On Friday, Jessica Coen, editor in chief of Jezebel published allegedly unedited photos from Lena Dunham’s much hyped Vogue cover shoot in an effort to expose the rampant use of retouching tools like Photoshop and Illustrator in fashion photography. Jezebel is known for comparing photographs of famous women before and after retouching but this time it was different: A 10 thousand dollar bounty was offered and paid by Gawker Media for procurement of the images.
While Vogue is certainly not leading the way in terms of the body acceptance movement and rarely features images of women who do not fit their standards of beauty (typically thin, tall and all too often, white) these images of ‘real gurl’ Lena Dunham are not edited beyond a reasonable standard.
More than one Instagram selfie is floating around the internet with more little fixes, and I can’t remember the last wedding shot I’ve seen that looked to have less changes. In the most edited shot, one of Dunham sitting on the edge of a bathtub, her hips are tucked in slightly, the collar of her dress is raised higher towards her clavicle and her jawline is defined. The lighting and colour balances are corrected and a few minimal changes are made to the scene (a towel being arbitrarily lengthened, for example). There have been some horrible examples brought to light over the past few years of the over-zealous Photoshopping in fashion magazines, notably Elle’s treatment of Gabby Sidibe and Adele’s Vogue cover in 2012. Their subjects are rendered almost unrecognizable. What do Lena Dunham, Gabby Sidibe and Adele have in common? None of these talented women fit into sample sizes.
It’s safe to assume that the editor at Jezebel was hoping on a more noteworthy amount of retouching. It’s telling that Jezebel chose to fork over a cool 10 K for unedited pictures of Lena Dunham’s Vogue shoot, and not, say, Cate Blanchett’s from last month. The implied insult to Lena Dunham is clear.
Bringing the rampant use of Photoshop by fashion magazines like Vogue under the microscope may be a worthy pursuit, but staging a failed attempt to shame Vogue over their retouching processes at the expense of a talented, ambitious and intelligent woman is ghastly. Jezebel is not pulling back any sort of curtain here – we know that retouching is the industry standard. What Jezebel has done to Lena Dunham is more akin to pulling off a friends wig, inviting passersby to laugh at her and then telling her it was for her own benefit.
Retouching of photographs is a symptom of living in a society that judges based on looks first, and merit second. While almost all images to be seen on a glossy page or on the big screen of a woman, man, horse or cheeseburger are retouched to some extent, there is valid argument for the idea that images of young female actors and singers are held to a higher standard.
Each gossip rag in each check out aisle seems to have a minimum of one shot of a conventionally attractive female celebrity caught looking sloppy (almost like a real human being!) or behaving badly. We build celebrities up to delight in tearing them down, to laugh in their face for not being as perfect as we thought they were. However, in the case of Lena Dunham, she has never presented herself as perfect – the character she writes and stars as in HBO’s Girls is styled in an intentionally unflattering way, and any fan of the show can tell you Hannah Horvath spends almost as much time out of her poorly fitting clothes as in them. The untouched photos show a Lena Dunham that everyone is already familiar with from the show, Girls – a person without eternal perfect lighting and a wind machine following her around, with blemishes and body hair. Her body may not be the same shape as your typical Vogue cover, but she is an undeniably attractive woman all the same.
Lena Dunham makes a conscious choice to show us her physical form on her own terms often, as is her right. To place a bounty on her unedited image is to objectify and make a commodity of her body. To do so in the name of feminism is absurd – feminism has never been about throwing other women under the bus.
At the end of the day, Lena Dunham’s career is unscathed and she has chosen to mostly rise above the scandal, calling it ‘ridiculous.’ Jezebel, all boosts in page views aside, has taken a serious hit in terms of their reputation as a ‘women’s interest’ site, with the reaction to the bounty being an almost universal “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING?” The upside is that this little mishap has raised some interesting questions about the nature of the beauty industry and of consent. How much retouching is considered acceptable? Is it ludicrous that we consider any level ‘acceptable?’ Do we have a right to see how the sausage is made when it comes at the expense of a human being who is doing what is expected to succeed in their industry?
Jezebel’s tagline is, Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing. Perhaps they should take a cue from a woman who is already a legend in Lena Dunham’s field, and an unabashed feminist:
“Do I worry about overly retouched photos giving women unrealistic expectations and body image issues? I do I think that we will soon see a rise in anorexia in women over seventy. Because only people over seventy are fooled by Photoshop…. People have learned how to spot it… As long as we all know it’s fake, it’s no more dangerous to society than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds… it’s okay to make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.” – Tina Fey