Here’s to watching Netflix at the Gym from now on.
A few years ago I had a fling with the gym. It was the Christmas holidays and I was far from my own beloved treadmill so I located a gym near the place we were staying and went there every morning to do some time on the cardio machines.
It had been years since I’d been to a gym. Way more than a decade. Since I had my first child 17 years ago, I’ve been an at-home exerciser out of necessity. With babies and small kids, you can’t always go out to work out (I’ve been known to jump on and off the treadmill to breastfeed a crotchety baby) so I’ve always made sure my exercise was in-house, quarantining me from the unpredictability of the weather and someone else to mind the kids.
Not much had changed since I was last at a gym. They still look and smell the same.
One thing that did change though was how I felt about my body. The more I went to this gym, the worse I felt. By the end of the first week I was having some pretty dark thoughts and so I upped the amount of time I worked out. Still nothing. I was fat. I was flabby. I was a monster. Such is the inner dialogue of someone with poor body image.
I found this puzzling because my body image hadn’t been this bad for almost two decades. I’d done a lot of therapy. Worked hard to tame my demons. What on earth was this about?
It wasn’t until halfway through the second week that it hit me.
Like most gyms, there was a row of TVs in front of the treadmills and steppers and even though I was listening to podcasts, I had nowhere to look except straight ahead at the screens which were all playing……music videos. Revolting music videos.
Music videos had certainly changed in the past couple of decades. No more Banarama in baggy jeans and jumpers, no rock bands filmed live in concert or narrative based film clips.
It was video after video of skinny plastic women’s bodies in bikinis or g-strings or cut-offs that showed the underside of their bums…..fake boobs that didn’t bounce….hard flesh that didn’t jiggle…..tall, skinny young, plastic girls – and most of them were girls; they couldn’t have been much older than 20. It didn’t seem to matter if the singer was male or female. The abject objectifying of women as thrusting sex toys was the same.
No wonder I was looking down at my 40-year old body that had carried and fed three kids and hadn’t had any surgery and feeling… inadequate. Deflated. Insecure. Unattractive.
It’s the same way I used to feel as a teenager when I flicked through my beloved magazines and saw page after page of model perfection and, a few years later, photoshopped perfection.
Anyone who tries to tell you that it’s just “glamour’ and ‘escapism’ and ‘you just shouldn’t compare yourself’ is probably a man or a woman who works in the industry and has been afflicted by fashion blindness, where you can’t see what’s right in front of you and you have no concept of the insidiously negative effect it has on others. From the day I became aware of what those music videos were doing to my head, I asked for the remote control and changed all the channels.
I also prescribed for myself a repeat viewing of every episode of Girls I had on my iPad.
Seeing Lena Dunham and her co-stars in all their naked, natural physical glory, was a powerful anti-venom. I was reminded that women come in different shapes and sizes and that my body was not abnormal just because it wasn’t hard and fake and skinny and young.
Much has been written about your pioneering bravery and yes, that word is over-used. But damn she made a difference. She’s still making a difference with the shots she’s posting of herself exercising, a world away from the narcisistic #fitspo fitness porn that dominates social media.
Well, the idea of watching a TV show to improve your body image just went next level.
You may have heard about Orange Is The New Black, the show on Netflix that everyone is binge-watching.
You may have heard that it’s original and funny and moving and sexy and addictive and has Ruby Rose naked in it. All those things are true.
But what you may not have heard is that watching Orange Is The New Black is the best thing you could ever do for your physical self-esteem. This show is the most powerful weapon against poor body image I’ve ever seen, right up there with the Dove ads and the all-size-inclusive swimsuit and lingerie shoots we used to do at Cosmo back in the 90s.
OITNB is set in a low security women’s prison. By definition, the cast is female and diverse. There are black women, hispanic women, Asian women, transexual women, white women, mixed-race women, straight gay and bisexual women, old women and women of every conceivable size, height and shape.
