The Conversation With Actor/Writer/Director/Producer (And Runner) Lena Dunham
In this signature espnW column, Allison Glock sits down for a candid Q&A with a remarkable person. The aim is to cover topics high and low, deep and less so, to present a fresh look at folks we think we know and meet some others we wish we'd known all along. Welcome to The Conversation.
Who: Lena Dunham, actor, author, producer and director.
Allison Glock: You recently reposted a paparazzi shot of yourself running and wrote that unlike other snaps of you being active in the past, this image filled you with pride.
Lena Dunham: You know, it's interesting. I have never been a physically engaged person. Like, I was not an athletic kid. I was the kid who came up with a thousand excuses not to take a gym class. Even now, if I could, I would do all my work from bed. My boyfriend [musician Jack Antonoff] always says that I'm the most mentally energetic, physically lazy person he's ever met. And it's true. I would like to be lying sideways on a divan at all times, like being carried.
AG: What finally motivated you to take up running?
LD: Running had always been off the table for me. It just looks embarrassing when I do it. I viewed it like learning a new language -- best to learn it as a child. But there was an episode of "Girls" that I'd written with the idea that my character was going to be running. And I figured it would just be typical -- we've seen Hannah run a lot and it's pretty goofy, and I figured that's what we were doing. Then my producing partner, Jenni Konner, had this idea that a good way to signal character development would be if my character was running and it wasn't quite as pathetic. She's not Prefontaine, but she understands what she's doing.
AG: So you were forced to learn the language of running.
LD: Yes. They brought in this amazing running teacher named Matt Wilpers, who works at New York's Mile High Run Club. We did two sessions, and he explained things to me that I hadn't understood for my entire life about my body and about how exercise works.
AG: For example?
LD: He has this whole... Hold on. (Hi, baby! My boyfriend just got home, speaking of people who run.) But anyway, Matt's whole philosophy is that you need to approach running with confidence, to really run strong. He used the term "run arrogant," which means, run like somebody who knows how to run. And of course there was technical stuff, like how to use your feet and how to use your elbows. But for me, what was transformative was my stopping running shyly and really investing myself in what I'm doing.
AG: How surprised were you by the evolution of your feelings?
LD: Very. I started from a place of, "I'm so annoyed I have to do this." It was the last thing I wanted to do. When it became something that actually gave me pleasure, I was shocked. Also, endorphins are real. You run with someone for an hour, you feel pretty good. Running for an hour does not make you feel worse.
AG: You ran for an hour? That's no joke.
LD: Let me clarify, we were doing drills for an hour. We didn't do an hourlong full-on run, but we did do sprints and drills. It was funny, after the first session, I was like, "I'm not even sore." And then I got out of bed the next day and literally fell onto the floor.
AG: You look like a pro in the photo.
LD: Thank you. I feel so much stronger and more capable than before, but it's not like I've like started joining my boyfriend on his daily run. I don't have a mastery of it. Friends are saying, "You should do a triathlon!" And I'm like, "How do you say, 'hell f---ing no' in Spanish?" That's just not gonna happen.
AG: You never know. Running could be your gateway drug.
LD: [laughs] I just feel good knowing that if I were to choose to try and run, it would be possible. Literally, last week I had to run because I was late and I used my principles and I just ran down the street and it felt nice. To run with this increased confidence and the sense that I could actually use my body to get places, that was a pretty big revelation considering I've already been alive for almost three decades.
AG: Is that why you posted the paparazzi photo?
LD: When I saw that picture, what would normally embarrass me, which is a shot of me in physical motion, made me feel really good. I'm an open person, but that was pretty vulnerable for me. Trying feats of physicality is not my jam. It had taken guts for me to do it, and when I saw the picture and realized, "Oh, I don't hate what I look like doing this," that I looked like a person who could run, that was just so thrilling for me.
AG: What was the feedback when the photo went up?
LD: It was fascinating because when I posted it I had no idea what people would say. You never do. You post a picture of your dog and everyone likes it and then you post, you know, an amazing selfie with Kim Kardashian and no one gives a s---. It's just impossible to know what inspires people. And so it made me incredibly happy when so many women connected to that idea of getting into it with your body when maybe that's not what's natural for you.
AG: You're also training with Tracy Anderson now. How has that been?
