Life as an Extreme Sport

Vogue Gives Lena Dunham the Fantastical Impossible Treatment, Somehow This is Jezebel’s Fault

While one corner of the internet was up in ire about Nature publishing bad commentary, and another was up in arms over both The Guardian and The New York Times taking out inaccurate attack op-eds on Lisa Adams, a third corner of the internet was poking fun at or flat out criticizing Jezebel for offering $10,000 for unretouched photographs of Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover. Within hours, Jezebel had several of the images, although not the one I admit I’d been hoping to see. (See above right, and click to embiggen. I’m just so curious: what was so offensive about her left arm?)

The general editorial commentary seems to be along the lines of “what was Jezebel hoping to accomplish,” along with a healthy dose of “all Jezebel is doing is shaming Dunham.” (There’s also a lot of commentary about click bait, which is kind of amusing if you think about it for a second, but I digress.) As a whole, the issue seems to be summed up as “it was okay when Jezebel did this in 2007, because they asked for any magazine cover and any woman,” (and got the rather famous Redbook/Faith Hill photoshopping), “but it’s a problem when it’s Dunham because Jezebel is making it about her body.”

With this, I disagree. While it is about Dunham’s body, that’s not Jezebel’s doing. It’s because Lena Dunham has been very outspoken about her body: not only is she fine with her non-model-ideal body, she’s fine showing it naked on television, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem and you don’t have to look at her. It’s something you even find in the Vogue profile of her; Nathan Heller writes:

For almost as long as Dunham’s work has been in the public eye, she’s spoken openly and often about her body type, pointing out that not every strong and enviable woman on the air must resemble a runway model.

And that’s why seeing what Vogue decided to edit about and from Dunham’s body is important. Because Dunham has, at this point, spent years talking about how much she likes her body as it is, and how comfortable she is in it, and how she’s not interested in changing it to fit the social gaze. Anyone who knows who Dunham is likely has heard at least some variation on that theme at this point.

So when Dunham shows up on the Vogue cover with her neck taken in; shoulders dropped to increase the perceived length of her neck; and her face and jaw narrowed to make her eyes and lips appear larger? Yes, it’s a problem, because it sends a very mixed message: Lena Dunham is proud of and comfortable in her non-stereotypically-Western-ideal-body, so here is her body changed to conform to that stereotypical ideal.

Dunham’s explanation, as I’ve seen it, is this:

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

This is all well and good, except it’s pretty divorced from reality. There are, at this point, decades of research to show that looking at thin and ultra-thin representations of women distort self-esteem, that body image takes a hit when exposed to these unrealistic images, and that notions of the real are eventually affected.

What ends up happening is not the cognitive dissonance of “I thought Dunham didn’t have issues with her body, why is Vogue nipping and tucking her?” but one of “oh, that’s who it was implausible for Patrick Wilson’s character to have a tryst with? Guess she’s just Hollywood Homely.”

By changing Lena Dunham–a woman who, as the original unprocessed photos show, is already quite pretty without any Photoshop help–into yet another slender, long-necked, physically impossible image, Vogue manages, in a single stroke, to undermine Dunham’s message and broadcast the idea that the ideal woman is one that quite simply cannot exist.

As Clara Jeffery, the co-editor of Mother Jones notes, a retouched photo is radically different from a Photoshopped photo. When you’re creating and promoting anatomically impossible images of women and passing them off not as fantastical, as Leibovitz does beautifully in her Disney Dream series, but real and actual, then yes, there is a problem, and it’s one that’s highlighted particularly well when Vogue gives a woman who is vocal about loving her body the way it is the fantastical impossible treatment.

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