It’s the most physically, sexually and racially diverse group of women ever assembled on a screen. And the best part is that their currency is not their faces or their bodies or their clothes. Their currency is their stories. Stories of women from all different backgrounds who find themselves in prison for reasons as diverse as their bodies. These are meaty parts for actresses in a TV landscape that rarely gives substantial TV roles to anyone who doesn’t look like Jennifer Anniston or Sarah Jessica Parker.
Strip away the fashion and the hairstyles and the looks from so many other female-centric TV shows and you’re left with very little. Sex & The City, Friends, Models Inc, Bold & The Beautiful….even relatively progressive shows like McLeod’s Daughters featured a very narrow type of slim, pretty casting.
But OITNB is ground-breaking. It’s spirit-lifting. It’s fist-pumping. The women wear drab khaki prison uniforms. They wear little or no make-up. Their hair is never done. And in one very memorable episode, an outbreak of bed bugs in the prison mean that all their uniforms must be burnt and they have to walk around for a day or two in their prison-issue granny bras and big undies.
In this episode you will see women’s bodies never before seen on TV. Bodies like your mother’s, your sister’s, your friends’,your own. Normal, healthy, diverse and glorious. Bodies that are doing things, normal every day things. Not writhing or humping the floor. Not posing and preening for selfies.
There is an elderly Asian woman. An overweight butch lesbian. Hot young Latinas. Ordinary size 12s and size 14s of all ages and skin colours. Athletic black women. Androgynous women. Short women and even Amish women. An elderly Irish nun. A tall, dominating kick-arse African American woman. A few of those. A skinny little women with burns scars all over her body.
It’s a god damn rainbow of body positivity and it lifts my spirits in a way I struggle to articulate. Part of it is shock. Because it is honestly a shock to see reality where we’re so used to seeing artifice. And part of my joy comes down to gratitude. I am always so pathetically grateful to see something resembling an average body depicted in popular culture or even online. It’s why women take make-up free selfies and hashtag them in an act of sisterly solidarity. Or post photos of their unfiltered, actual bodies after giving birth and why these photos so often go viral.
The exceptional – which, ironically is the average female body – is extraordinary by virtue of the fact we just hardly ever see it in public.
I implore you to watch this show. To get your friends to watch this show. If you have a young girl in your life, get her to watch it. Hell, if you have a young boy in your life, he should watch it too because the wall-to-wall objectifying portrayal of women’s bodies in porn and pop culture is terrible for boys in a different way (it won’t be hard to persuade a teenage boy to watch this show, there’s lots of sex, especially in the first two seasons).
Halfway through season two, there’s a scene where the show’s central character, Piper manages to get hold of some sexy underwear and after taking a shower in the prison bathroom, slowly opens her towel to look at herself wearing her lacy undies. Piper is tall, blonde, beautiful, white, privileged and the other inmates constantly refer to the fact that she has what society considers a perfect face and body.
As she haltingly takes in her body in the mirror, here’s what I thought: oh! She has really small boobs! And a soft tummy! She looks…..normal! Not like someone you’d see under the fitspo hashtag on Instagram. Or on a Victoria’s Secret runway. Or in a music video. Just a normal looking girl on the slim side. With the kinds of breasts we so rarely see portrayed on a screen; natural.
OITNB is diversity on steroids. The characters are unforgettable. Their stories are gripping. And the way they look adds the most beautiful depth and breadth to a show that already has so much else going for it.
I sincerely hope that this heralds the golden age of TV. That the men – and it’s almost exclusively men – who are the gatekeepers and decide which women appear on our TV screens will stop using “fuckable” as one of their main criteria. That they will see there is an audience – a wildly appreciative, engaged and active audience – who appreciate diversity on their screens. And who cares about a woman’s story more than her fuckability.
Not familiar with the show? Here are some of our previous posts about it:
The unforgettable scene that only Orange is the New Black could bring us.
How Orange is the New Black compares to life in a US women’s prison.
NSFW: The entire universe wants to “turn gay” for Ruby Rose.