I needed to fall asleep. This kind of vulnerability was like bailing a broken vessel: a frenetic sharing laced with insecurity. I had not yet developed a confidence in my own story, my neuroses and softness and fear, to tell it proudly. But maybe, Dunham reminds me, it’s not about pride, but about doing something with that shame.
It’s no wonder I still struggle with opening myself in order to tell honest stories. As women, we can’t expose any parts of our bodies without inviting comment or worse, and no matter how we open up about experiences of assault, we are doing it wrong. From the moment some of us get our first periods it is made clear that the very worst thing that could happen to a woman is for a droplet of blood to make itself known on a pair of white pants. Hair is unacceptable, and so is odor. Growing up, I developed the idea that the green vein on my left cheek showed, somehow, my inner weakness, so I pulled my hair over it, realizing instinctively that we as women need to protect anything that lies too close to the surface.
Dunham tells us about her dripping eyeliner, fondness for half-frozen Sara Lee pound cake, diarrhea, the time her underwear was stuffed in her mouth, the time she was raped and couldn’t talk about it, for a while, without breaking into horrified laughter. I couldn’t help but connect Dunham’s assault with her persistent experiences of anxiety-related disassociation: the self is separated from the body, cleaved in two. The body is turned into something alien rather than holy, and the mind is left scrambling to make sense. As Dunham puts it, on being disrespected by a former lover: “It made me feel silenced, lonely, and far away from myself, a feeling that I believe, next to extreme nausea sans vomiting, is the depth of human misery.”
I see Dunham’s ethos and her art as being reactions to this kind of violence. She strives for an integrated honesty, a cohesion and bareness in her physical and emotional selves. If illness, both corporeal and societal, takes our agency, Dunham’s decision to tell the truth takes it back. If the world makes us feel unreal, Dunham defiantly sketches herself real. On Girls and in Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham is constantly saying, “I am here”: solid and sensual and human in her appetites. Whether she is cuddling with her sister or eating ravioli, Dunham tells us that it matters, that she matters.
And she does. Women are told, again and again, that our stories are not momentous, that brokenness cannot speak. As Leslie Jamison writes in The Empathy Exams, another recent work about shame and what we do with it, “I want to insist that female pain is still news. It’s always news. We’ve never already heard it. It’s news when a girl loses her virginity or gets an ache in the rag and bone shop of her heart. It’s news when she starts getting her period or when she does something to make herself stop. It’s news if a woman feels terrible about herself in the world — anywhere, anytime, ever.”
When we talk about what is not whole within ourselves, we are saying that we are enough. “Fine is the suckiest word/it never tells the truth,” writes spoken word artist Andrea Gibson in her poem, “Panic Button Collector.” Dunham lets us know that although she is not fine, she is a thousand other things: hungry and ecstatic and terrified and horny.
This is bravery, and it is radical, to tell us who and how she really is. She doesn’t wait for permission from a society that will not accept female stories about the very conditions it imposes. While society demands clean and closed-mouthed narratives from women, Dunham tells her tale in the same way that she eats and fucks and dances: with a freedom nobody has granted her.