Note: This is a post about Lena Dunham and her body. And about magazines and body image. Jill just did a post about Lena Dunham and her body, and I have another post coming up soon about magazines and body image, and… sometimes that happens. You’ll survive.
Heard that there was something going on with Jezebel and Vogue magazine and Lena Dunham, and you were quasi-curious but not really curious, or you were semi-demi-curious but not inclined to give Jezebel the clicks? For your reading pleasure: the condensed version.
So Lena Dunham was on the cover of Vogue. Which is cool for her. She got to wear fancy dresses. And the pantheon of Vogue cover models has, in the past, been limited to thin women who are considered extremely fashionable (and usually have a movie about to come out), and Dunham falls outside of that category. Questions can be asked, of course, about the choice to feature a closeup of her face rather than the three-quarter shot common to other cover models, but she’s there, and she even looks like herself.
Unless you’re Jezebel, and you look at the photos on the cover and in the magazine and immediately declare that they’ve been retouched to hell and back. “They always photoshop people, and she’s fat and dumpy, so they must have ‘shopped the hell out of her!” they said (in essence). “That doesn’t look like her at all! She’s not that pretty!” So convinced were they, in fact, that they placed a ten-thousand-dollar bounty on the original, unretouched images so they could prove, once and for all, that her appearance in the magazine was nothing less than an affront to women everywhere. (Note: Link leads to Jezebel. Click at your own risk.)
Within two hours, someone had collected their bounty and provided unretouched photographs proving that Lena Dunham… looks more or less like Lena Dunham. A small measure of retouching had taken place. A few unflattering shadows were removed. In one photo, her waist was smoothed out. In another, her leg was lengthened marginally. All in all, the changes made to her figure were more minor than changes Vogue has made to women with bodies far more “perfect” than Dunham’s.
The thing is, Jezebel had just paid ten thousand dollars for those photos. They’d laid ten grand on a photoshopping scandal that never happened. So instead of sucking it up and backing down gracefully, they doubled down, generating gif after gif with lines pointing to Dunham’s eye bags, chin wrinkle, jawline, bust, hips, neck, Look what Vogue has done! Look at all of these things that are wrong with her that had to be changed to make her acceptable! And then when they found themselves running out of flaws before they ran out of indignation, they started turning on other ‘shopping sins: They composited a photo of her in the subway station! They moved her from a storefront to an intersection! They comped a bird on top of her head! A bird! On her head! What kind of world do we live in where a woman isn’t good enough for Vogue if she doesn’t have a bird on her head?!
First of all: Many of the original, unretouched photos were bad. Not because Dunham is particularly unattractive, but because they were poorly composed and shot. The bathtub shot looks like she was shoved into a dress that didn’t fit her and photographed using available light in an unrenovated 1940s bathroom, making her look baggy and tired, and that’s not how she normally looks. My opinion is that Annie Leibovitz is joining the laurel-resting overrated club with Quentin Tarantino and Mario Testino, and that Photoshopping Lena Dunham wasn’t fitting her into a mold but rescuing her from a photographer who phoned it in.
Second, and more important: Dunham’s actual body wasn’t altered that much in the photos, certainly not to the extent that she personally was displeased with it. After Jezebel’s repeated harping on her shoot, Dunham finally took time out of her tour of Paris to respond via Slate. She said:
I understand that for people there is a contradiction between what I do and being on the cover of Vogue; but frankly I really don’t know what the photoshopping situation is, I can’t look at myself objectively in that way. I know that I felt really like Vogue supported me and wanted to put a depiction of me on the cover. I never felt bullied into anything; I felt really happy because they dressed me and styled me in way that really reflects who I am. And I felt that was very lucky and that all the editors understood my persona, my creativity and who I am. I haven’t been keeping track of all the reactions, but I know some people have been very angry about the cover and that confuses me a little. I don’t understand why, photoshop or no, having a woman who is different than the typical Vogue cover girl, could be a bad thing.
A fashion magazine is like a beautiful fantasy. Vogue isn’t the place that we go to look at realistic women, Vogue is the place that we go to look at beautiful clothes and fancy places and escapism and so I feel like if the story reflects me and I happen to be wearing a beautiful Prada dress and surrounded by beautiful men and dogs, what’s the problem? If they want to see what I really look like go watch the show that I make every single week.
Now, some of that is a little bit idealistic; the fact is, whether or not Vogue is a fantasy or whether we go there to look at realistic women, their continued use of unrealistic depictions does have a negative effect on women’s self-image and on society’s perception of women’s body shapes. However, in this case, the images are of a realistic body. Vogue didn’t carve her into a Hollywood-acceptable size 4 or hide her under voluminous coats; they made her look like a well-rested woman who hadn’t been photographed under harsh bathroom lights.
Remember, though, that Jezebel is still out ten thousand dollars and is in no position to back down gracefully. So they come through with another post, this one explaining why Dunham is wrong to be okay with it.
Yes, having a woman who is different than the typical Vogue cover girl is indeed a good thing. What is not a good thing is when the magazine decides to take that woman and tweak her appearance such that she’s “acceptable” for the cover. It undermines the decision to feature that individual in the first place. Also: “A depiction of me” — depiction. That word choice is telling, and it’s also a problem.
Yes, Vogue is fantasy. But no matter how fantastic the clothes or the setting or the lighting, the people in these images are real — and yet Vogue has to take the reality of a human being’s body and make it part of the fantasy too. It’s escapism, absolutely, but the message is clear: while you dream of wearing that gorgeous dress, you should also dream of physical perfection as defined by Vogue.
So there you have it. Vogue expects you to dream of wearing a non-schlumpy strapless dress and having a body like Lena Dunham’s. Jezebel expects you to be ashamed of liking the way you look in a magazine and having a bird comped onto your head. And while you’re at it, please place a money order for $10,000 in an envelope and mail it to Jessica Coen, c/o Jezebel.
The end. One hopes.