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Why Mindy Kaling — not Lena Dunham — is the body positive icon of the moment
There's something refreshingly real about this sitcom star
 
Lookin' good, sister!
Lookin' good, sister! (Jordin Althaus/FOX)

A not-perfectly-skinny celebrity discussing her not-perfectly-skinny ways is always an occasion for much discussion, even celebration. We unfamous ladies with unfamous, and therefore probably not perfectly skinny, bodies can't help but rejoice when an entertainer who speaks about her relationship to food has a body that actually reflects it. What a marvelous break it is from the all-too-frequent size zeroes gushing about their love of hamburgers and spaghetti carbonara or how chocolate keeps them thin.

We regular women recently experienced this particular delight when not-whippet-thin Mindy Kaling told Vogue (yes that Vogue) that she isn't all that invested in thinness.

"There's a whole list of things I would probably change about myself. For example, I'm always trying to lose 15 pounds. But I never need to be skinny. I don't want to be skinny. I'm constantly in a state of self-improvement," Kaling said, "but I don't beat myself up over it."

The arrival of more women behind the camera in recent years has brought along more diversity in the types of women who appear in front of it as well. This is what happens when women are in charge. Two of the least conventional looking yet highest profile among them are Kaling, who appears in The Mindy Project, and Lena Dunham in Girls. Both women have made their not-size-zeroness a large part of their fictional personas, but take very different approaches.

Dunham's Hannah is presented as someone who is entirely unconcerned with, if not oblivious to, the conventions of beauty that surround her. From her ill-fitting short-short jumpers to the many wide-angle nude scenes, Hannah, and Dunham by proxy, comes off as not giving a hoot about what others think of her looks.

Kaling, on the other hand, totally cares how she looks. She wears cute and flattering clothing, and speaks of her conflicted relationship to things like food, exercise, perspiration, and body hair removal. This goes for real life and her character on the show.

(Jordin Althaus/FOX)


Earlier this season there was a whole episode in which she trains at the gym because she is worried about what her new boyfriend will think when he sees her naked for the first time. There is vulnerability, doubt, and a recognition of the fact that what she sees in the mirror deviates from the actresses that appear in the magazines piled by her bedside. But before long she moves on, unwilling to let this pursuit define her, or detract from her otherwise awesome life.

Kaling's approach is much more effective.

When not being presented with gap-less thighs and rib-less waistlines, brought to us courtesy of Photoshop, women are often told to love our bodies, even to feel beautiful. There is no doubt that we are all in need of a good pick-me-up self-esteem wise. But by making the goal body-positivity, or oblivion, as Dunham indirectly suggests, we are once again being offered options that aren't exactly realistic.

The brilliance of Kaling's attitude to her body is that it offers us a model of a woman who likes to look good, and wouldn't mind losing a little weight, but doesn't base her self-worth on it. Real-life Mindy isn't willing to pass on the opportunity to write and direct her own show in order to make more time for personal trainers, and TV-character Mindy would rather be a good doctor and hang out with her friends than go to SoulCycle every day. Does this mean that she is too good for dieting? Heck no. Rather that it just isn't such a big deal. Kaling can have her diet and eat it too.

The idea that women are going to finally discover and accept their unique beauty, as Dove would have it, or stop defining themselves by their looks all together are both nice ideas that are never going to happen. And I don't think we need them to. What Kaling shows us is that there is a third way. We can care a little. We can not make too big a deal out of it. We can feel good some days and bad others and, perhaps most importantly, we can laugh at ourselves on both occasions. And then we can go grab dinner with our friends or, um, star in our own shows.

 

Elissa Strauss writes about gender and culture for TheWeek.com.

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