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Stop Freaking Out Over Jezebel’s Request For Unretouched Lena Dunham Photos

Ashley Yang |
January 20, 2014 | 10:40 a.m. PST


It was important to see how Vogue would treat the body of an avowed body-positive actress. (david_shankbone, Creative Commons)
It was important to see how Vogue would treat the body of an avowed body-positive actress. (david_shankbone, Creative Commons)

Lena Dunham, star of the hit HBO series "Girls," is featured on the February cover of Vogue.

This particular cover received an unprecedented amount of media scrutiny after Jezebel offered $10,000 for the unretouched images from Dunham’s photo shoot. This request immediately incited a media sh*tstorm in which the Huffington PostCosmopolitan and other media sources denounced Jezebel for body-shaming Dunham. 

Their main argument is that, although Jezebel claims that their request is about “exposing” Vogue for how they treat “larger” bodies, the request is a vindictive publicity stunt meant to put Vogue on trial and qualify Dunham’s body-positive statements at the same time. That offering what is essentially a bounty on these photos isn’t okay, because Jezebel actually wants to have fun dissecting the before/after Photoshop images of a woman who isn’t traditionally attractive. They say that this entire ordeal drew unnecessary attention to Dunham’s body and shamed her more than any digital slim-downs by Vogue ever could. That since we already know what her body looks like, no one needed to see the comparison with these specific images.

Except we did—because the real subject of scrutiny wasn’t Lena Dunham. 

This really is about Vogue, and what Vogue feels like it needs to do to make Dunham’s body palatable to its readership, and to maintain its reputation as an arbiter in fashion, even when it features women whose bodies aren’t what the fashion industry traditionally celebrates.

There isn’t anything wrong with wanting to look “better than your best” when you’re appearing on the cover of Vogue. Except Dunham probably didn’t have a say in how the magazine “perfected” her photos. Photo retouching is absolutely not the same as putting on makeup in the morning, or getting decked out at an awards show. It’s about changing the actual physical form rather than putting some nicer packaging on the original.  

We know what Dunham’s body looks like: an uproar already erupted over her “random” nude scenes on "Girls." So realistically, Vogue couldn’t have reshaped her body too drastically. This time, the subtleties did matter (see Jezebel’s GIFs comparing the before/after versions). A raised neckline here, a narrowed jaw thereit may not seem like much, but it does demonstrate what Vogue and photographer Annie Leibovitz felt needed to be “improved” about Dunham, short of flagrant edits that would have definitely earned them censure. Recall that another controversy occurred over a February cover, this one concerning Mindy Kaling on Elle's “Women in Television” issue. Alternative covers depicting Zooey Deschanel, Amy Poehler and Allison Williams were full body shots and in color, while Kaling’s was a black-and-white close-up of her face. Considering that Kaling was a woman of color and not conventionally thin, the difference quickly turned into a debate about race and body image.

We do know that Vogue, along with all other mainstream fashion magazines, retouches images. What we didn’t know, prior to the unretouched photos being released, is how Vogue would act in this case, with the body of a woman who is famous for being comfortable with her size and has even publicly stated that she “would not want a body like a Victoria’s Secret model.” Her body-positive position doesn’t obligate her to be the face of a movement, and Jezebel wasn’t trying to force her into that role.

There was no controversy at all—just a social experiment to see how the arbiter of fashion would reconcile Dunham’s position about her body with its de facto policy of only celebrating conventional beauty.


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