LD: I really love it. That's my main form of exercise. It's a mix of aerobics, strength training and something that kind of resembles Pilates but that she created on her own. What I like about it is that Tracy really listens to your body and what you're capable of. There's no weird pressure. It's honestly like if one day I have a UTI and I can't jump up and down, she'll say, "OK, we'll adjust." With Tracy it's not about getting everyone to look a specific way. It's about getting everyone to feel strong. And she uses the word "connected" a lot, which I really love. I love the idea of feeling connected.
AG: It seems like that's what you're doing now, getting connected to your body in a brand-new way.
LD: My relationship with my body is constantly evolving. I'm going to be 30 next year. I had to learn, as you age, you have to move. You have to move so you don't die. You have to move so your brain doesn't atrophy. You have to move so that you look a little bit like a person that you might want to be. There are a thousand reasons why exercise is important, and I've had to find ways to make it sexy for myself.
AG: Did you play any sports as a kid?
LD: No! Whatever the opposite of playing sports is, is what I did. I did nothing. Wait! I did take ice skating lessons just so I could get the skirt and then I wasn't even able to hold on that long. And we had a house in Connecticut where my parents made me join the swim team. I was not particularly skilled at swimming, but I actually look back on it with fondness. My dad used to make me go bike riding. He'd say, "We're going to bike 5 miles today and then you can go watch TV or write or whatever it is you want to do." I thought it was so abusive of my parents at the time, but now I'm appreciative.
AG: You said recently that after "about 16 medicated years," exercise has helped you to manage your anxiety and OCD in ways you never dreamed possible.
LD: After I said that, a lot of people told me that's what they needed to hear. Or they'd write saying, "I have anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, too, but how do I get myself to start?" I know how hard it can be. Like right now, I'm having a period where I've been traveling a lot, and it's been really difficult to get myself to work out. I feel that anxiety creeping back in.
AG: How do you stay motivated during tough stretches like that?
LD: When I go through weeks of not exercising, it's easy to convince myself I don't need to go to the gym today, either. My brain is saying, "Live a little, Lena." I have to remind myself that when you exercise, there is a natural calm that comes from knowing that you did something with your body that day. Actually going and working out makes everything else easier and better.
AG: That's a big lesson.
LD: Another lesson came because I have endometriosis, which has been chronic for me and at times very painful. I've also had mental health issues. I value my health and my happiness. And I've realized exercise can give me both of those things.
AG: You've clarified that for you, exercise is "not about the ass, it's about the brain." Were you more resistant to working out when you felt it was about vanity or trying to conform to some contrived idea of what women should look like?
LD: Yeah, definitely as a younger person I had that. I was like, "I love my body and I feel good about who I am, so I don't need to f---ing exercise." I didn't understand that it's about so much more.
AG: The deeper benefits do tend to get buried underneath the ceaseless drum banging for flat abs.
LD: I also think when we do exercise, when we really own and understand our bodies and claim our physicality, our superficial quibbles with our bodies lessen because we realize what our bodies can do for us. My relationship to eating, my relationship to critiquing my own shape, all of that has changed since I've started viewing my body much more as a tool to do my work. That's been huge for me.
AG: Modifying that focus from appearance to what your body is capable of is a really powerful shift for women, especially for young girls who are receiving the message via advertising and social media that it is all "about the ass" all the time.
LD: Yes, 100 percent! I was so excited when Women's Running magazine put a curvy woman on the cover this August. It's important to see examples like that because it's not like exercise leads to an all-purpose result where all of us look like models.
AG: Wait -- it doesn't?
LD: [laughs] I mean, truly.
AG: Speaking of social media, not long ago you removed an image of yourself dressed in your boyfriend's boxer briefs because you were being trolled.
LD: I want to make it clear: I wasn't erasing the image because I didn't think I looked cool in my boyfriend's underwear. And really, the point of the picture wasn't even looking cool -- it was just meant to be funny that I was wearing my boyfriend's underwear because I was out of underwear because my dog ate all of mine! But people missed the point of the picture. It became a chance for them to critique my body, and that, in turn, sent the horrific message that my body was "unacceptable" to everyone who visited the page.
