This week in Lenny, Lena Dunham’s newsletter, plus-size model Ashley Graham reflected on weathering a stream of unasked-for feedback about an Instagram photo she’d posted of herself. “YESSSS, HONEY!” She recalls thinking as she uploaded. “I look damn good!” And yet the response from some of her followers was furious. (“Fake fat person,” wrote one. “Don’t you dare get skinny on us,” said another.) Such is the catch-22 of being a famous plus-size model: When she posts from a “slim” angle, her followers accuse her of selling out to conventional beauty standards. When she zeros in on cellulite, stretch marks, and rolls, other followers criticize her for promoting obesity. “To some I’m too curvy. To others I’m too tall, too busty, too loud, and, now, too small—too much, but at the same time not enough.” Graham wrote. As a reproach to body shamers, the essay could have felt standard-issue. But as an honest testament to the pressures of representing whole underserved communities as a plus-size model, it felt refreshing and new.
Graham’s piece is a typical one for Lenny, which has featured a steady march of personal essays by female celebrities since it launched last year. (One of Lenny’s editors is former Slate editor Jess Grose.) Commissioning famous people to craft personal narratives is a path fraught with danger (the supermodel “don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful” variation is especially groan-worthy); such pieces tend to feel oblivious and numbly self-promotional. And yet Dunham’s newsletter continues, against all odds, to deliver works of legitimately important activism and sharp, rueful honesty. It’s forged its own genre: the first person celebrity essay that doesn’t demand its readers turn eye-rolling into an Olympic sport.
There was the reflection on her spiritual life that Khloe Kardashian wrote back in May: “Believe it or not,” she wrote, “I come from a very religious family.” As Ruth Graham noted in Slate, the piece, though sweetened with the necessary bromides about tolerance for others and not needing a church to be devout, felt surprisingly candid. Kardashian practices her personalized and unstructured faith—“sometimes, I’ll just ramble” at the heavens, she said—with breezy confidence (“I’m very conversational with God and spirits”) and endearing gratitude (“I pray more when I’m thankful than in times of need”).
I felt closer to Kardashian after reading her essay, even though I’m neither religious nor especially fluent in Kardashiania. It was nice to peer beneath the reality star’s unperturbedly glam façade and see someone who occasionally likes to chat with the universe. When she described resenting God for the way her father deteriorated before he died, I ached for her. When she wrote, “I like to give praise … I know how fortunate I am,” I believed her.
Consider also Jennifer Lawrence’s characteristically blunt and personable account of learning that she’d earned less than her male co-stars on American Hustle, published back in October. “I didn’t want to seem difficult or spoiled,” she wrote, about closing the salary negotiations. “There was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision.” At the same time, “It’s hard for me to speak about my experience as a working woman because I can safely say my problems aren’t exactly relatable … I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need.”
This is refreshingly real talk in a form—the celebrity personal essay—that more often elicits gooey “I’m just like you!” assurances from its megawatt practitioners. Lawrence offered her take on an issue that affects #yesallwomen, fanning the flames of a necessary conversation around equal pay and launching more articles about Hollywood’s unbalanced gender politics. Crucially, when you finished reading her piece, you didn’t want to punch Jennifer Lawrence.
When was the last time you read a first-person essay by a celebrity and didn’t hate them a little bit? Was it Dunham herself in the New Yorker (“When I turn 13, she throws me a private atheistic bat mitzvah”) or Angelina Jolie advocating for expensive, unnecessary medical procedures in the New York Times? (To be fair, she meant well!) Was it Gwyneth Paltrow cooing mystically about conscious uncoupling in Goop? Adrian Grenier with a truly astonishing account of his enlightenment via scuba diving and subsequent work with the Lonely Whale Foundation, culminating in an impassioned plea to unleash the feminine energies of the ocean by resolving, once and for all, to do away with plastic straws?
Nope, me neither.
But I loved Amanda Peet’s beautiful, thoughtful essay in Lenny about growing older and not wanting her daughters to feel enslaved by the same beauty standards that control her life. Peet’s frustrated assessment of plastic surgery—“I want the thing that makes me look younger, not the thing that makes me look like I did the thing”—made me laugh out loud.
Her shame over the fact that she cares what she looks like, coupled with intense physical self-consciousness, felt so human. She says that she does not want to die “because I voluntarily checked myself into a hospital to get an elective operation that I didn’t need so that I could look slightly more attractive to the three people who were paying close enough attention to notice.” And yet the ever-present Younger Actress (played here by Alicia Vikander) “is squeezing me out. … The train has left the station and I’m one of those moronic stragglers running alongside with her purse caught in the door.”
Stuck in the internet’s troubling first-person essay economy, it’s easy to forget what can make personal essays so beguiling when done well. Realness, intimacy, humor—Lenny manages to coax these qualities from its contributors without allowing a concomitant cloying activism or treacly self-indulgence to creep in. I’m submitting my own autobiographical tale to the newsletter, although, given their standards, I have serious doubts about whether they’ll publish it. It’s called “It Happened to Me: I Read Some First-Person Celebrity Essays Online and Didn’t Want to Chug Drano.”