On the Emmy Awards red carpet on Sunday night, Lena Dunham wore a teal floral-print Prada gown and Claire Danes showed up in Armani. One's sartorial choice was panned, the other's lauded. Challenge: write about either woman's appearance without inducing knee jerk accusations of bodysnarking/thin shaming. YOU CAN'T DO IT.
Along the crooked road from Self-Loathing Karl Lagerfeld-esque fat-shame town to the imaginary utopia of the future where everyone exists in a state of health and happiness, it seems that fashion writing has been painted into a corner. Problem is, fashion, which at its best is fun and celebratory, is about actual clothing and about how clothing looks when sported by human bodies. How's a conscientious fashion writer supposed to comment on award show red carpet fashion without at least obliquely referencing the way the clothing fits the (often female) bodies wearing it? Is any reference to the way a person's body looks akin to "snarking" or "shaming"? Of fucking course not.
The latest SHAMING fracas comes courtesy of a New York Times piece that discusses the aforementioned Ms. Danes and Ms. Dunham. Here it is, in all its descriptive glory:
Ms. Danes proved up to the task, turning out in a Giorgio Armani tulle confection that showed off an ethereal, if slightly skeletal, frame. What Ms. Danes lacked in pulchritude, Lena Dunham of “Girls” supplied in abundance, wearing a coral-rose-patterned Prada gown that (somewhat sloppily) showed off her curves.
SKELETAL? ABUNDANCE OF PULCHRITUDE! That's basically like saying that Lena Dunham is a Fatty McFat, and that Claire Danes needs to eat a sandwich, right? At The Cut, Charlotte Cowles wrote that that paragraph was basically "skeletal" = ethereal, and "abundant pulchritude" = sloppily displayed curves. These women really can't win, can they?"
But Slate's Jessica Grose saw it differently. She writes,
These are descriptions, that, like La Ferla’s, are not judgments on these actresses’ shapes. With Danes in particular, her bones are the first thing most people would notice about her appearance in that gown. For any writer, not just a fashion writer, to leave that description out would be a disservice to readers. It would be pretending—for the sake of what? Nitpicky blogs and delicate tweeters?—to ignore what is abundantly clear to any person with eyes.
I'm inclined to agree with Grose — return your pearls to your jewelry box, dear readers; there's no need to clutch them. Not right this second. Every description of a body is not the same thing as publicly declaring that body bad or gross or in need of policing or nipping or tucking or covering or sandwich addition or removal. Writing about fashion without talking at least a little about bodies is like writing about pop music without talking just a little bit about the singing voice of the vocalist; silly, and kind of useless.
Near-ubiquitous shit being flung at women's bodies from all directions has made folks understandably jumpy and quick to react to perceived body negativity in the media (Jezebel has been guilty of it too, at times, though we're working on that). But the audience this descriptionless fashion coverage attempts to placate — Grose calls them "nitpicky blogs and delicate tweeters" — has decided that nothing can be written ever about the female body without it construing "shaming" or "snarking." As Grose argues, that's simply not the case.
Grose implies that tiptoeing around any physical description of a woman is detrimental to fashion writing in that it deprives the reader of accuracy; I'd go further and say overreaction is detrimental to pro-lady culture critique in general. It's body-positive wolf-crying run amok. Having a hair-trigger reaction to any discussion of bodies, or fitness, or fatness ultimately makes it more difficult for callers of bullshit to be taken seriously when, uh, there's actual bullshit to be called. And there is plenty of actual bullshit out there.
I don't mean to point fingers at Charlotte Cowles or The Cut here; Lord knows that I've overreacted to things in the past. I recently joked with my boyfriend (a comedian) that a short montage that encapsulates the majority of our interactions would be him saying "IS THIS FUNNY?" in different settings interspersed with me asking "AM I OVERREACTING?" Too often, the answer to my oft-repeated question is "yes." Being neck-deep in outrage for 12 hours a day has its personal drawbacks.
But there's no need to ride the same neural pathways to outrage in response to every discussion of a woman's appearance. Lena Dunham's big-skirted gown didn't flatter her. Claire Danes' clavicles were worn as accessories. Both of these things are observations that contribute to a description of a physical thing. It's okay. It's okay to say these things. These are not judgments of a woman's physical form.
In cases like this, it would serve the media best to accept a rare moment of respite from rage and put the pitchfork down. Besides, a pitchfork carried as an accessory looks weird with that outfit.