AG: I have two teenage daughters, and I've watched both of them read comments like that on the feeds they follow, and I've seen the damage you're speaking of happening in real time. One second they're looking at some fun image of a woman they admire, and the next second they're reading comments that reduce that same woman to "fat" or "ugly."
LD: The fact is, when I see those comments now, my first thought is that I have girls who read my Instagram and care about it and connect to it, and I don't want them seeing those remarks and thinking that's the way that they're going to be received. I also don't want to give trolls a place to have a sexy troll meetup. Bottom line is, I'm 5-foot-3 and 150 pounds. That is literally, I think, statistically the average American female body. So when trolls come to my page and they say all that s--- and other girls see it, those girls are getting an unrealistic picture of what femaleness looks like, and I just can't let that happen on my watch, Allison!
AG: No, you can't. How have you been able to consistently combat the negativity and cruelty hurled your way and maintain such a confident point of view regarding your body?
LD: When I see s----y comments, at this point they don't even feel like they're about me. Like, I don't feel I need to lose 200 pounds or whatever these people are saying. I don't feel that way about myself. I feel like I have better days, I have worse days, but I'm pretty happy in my own form.
AG: Why do you think we as a culture fixate on the one thing about women that ultimately means the least?
LD: It's interesting that you say, "means the least," because I agree with you. Fixating on bodies is a way to police women. We can no longer keep women from owning property. We can no longer keep women from voting. But we will find a way to police and repress powerful women and let them know that they do not matter to us and that they are not in control of their own destiny. I really think it comes down to misogyny. And then women join in because that's what they're being taught from the time they're born. They don't even recognize that they're agents of their own oppression. Not to sound too much like I'm, like, Andrea Dworkin-ing out on you, but that's what I think. Sorry to really pile it on there.
AG: Even athletic icons like Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey get body-shamed.
LD: With Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey, men are thinking, "You could beat me up, that f---ing scares me, you have achieved more than I ever will in my lifetime, so I'm going to get online and tell you that you don't look like someone I want to f---." That is where I believe it comes from. And it's so unenlightened. And man, it's a bummer.
AG: Why do you think body nonconformity is so threatening?
LD: The fact is, Ronda Rousey could punch you in the face anytime she wanted, and she has completely created her own life and she's having an incredible career that most of us could only dream of and she doesn't give a s---- what you think. And that point of view is really, really threatening to certain people, especially when it comes in the form of a woman, because to a man, a woman not caring what you think means that all your power is gone. You can't control her anymore.
AG: Women can also be a part of this sad dynamic.
LD: It's true. Women want to control other women because they've been controlled themselves. It's a cycle of control. I'm not blaming women for that, but I am saying we're part of a toxic culture that's feeding all of us the same messaging.
AG: The message that most of our value is determined by the waxing or waning appeal of our physical attributes?
LD: Yes. I would also like to say on the record that I have been hurt by what people have said about my body, but it was usually when it was said to my face, not on the Internet, because I don't consider those voices real voices. When someone anonymous tells me I'm fat, that's not a person to me. If they're not going to acknowledge me as a person, I'm certainly not going to acknowledge them as a person.
AG: Ah, the "fat" card.
LD: It's so funny because I've had a bunch of times where I've said something about a man or I've disagreed with an opinion and the response online has been, "Well, you're fat." I'm like, "Cool retort. That's a great one."
AG: You were recently called to the stage during your friend Taylor Swift's show alongside models Gigi Hadid and Lily Aldridge. You later joked that comparatively you appeared short and "chubby" and resembled "a seventh-grade boy." Do you have body envy, or have you ever had it?
LD: No. I love those girls, and I was so thrilled to be on stage with them. Honestly, that was just me having fun with what I thought was comic about the image, like Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a movie together. There's a lot of women who I think are really sexy and who have qualities I like. And sure, sometimes I'll think, "Wow, those would be fun calves to have for a weekend." But at the end of the day, my body is the one I have and I know what it smells like and I know how to treat it and it's mine alone. I don't know. I haven't felt as much of that [envy] as you might think, considering how much of my work is about body image.
AG: Were you born with that kind of body confidence or did you grow into it?
LD: I definitely had moments early on in high school where I was insecure. My body changed really fast. I gained 30 pounds my freshman year and I definitely remember thinking, "I don't like this, I want to be my old self again, I want to be a child again." It took me a little while to get comfortable with my new form.
