Stop Calling Women ‘Brave’ For Existing In Their Bodies

Nicola Coughlan responded to the tiered adage with wit.


by Chloe Laws |
Published on

Nicola Coughlan is a lot of wonderful things: a talented actor, hilarious, politically aware, a fashion icon, and charitable. She’s brave, too - speaking up about Gaza whilst many of her peers are quiet. She is not, however, ‘brave’ for having a body, despite constant comments which declare her so. Last week, Coughlan was confronted with this sentiment once again.

Whilst attending a special screening in Dublin for the second part of Bridgerton‘s third season, which focuses on the love life of her character Penelope Featherington, she responded to a question that framed her as being 'brave' to have taken on a role that involves a lot of nudity.

She snapped back with quick wit, saying: 'You know, it is hard, because I think women with my body type – women with perfect breasts – we don’t get to see ourselves on screen enough, and I’m very proud as a member of the perfect breasts community. I hope you enjoy seeing them.'

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of chat about Nicola Coughlan’s body. Endless, almost. It started when she joined Derry Girls but really amped up to nauseating levels once she joined the cast of Bridgerton. Last month, Zoe Strimpel of The Spectator wrote a vile piece about her. In it, she calls her ‘podgy Penelope’, and goes on to say 'But reader, she is not hot, and there is no escaping it…She’s not shapely – which can work as sexy even in Hollywood; she’s fat.' Strimpel’s words don’t bear repeating and I’m loathed to give it airtime, but ignoring body shaming doesn’t work either - because until the body shamers are shamed into silence, they’ll just keep going. Right now, society accepts the body shaming of women as normal conduct, and that gives it validity; the more we call it out, the less acceptable it becomes.

It’s not just the people being explicitly insulting that are the problem. Even those ‘congratulating’ her for being brave and ‘confident enough’ to do nude scenes or wear tight clothing are contributing to this culture of body shaming. No one is calling Luke Newton (her male counterpart in Bridgerton) brave for the same scenes, and no one should be calling her that either. We need to interrogate why she’s seen as brave because you only have to trace that sentiment a few steps back to arrive at fatphobia and misogyny. She’s not brave! She’s doing her job! She’s existing!

As a 5’1 woman who currently wears a UK size 14-16, I’m often told about my body against my will. Well-intentioned social media followers have written to tell me that they ‘love’ seeing a confident woman of my size, and that ‘big girls’ are beautiful. These people may mean no offence, but it is still offensive - and that’s on them, not me. Society has such entitlement over women’s bodies that we are constantly categorised against our will. For example, I’ve been labelled plus-size, which is fine except for my definition of plus-size is sizes above straight sizing. At a size 16, that’s not me. Why must I accept other people’s labels? I don’t need the world to make any judgements on my body, even if positive. I’m the only person who should be allowed to do that. Nicola Coughlan should be the only person allowed to define her body.

Coughlan has, countless times, echoed this sentiment.

Two years ago, she took to social media to ask fans to stop discussing her body: 'Hello! So just a thing – if you have an opinion about my body please, please don’t share it with me. Most people are being nice and not trying to be offensive but I am just one real-life human being and it’s really hard to take the weight of thousands of opinions on how you look being sent directly to you every day.

If you have an opinion about me that’s ok, I understand I’m on TV and that people will have things to think and say but I beg you not to send it to me directly.'

Women, like Coughlan, are constantly reduced to their bodies. Her talents are secondary to the fact she doesn’t fit into every single Eurocentric beauty ideal (even though, let’s be real, she pretty much does). Her accolades are caveated with ‘for a curvy woman’, instantly taking the joy from them. We need to do more, go further: Not talking about bodies is the ultimate goal – neutrality on a mass scale – rather than thinly veiled insults dressed up as compliments.

It’s exhausting to watch, and I can’t imagine how exhausting it is to live. The grace Coughlan has is evident in her latest response, which is full of humour, versus what I’m sure she’d like to say (I would be much for explicit). We all have a duty to change our language around women’s bodies; to remove our judgement, internalised fatphobia and misogyny, and do better. Next time you go to tell a woman that she’s brave for doing something thin people do without blinking, stop yourself and ask: Would Nicola Coughlan think I’m being a d*ck right now? If the answer is yes, stop.

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