When the feminist blog Jezebel offered a $10,000 bounty for unretouched versions of the photos of Girls creator and star Lena Dunham that Vogue published earlier this year, their grounds for seeking out the images were part charges of hypocrisy, part a slap at vogue.
“Lena Dunham has spoken out, frequently, about society’s insane and unattainable beauty standards. Dunham embraces her appearance as that of a real woman; she’s as body positive as they come,” Jezebel editor Jessica Coen wrote. “But that’s not really Vogue’s thing, is it? Vogue is about perfection as defined by Vogue, and rest assured that they don’t hesitate to alter images to meet those standards.”
When the pictures came out, it was clear that the retouching was relatively minimal. The addition of a bird perching on Dunham’s head was more dramatic than any of the minor subtractions the magazine made to her body. But many of the defenses of Dunham essentially assumed Jezebel’s logic was correct: that Photoshop is a tool to correct us, make us less vulnerable. Shoved in front of an audience as big as Vogue’s, the argument went, who wouldn’t want a little help in looking their best.
It was a sentiment Dunham herself echoed on Grantland editor Bill Simmons’ BS Report podcast yesterday.
“I felt completely respected by Vogue. I felt like, ‘thank you for removing the one line from my face because I’m 27 years old and shouldn’t have that there,’” Dunham told Simmons. “Instead of going like ‘Hey we kind f — — — up, these pictures aren’t that retouched, Lena, enjoy the Vogue spread that you’ve been excited about since you were eight years old.’ They were like, ‘she’s not retouched, but she could’ve been.’ It was this weird almost political maneuvering that I just had a lot of trouble respecting.”
In a round-about way, Dunham is getting at a question I think is important. Photoshop, and other retouching tools, are often used to correct flaws in women’s features, by which I mean homogenizing them. It’s true that the camera can magnify details that are normally invisible to the naked eye, but for the most part, to Photoshop a woman means to make her look thinner, slimming her neck and sharpening her cheekbones, whittling her waist, smoothing her skin. In some cases, it means lightening her complexion or altering the architecture of her nose. When things get sloppy, it can mean removing her bones or making her limbs invisible.
But one of the things that was charming about Dunham’s shoot in Vogue was the ways in which it served as an illustration that such alterations represent a limited vision of what Photoshop can accomplish. Rather than simply editing her into compliance with accepted standards of beauty, Annie Leibowitz, who often creates richly fantastical images for Vogue, put Dunham in a whimsical dream of New York, full of tame birds, boyfriends in luxurious bathtubs, and beautifully-lit subway stations. Instead of shrinking the woman, Leibowitz made the world around her magical.
If more magazines could take up that charge, expanding their imaginations and making more creative use of the tools available to them, we’d have more interesting covers and photo shoots. And then maybe when women like Dunham get “the Vogue spread that you’ve been excited about since you were eight years old,” that can be something to cheer, rather than an opportunity to scrutinize their principles for evidence of betrayal.