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ALL PHOTOGRAPHY BY FRANCES TULK-HART; ALL HAIR AND MAKEUP BY TIFFANY PATTON.
“I think a lot of women see themselves like Mr. Potato Heads,” says Jemima Kirke. “Like, if they could take this part away, if they could eliminate this part, they would look better. They don’t see themselves as a package. They see themselves as pieces.”
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I sat in silence while she elaborated on the metaphor, as it dawned on me that yes, she’d just summed up my body-image philosophy since about first grade: Mr. Potato Head.
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It’s sort of a bummer to realize you’ve been living your life like a Hasbro toy, but when I looked around the room, I realized I wasn’t alone. The photographer, the make-up artist — everyone was nodding, including Jemima. There were seven women in that room, of different ages, backgrounds, and professions. But, all of us had been Mr. Potato Head.
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I’d reached out to Jemima after reading a story on her fitness routine, which also had me nodding along. Usually, when celebrities talk about fitness, it either leaves me feeling lazy (“I jogged 43 miles a day! While pregnant! With twins!”) or suspicious and enraged (“What? I’m so lazy. I have no idea where this six-pack came from.”). But, Jemima — who stars on one of the nakedest shows on television — doesn’t b.s. when it comes to the body. “We need to take the shaming out of the fitness world,” she said. I had to get some of what she got.
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That’s how I ended up spending the day with Jemima and her trainer, Cadence Dubus — the woman whom Jemima got it from. Their story began when Jemima walked passed Cadence’s studio, Brooklyn Strength, one day while pregnant with her second child.
“I wanted to stay thin while pregnant,” Jemima laughs, rolling her eyes at herself. “That was the thought. That was what I walked in for, and it didn’t stay that way.” Things soon changed when she met Cadence, a lifelong athlete and dancer. “The first thing I noticed about Cadence was her body. I was like, Oh, she’s not skinny, but she looks so sexy, and she’s so fit.” Cadence wasn’t the whittled-down, whip-cracking concept of a trainer that Jemima was used to, but her physical capability was undeniable.
“I was like, maybe I can do THAT.” She gestures to herself. “Maybe I can just be the fittest version of this.”
It was a radical shift for Jemima, who’d spent much of her life, like many women, trying to burn off bits and pieces of herself. As with most of us, it started in childhood, with misguided comments from a well-meaning parent.
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“My mom used to say to me, ’I think you’re beautiful. I think you’re perfect. I just want you to be happy.’” (At this, I began nodding HARD.) “That’s such a mixed message, though…even though she was saying she wanted me to be happy, it still came off as bullying.”
She recalls going out to dinner with her parents, her mom ordering that the bread be taken away. “She would say, ‘Listen, you can have it if you want it. I just thought you didn’t want it.’” At the time, Jemima was on a watermelon-only diet (“It worked, for five minutes”) — not her mother’s idea, but one she encouraged.
“She knew I wanted to be thinner…and she was always on a diet herself,” she adds. “I think she meant well. I just think she wasn’t equipped.”
Now a mother herself, Jemima clearly empathizes with her own mom’s struggle in this area. She makes a huge effort to give her kids a healthy relationship to exercise and food, emphasizing that good-for-you and enjoyable aren’t mutually exclusive. There are no off-limits foods in her house, but you’ve still gotta eat your vegetables.
“You know what my daughter does now which is really cool? Whenever I come home she goes, ‘Mom, I ate all my dinner!’” Jemima sticks out her arm, Popeye-style. “Then she’ll do things, like she’ll finish a puzzle, and be like, 'That’s 'cause I ate all my dinner.’” She laughs. “So, now she’s gonna have the reverse. She’s gonna be eating a shit ton.”
Like most moms, Kirke knows there’s no avoiding the pitfalls. Her daughter is four years old, still mercifully free of the body-image trap, but Jemima knows its day will come — and just hopes that she’ll be ready.
That’s why, she adds, “I think it’s important for women around children, whether you’re a mother or not, to never talk about not liking yourself.”
Body positivity is no easy feat when your job requirements include sticking your bare and sunburnt butt directly in front of the camera, as Jemima did last season on Girls. We’d met up at Cadence’s apartment just days before she began shooting Season 5.
“I got a text message yesterday from Lena saying, 'Do you mind showing ass this season?’ I said, 'Well, I’ve shown my ass.’ But, she was like, 'I mean, you’re gonna be fucking and I want to see the whole thrust action.’” What it came down to was: Lena Dunham would like to see some cellulite, please.
“I was tempted to say no, just because it’s not gonna be comfortable to do. But, I felt somewhat obligated as someone who’s on such a progressive show — as an artist, as a mother to a daughter — to show my body.”
Dunham’s show has gotten a lot of flak for being “too” naked, but for most of those critics, it’s just the wrong kind of naked. It’s not gossamer-bound bosoms, glowing beneath the moonlight; it’s butt cheeks jiggling during some afternoon analingus. You can call it crass, but crass is a lot closer to real. The reality of female bodies has always been a running theme on Girls — loud and clear, if unspoken. Jemima credits Dunham (her friend since high school) both for leading the charge and taking the heat.
