Maisie Williams recently admitted she dealt with body shame while filming Game of Thrones.
She and her beloved character Arya Stark, the adventurous young noblewoman-turned-assassin, both grew up onscreen in front of a global fandom, which might explain the internet’s collective shock over Arya’s unexpected sex scene in the show’s final season. Williams started filming the hit series’ first season at age 12, when Arya was 11; Williams was 22 when the show ended, with Arya at 18. A rushed, ambiguous timeline in the show’s final few seasons may have contributed to why many viewers felt compelled to frantically google Williams’ age after Arya’s steamy sexual encounter with onscreen love interest Gendry aired on national television. It also probably didn’t help that Arya spent most of the show’s earlier seasons trying to disguise herself as a young boy.
In a recent interview with Vogue, the 22-year-old actress opened up about her experience growing up in front of such avid viewers: “A couple of seasons in the middle, maybe around season two or three, my body started to mature, and I started to become a woman,” she explained. “But Arya was still very much trying to be disguised as a boy, and I had really short hair, and they'd constantly cover me in dirt and shade my nose so it looked really broad, and I'd look really manly.”
There’s obviously nothing wrong with wanting to present a more boyish or masculine style, no matter your gender. But as Williams describes, not having control over how you present yourself can be very stressful and stifling. “They'd also put this strap across my chest to flatten any growth that had started. And like, I don't know, that just felt horrible for like six months of the year, and I felt kind of a bit ashamed for a while,” she said.
Williams’ struggles are actually very common for girls transitioning into young adulthood. Puberty usually begins around age eight and continues until around age 16, and teen girls’ confidence and body image tend to plummet at this time. Some of that is because of rising hormone levels, which studies show are linked to one’s feelings about their bodies, but research also shows that unrealistic media portrayals of women can lower body satisfaction and self-esteem for girls and for anyone coded as a girl growing up. When you look nothing like all the images you’re seeing on TV or social media, it’s easy to become self-conscious and experience shame around your body.
“When we’re going through puberty, it’s kind of traumatic in a lot of ways,” psychologist and well-being coach Shula Melamed, M.A., MPH, tells O.school. “It’s that point where you really become aware of having a body and what does a ‘good body’ look like or what does an ‘acceptable’ body look like, and you start getting attention from the outside. That can be quite disturbing or quite alarming. People make comments. People start comparing themselves. It’s just kind of a loss of innocence around your body just being something for play and just for us. All of a sudden it becomes something that becomes surveyed.”
Even Williams, herself a television star, has talked publicly about struggling with her mental health and navigating other people’s opinions about her during her teen years: “[Ages] 15, 16, that’s when the hormones are really flying,” she told The Guardian in 2018. “Going through that and trying to juggle other people’s opinions on who you are and how you should act, that’s difficult, just because you’re desperately trying to find your own identity. Whether you’re famous at 15 or not, you’re still confused as to who you are.”
When filming Arya’s infamous sex scene, Williams says everyone’s awkwardness about averting their eyes while she was naked also caused some body anxiety. “No one wants to look at anything that they shouldn’t look at, which in turn makes you feel like you look awful,” she told Entertainment Weekly.
For many people, developing self-confidence and earnest love for your body can be a lifelong journey, something that’s an ongoing process with ups and downs. Melamed suggests disengaging from negative or damaging media portrayals as much as possible; you don’t need to totally cut off social media, but you can make an effort to follow more body-positive and body-neutral accounts to help keep a healthier flow of content on your feeds.
Above all else, Melamed recommends a mindset of gratitude around your body: “It’s not just something that is either good or bad or acceptable or beautiful or whatever you think it is,” she says. “It takes you through your day. It allows you to do the things that you would like to do with your life. It’s not just something you need to manage. It’s something you get to enjoy. Or if you can’t enjoy it, at least get to the point where you can be grateful for it.”
Being able to authentically express yourself through your appearance and style can also be very empowering. For Williams, she’s been happily exploring a more femme appearance now that she’s free from the constraints of playing the world’s murderous little sister.
“With this new phase of my style, it is nice to look more feminine and have a real waistline and just like, you know, embrace the body that I have,” she told Vogue. Pointing to a photo of herself in a sleek black dress from the Emmys, she added with a playful grin: “See, I have a female body. How exciting.”