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What you can learn about fitness and body image from the girls of Girls

Lena DunhamIn March, Lena Dunham posted a photo from her Tracy Anderson workout to Instagram with a caption detailing her longtime struggle with anxiety and how exercise has helped her manage it. “It ain’t about the ass, it’s about the brain,” she wrote about her reasons for working out and its benefits. The post set off a flurry of support, garnering over 100,000 likes and close to 6,000 comments.

It wasn’t a groundbreaking statement, but the sentiment, presented to her fans, was just one example of how Dunham and her Girls co-stars are representing a new kind of exercise zeitgeist for young women, promoting sweat sessions for mental health, balance, strength and confidence—as opposed to a path to getting skinny.

To dig deeper, we interviewed Jemima Kirke, an artist who plays Jessa on Girls, and her Brooklyn fitness trainer, below.

It’s not just Dunham and Kirke, though. Zosia Mamet, who plays Shoshanna, penned an article for Glamour in August 2014 that revealed her near lifelong struggle with an eating disorder, and in an interview with Refinery 29, Mamet talked about how a love of being physically active has been one of the best things for her health and happiness, citing SoulCycle and Y7 as her favorite mind-clearing workouts. “It’s about finding what works for you and what makes you happy,” she told Refinery.

And Alison Williams, AKA Marnie, is a fan of the mind-body workout Core Fusion and has spoken out about the media scrutiny around her weight.

Kirke’s journey started with the challenge of accepting her post-baby body, and she says that only after working out with Pilates trainer and Brooklyn Strength owner Cadence Dubus did she learn to place an emphasis on getting strong rather than skinny, which has taken self body shaming out of her routine.

Brooklyn Strength
Dubus and Kirke at Brooklyn Strength.

“As women, we’re taught our whole lives that thin is better, that the less space we take up the better, and that being strong is not associated with being feminine,” Kirke told us. “For Cadence, it’s ‘Strong is feminine.’ Because we need to be strong in our lives and work out for more than just looking good. It’s functional, it improves the quality of your life, so that you can pick up your kids and chase after them without getting winded. It’s about that, not about working out because you ate…fuck whatever it is that you ate!”

Kirke says that she didn’t always see it that way. “I’ve been in that place where you’re torturing yourself at the gym to be thin, I’ve done that for years,” she says, “I’ll tell you now, you’re not going to have the body you have in mind by doing that, because it’s often something totally unrealistic you saw in a magazine.”

In the past, Kirke had been frustrated by the “unattainable” bodies of instructors at studios she visited like at Pure Barre and Tracy Anderson, where she felt that the pervasive ethos suggested the more you did the classes, the closer you’d get to that body type.

Kirke says one of the things that drew her to Brooklyn Strength was Dubus’ healthy, strong figure. “Most women come to us already really frustrated that they’ve never gotten skinny,” Dubus explains. “From my own background of being a dancer, I already know the body is capable of so much more than an outside aesthetic—it’s about feeling proud and grateful for the body that you have. We didn’t realize that was a novel idea, but we’ve gotten such great feedback from women, like, ‘I want to climb mountains, not be in a bikini.'”

Zosia Mamet
Mamet’s gym bag.

And when women get a taste of strength, Dubus says, it can change their perceptions of themselves for the better. “These women come in saying they can’t do a push-up, but you build that strength up over time, and suddenly they do it, and their faces totally light up. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

On a personal note, as a 23-year-old Millennial woman who’s struggled with both anxiety and body image issues (and honestly, who hasn’t?), the fact that some of the biggest female stars on television today, Dunham, Mamet, and Kirke, are speaking so candidly and openly about these issues is huge a breath of fresh air. I grew up on Gossip Girl and The OC (hey, Josh Schwartz). All of the actresses on those shows were stick thin, and I never heard them talk about body image or health-beyond-weight-loss in the media once.

I’m thinking taking a cue from the actors of Girls and choosing a workout because it makes you feel good, not look good, isn’t such a bad idea. Kirke’s advice? “Set a realistic goal that’s something maintainable, that’s conducive to your lifestyle. Sometimes, you’re going to have a hard week and be too tired to workout, and that’s okay. You’re human.” —Jamie McKillop

(Photos:, Ingrid Mellor,

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