Wanting to look nice isn’t a character flaw.
It doesn’t mean you hate yourself, or you’re judgmental of other people’s appearances, or any number of superficial shames. Photoshop and Instagram, with their light-bending and pimple erasures, are not inherently evil. When used sparingly, they can elevate the raw material that a basic camera produces and make an image more radiant, more authentic in the presentation of the subject.
I may not know her personally, but as a fellow twentysomething woman with an “unorthodox” body type (whatever the fuck that means), I’m fairly certain that Lena Dunham went into her Vogue photo shoot wanting to look nice. Although she’s bared everything on her show, a fashion magazine spread is another world. A world us real-ish women aren’t normally invited to. She knew that the photos would be scrutinized for where she looked too fat, where she appeared thinner than she’s known to be, whether she’s worthy of Anna Wintour’s icy acceptance. She must have spent hours getting her hair and makeup and clothes just right; if she’s like me, way too long in front of a mirror practicing not-double-chin-face. What she wanted immortalized in her cover and spread wasn’t a lie, but how she appeared on her best day, the image that she carries of herself internally. That radiant, unique self-image that gives her confidence.
When the cover and photos were released, I was surprised by Vogue’s accurate portrayal of that image. Dunham looked like the Hannah Horvath I knew from my devoted repeat viewings of Girls. Yes, she was wearing meticulously flattering clothes and they went with a close-up versus full-body cover, but I’m just as careful when I know my photo’s going to be snapped. I saw a woman flattered by fashion, creative settings and style. Not a woman hidden.
Which was why I found Jezebel’s offer of $10,000 for untouched versions of the original photos surprising. What, exactly, were they hoping to find? The pictures in Vogue weren’t twiggy or bizarre, aside from being Anne Leibowitz fantasyscapes. The woman is famous for PhotoShopping celebrities into Disney movies. Planting a pigeon on Dunham’s head seems pretty tame.
Though Jezebel claimed that their motives were altruistic, why go after Dunham? Why not offer $10,000 for untouched pictures of Kim Kardashian, or Jennifer Lawrence, or any of the dozens of celebrity women who pose for magazines every month? No, just this one. Just this odd, unconventional choice, this girl who couldn’t “possibly” look as good as what the glossy pages suggested.
Within hours, Jezebel had their photos. And aside from being darker with less contrast, there was very little difference in the Lena Dunham raw and the Lena Dunham best-self. Far less than, say, Cheryl Strayed received when she was photographed for the magazine’s feature on Wild. Where was her $10,000 bounty?
Looking at the before/after GIFs on Jezebel is like listening to a gaggle of mean girls murmuring behind you in the middle school cafeteria line. Every tiny change is outlined and magnified, tweaks I bet Dunham herself never would have noticed. In a moment where she should be proud of appearing authentically in such a scrutinized place, a feminist publication paid thousands of dollars to try and prove that no, she didn’t look that great.
The same day, Dunham released a response:
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 really 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 a 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.
While Jezebel continued to defend their crusade to torpedo the photos, the ruse had already backfired. The bounty offer was a cheap (to a media conglomerate, at least) ploy at an easy target, someone they assumed couldn’t be both atypical model material and beautiful. Dunham looked fabulous before and after, and Jezebel (along with parent company Gawker) embodies all of the body-shaming tabloid press they claim a crusade against. Lambasting any woman’s shape, large or small, is only a slightly different shade of a gigantic, systematic culture problem.
Next time a woman who kind of sort of maybe looks like me ends up on the cover of Vogue, it would be just as refreshing to see the choice celebrated, not dissected with hopes for a horror show. Because right now, a misogynistic beauty magazine is being refreshing, while a feminist news leader is digging into a midcentury bully’s bag of tricks.