AG: I like that you call it your new form. What other words do you use to describe your body?
LD: I'm not particularly strong. I'm bigger, but I'm not that curvaceous because I don't have big breasts or an ass guys would talk about in music videos. My shape reminds me a lot of my grandmother, whom I was really close to. She died when I was 13, and we have a really similar body type, the squat New England woman who can roll out dough and bring in your lawnmower. That's kind of the vibe of my body, and I'm into it.
AG: What do you love most about your body?
LD: I don't know if this counts, but I'm really into my face. I feel good about it most days. I like my teeth and my eyeballs. And I also really, really feel great about my boobs. They are doing what I want them to, and I feel like they're continuing to impress me as they grow and change.
AG: You talk about them like they're children.
LD: [laughs] I have really small breasts, which I got from my mom. They started out a bit weird and they took a while to develop, but I feel like in the last year they've become round in the way that I wanted them to be, not like these little pointy birthday hats. I'm, like, stoked on them. It might be why I'm naked on the show so much. It's not the only reason I show my boobs on TV, but I am pleased with them, so I might as well do it now.
AG: Yeah, seize the day. Trust me.
LD: Something else I really like is that I have qualities that are feminine and qualities that are more boyish and they fit in tandem with each other. You can't really say about me that, "Oh, she's curvy and super womanly." But you also can't say, "Oh, she's androgynous and tomboyish." It's all existing together on one person, and that is fun for me.
AG: I feel like that is an accurate description of most women's bodies. We all possess masculine and feminine attributes when it comes down to it.
LD: Absolutely. I think so much of my ability to exist in the in-between spaces has come from being educated by my sibling, Grace. She is so comfortable recognizing bodies as fluid. Our bodies are these kinds of transient things, and we can make choices about how we want to be perceived and then we can change our mind about those choices, and that is all super personal and up to us.
AG: When do you feel your strongest?
LD: When I'm directing. When I've got my sleeves rolled up and I really understand what I'm doing and I have the support and confidence of my crew and my actors and my friends. That's a scenario when I feel truly strong and really feminine at the same time.
AG: Who inspires you?
LD: My partner, Jenni Konner, who I do all of my creative work with. She's a mother of two who still manages to show up every day and give work her all while also being present for them, while also taking care of her body. Whenever I have a problem, physical or mental, she's the first person I call. Also my boyfriend, Jack. He taught me that the only way to take care of other people is to take care of yourself. When we first met he told me he ran 3 miles a day, and I was really confused until I realized that's part of what he does to prepare himself for being present for other people. And that was inspiring.
AG: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
LD: My mom was always really focused on having us follow our intuition. Like, if someone is creeping you out, walk the other way. If something is bothering you or it doesn't feel right, embrace that.
AG: That's a critical message for women. We're often taught the opposite, to ignore our impulses, thoughts and feelings so as not to upset others. What advice would you offer to other young women?
LD: I would say two things. One is that I have been 30 pounds heavier and I've been 30 pounds lighter, and it has never had an effect on my ability to find love or connect with people. What had an effect on my ability to find love or connect with people was never my thighs, it was how I felt about myself and the love that I was giving to myself.
I know that so many women think they're being held back by the shape of their body, and ultimately what is holding them back is that they have absorbed all of this negative messaging. And so you just have to work, we all have to work really hard to take care of ourselves and feed ourselves good information, just like we feed ourselves good food. Feed ourselves good books and good messaging and the things that make us feel like we can be connected with ourselves and others in a deeper way.
AG: And the second bit?
LD: Throw out your scale. I stopped weighing myself three years ago because it doesn't matter! Right now I am with someone who really loves and appreciates my body and doesn't ask me to change. I went through a phase where it was like, one pound up and my day was horrible; two pounds down and I was queen of the world. It was just a ridiculous code. ... There is no reason why you ever need to be getting a scale or measuring your value by a scale.
AG: Or measuring your value at all, really.
LD: Right? I don't know about you, but I only like to do things I'm good at. That was one of the reasons I never wanted to exercise. Why would I do that? I should do the things that make me feel cool and smart. As I get older, I'm realizing more and more that it doesn't really matter if I'm good at it, it just matters that I try. My own effort, my own willingness, are becoming what's appealing to me.
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