Nicola Coughlan’s brilliant response to being called ‘brave’ for nude scenes is a lesson for us all

As a majority of the population is no doubt aware, the third season of “Bridgerton” has been an enormous hit—so much so that the first four episodes racked up 45.05 million views, according to Netflix data—and its hero and heroine, played by Luke Newton and Nicola Coughlan, respectively, have become beloved international sensations as a result.

Basically, this means they’re doing a lot of press for the show, especially leading up to the premiere of the second half of the season later this week. A LOT of press. Like, just seeing endless interview clips of them on my social feeds (not that I’m complaining) has me feeling vicariously exhausted for the two of them.

Equally exhausting is the dialogue surrounding Coughlan’s body. While she is most certainly getting her flowers for her brilliant performance, she also has to deal with unnecessary commentary about her body. Why, you ask? Because the five-foot-tall Coughlan is, as she says herself, “a very short girl who wears a medium.” Somehow this has led many outlets and show fans to label her “plus-sized.”

Fans of the show have applauded her for showing that even actresses who aren’t tall and thin can be desirable, romantic leads in a hit show—a significant facet of representation, to be sure. But the thing is (and I say this as a woman who is a size 16/18 and average height myself)…is she plus-sized? Does she have to be? As she’s thrust into a global spotlight, do we have to keep publicly commenting on her body?

During a special premiere of the season’s second half in Dublin this week, Coughlan and Newton took part in a Q&A with the audience while on stage. At one point, a fan commented that Coughlan was “brave” for getting naked on camera. Sigh.

Luckily, Coughlan had the most amazing response:

“You know it is hard because I think women with my body type—women with perfect breasts,” Coughlan said, as the crowd erupted in laughter and applause. “We don’t get to see ourselves on screen enough and I’m very proud as a member of the perfect breast community.”

With a sly smile, she added: “I hope you enjoy seeing them.”

While the body-positive movement of the last few years may, on the surface, appear to be powerful and necessary, it still very much alienates some fat people. (And before anyone comes for me, the word “fat” isn’t a pejorative and I would very much ask anyone who thinks it is to critically assess why they feel that way.)

“All bodies are good bodies.” “Love the skin you’re in.” “Be kind to yourself.” We’ve all heard several different iterations of self-acceptance platitudes urging us to do the impossible: dismiss societal beauty standards and love ourselves just as we are. So why is this alienating? Because it’s unrealistic. And it puts additional pressure on those of us who fall outside the “ideal” body type. We’re supposed to ignore what society shouts at us in one form or another all day every day, love the way all clothes fit us even when they’re not made for us, and “flaunt our curves” until we’re filled with so much joy, it practically emanates from our pores. No thank you.

We can not “love” different parts of our bodies and still be grateful, which is the hallmark of a more nuanced movement called “body neutrality.” Because being neutral means accepting the good things and the not-so-good things while being appreciative of how our bodies work for us. Accepting and understanding the word “fat” as a neutral descriptor is also part of the change the body-neutral movement is genuinely igniting.

But that’s an essay for another day. For now, I want to talk more about Nicola Coughlan and why projecting our own feelings of being seen and represented onto her may be something we can do quietly to ourselves and our loved ones, and not directly onto her in a public forum where she’s forced to address it.

About 11 years, two kids, and three dress sizes ago, I was cast as Maggie in a little play you may have heard of, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” This role was originated on-screen by none other than Elizabeth Taylor, so yeah, I felt a tiny little bit of pressure to look as good as I could so I wouldn’t be forced to endure snark about my body during my very first leading lady role. Though I was a size 12/14 when I auditioned and performed the role at the same size, I knew people in the audience were expecting a Liz-esque actress on-stage and I was incredibly insecure about it (despite owning the hell out of the role on-stage, because ACTING). I was also terrified of the reviews, mostly because the actor playing Brick was something of a local celebrity who had, like, a million rock-hard abs on display for half the show and was, to me at the time, far closer to embodying Paul Newman than I was to Elizabeth Taylor.

But it was the first time I was on-stage and cast as more than a funny sidekick, matronly aunt, drunk mother-in-law, or prostitute (“A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” still remains one of my favorite shows to date, however). And I memorized pages and pages of Maggie’s slow, drawling monologues. I spent endless hours rehearsing, having my costumes tailored, finding the perfect hairstyle and shoes and movements and tone of voice to become Maggie.

And while being part of a small community theater company in Pittsburgh is a heck of a lot different than being a lead in the most popular Netflix show of all time, the sentiment is the same: If I had been reduced to being “brave” for wearing lingerie on stage at a size 12, I would have felt so incredibly defeated. Because of all the work that went into my performance and how dear that character was to me. Because I was already nervous about how I looked. Because if my body was all anyone really saw during that two-hour play where the drama is DRAMA-ing, I would have shriveled up and cried. Even if the scrutiny was “body positive,” I didn’t want any of it. At all. I wanted to talk about the play, the Southern Gothic writing of Tennessee Williams, and enjoy my fleeting time in the sun.

So when it comes to the beautiful, stunning, talented, funny, kind and delightful Nicola Coughlan—we can find meaning in the representation she brings to the screen, but we don’t have to make her the face of a movement.

We can, however, respect her status in the Perfect Breasts Community™ and do our part to keep up the momentum surrounding body neutrality.

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