“For some reason, Lena has a target on her head. People love to hate Lena.”
Jemima only joined Twitter last fall, and like Dunham, she often shares unvarnished, smart-mouthed opinions and personal photos on the platform. But, while she gets mostly friendly commentary, she’s astonished by the constant vitriol that Dunham gets.
On the one hand, Lena is the star of the show, and the more visible media presence, so perhaps it makes sense that she’s the primary target. On the other hand, she’s not typically described as a slim, blonde, “bohemian goddess” as Jemima is — and she won’t apologize for it. That’s what seems to piss people off.
“I hear a lot of men saying, 'Why do I have to see that?’ I’m like, what do you mean, 'have to?’ Like this is a punishment?”
All of the women on Girls (really, all of the women on any show) deal with physical criticism. Allison Williams is too skinny, Zosia Mamet dresses weird, and, goddess or not, Jemima still goes through the ringer (because, you can’t have a baby without a “post-baby body”). But, when Lena Dunham puts on shorts it is literally headline news.
“One thing I hate that they say about Lena is, 'She’s so confident,’” Jemima adds. “That makes me really mad and it’s really short-sighted, because I don’t think she’s confident. I think she’s brave. It’s not that she’s proud necessarily or showing off. It’s that she’s making an effort to fight the standard so that one day we’ll stop calling nudity and self-love 'brave.’ And, if people get mad because they see it as a big f*ck-you, well then, they’re fucking right. It is.”
So, in that spirit of solidarity, of course Jemima agreed to the ass shot. “I’m doing it,” she smiles, discomfort and all. “I’m doing it.”
Along with Lena, Jemima credits her work with Cadence for much of her willingness to expose herself on camera. In the past, she went into diet-fitness-freakout mode in the weeks leading up to shooting Girls.
“I always gain five pounds before I shoot. Always. Because I’m trying not to gain five pounds.” This season, she says, is the first time she’s actually looking forward to it, “and I think that’s not a coincidence.”
Indeed, even spending one afternoon with Cadence, my world was somewhat rocked. It’s not that she’s a radical or zealot — she’s the opposite. Talking with her is like getting a crash course in common sense. She has plenty of great credentials, having studied exercise and nutrition for sixteen years, but her personal history and upbringing is what made her so devoted to this no-nonsense approach to fitness.
“That’s just how people cleared their heads in my family. Growing up, that’s what my mom always said to us whenever we were stressed out: 'Go outside. Go running.’” She was never taught that exercise was about weight; it was just something you did to keep your body and brain in good working order. “You bring your car in for gas and you go to the gym.”
When she was five, Cadence’s father was in a car accident and became confined to a wheelchair, “but he still worked out every day. He swam, he shadowboxed, he lifted weights.” From him, Cadence learned that fitness was a life-sustaining thing. “I don’t think he was proud of himself. It was just, 'this is what I do.’”
Cadence wasn’t immune to body-image struggles. She hit the wall as a teenager when, as a dancer, she became hypercritical of her body. “It just seemed mean to always be looking down at something and being like, ugh. I thought, 'Why am I doing that to the same body that’s doing everything I love to do?’”
After that, functional fitness became her life’s work and personal passion. Working with clients, she hears a lot of talk about thigh gaps, bikini bodies, and all the hot new fitness trends, but she’s clear that’s not what she’s about. Everyone’s body and lifestyle is different, and the point is to create and maintain your own baseline exercise routine. Exercise is meant to support your life, not the other way around.
“Fad fitness” and nutrition, she says, aren’t only hurting us physically. “It’s just so disempowering.” As individuals it disconnects from our bodies with this one-size-fits-all attitude. And, on a grand, historic scale, she points out, it’s a way we keep women down. “We’re wasting time counting calories instead of becoming the president.”
At the end of the day, the three of us sat around Cadence’s kitchen making pasta. It was a funny scenario, just hangin’ out and talking Body Image — the capital-letter issue that had influenced each of our lives. It was like the old days, sitting around with friends and raving about some amazing new diet or gym obsession — but the opposite. I asked Jemima and Cadence how they handle those situations, when the getting-skinny talk comes up with friends.
“I try not to engage too much, because I don’t want to be preachy,” Jemima says. “And, it’s not a good road for me to go down with them, you know? 'Cause I could do it, too.”
When she does find herself heading down that road, wading into the familiar realm of self-consciousness and shame? She smiles. “This sounds so cheesy, but it’s true. I try to look at myself as if I were a man who was really hot for me. I’ll see all the things that make me me, and [I’m] like, that’s hot.” Later, she adds, “That’s how I look at other women. I look at them like, If I was in love with this person, I would love every bit. And, I tell my friends. I’m not doing it to make them feel good. I really mean it.”
Cheesy, sure. But, who doesn’t like a little cheese? What she’s really saying is that we should look at ourselves and each other with love. Maybe we can go down that road together, regardless of our lifestyles. It might be a little awkward and uncomfortable, perhaps a little preachy. But, at least we’ll be talking to each other, instead of keeping silent and apart. At least we won’t be going down that road alone.
By Kelsey Miller