"It was the most minimal retouching."
In an interview with Bill Simmons for Grantland, Girls creator Lena Dunham skewered Jezebel for publishing her un-photoshopped photos from her Vogue shoot: “They made such a monumental error in their approach to feminism… It felt gross.” (Fast forward to 52:15.)
The call-out was well-deserved.
To recap: After Lena Dunham landed on the cover of Vogue‘s February issue, Jezebel offered a whopping $10,000 for un-retouched versions of the photos shot by Annie Leibowitz. At the time, Jezebel wrote, “[Dunham's] body is real. She is real. And for as lovely as the Vogue pictures are, they’re probably not terribly real.” Two hours later, Jezebel got their wish and published the unaltered photos on their site.
“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… 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.”
Jezebel’s agenda was tentative to begin with: Vogue‘s job is to sell a certain image of beauty. Any celebrity gracing the cover of Vogue — tall, short, fat, thin — can expect to be retouched. But — as they themselves noted — Dunham’s body is on full display on HBO every Sunday night, which made the stunt seem pointless; they didn’t need to provide that public service of revealing Dunham’s true figure to the public. The site’s big reveal wouldn’t have made waves, but the $10,000 offer did (just as the same gambit did in 2007 when the site offered a cash reward for Faith Hill’s un-retouched Redbook cover).
And then the photos turned out to be barely retouched at all. Sure, they pulled up the neckline of her dress and skimmed a little off her hips, but Dunham looks like herself in the shoot — curves and all. The biggest change in the photo is the filter, and that’s an alteration millions of people make to every one of their photos, thanks to Instagram.
The problem? Jezebel didn’t admit that they had been wrong in assuming that Dunham’s image had been drastically altered. Instead, they wrote, “While Dunham has not been radically Photoshopped, it’s clearer than ever what kind of woman Vogue finds Vogue-worthy: The taller, longer-limbed, svelter version of reality. Vogue is not interested in reality, of course.”
But it wasn’t clearer than ever. If anything, this shoot represented a sea change at Vogue: a publication that routinely changes people’s bodies to fit an ideal chose to feature someone on their cover who is unerringly confident in her body the way it is.
In the interview with Simmons, Dunham makes this exact point:
“I think Jezebel can be really smart and funny, but once you’ve been attacked in that way it’s hard to enjoy…
I was kind of scared to see the un-retouched images of me, I was like, maybe I’m delusional and I don’t look how I think I look. And it was like—they smoothed a line here, and shaved a line on my neck. It was the most minimal retouching. I felt completely respected by Vogue…
Instead of going like, ‘Hey, we kinda f***ed 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.”
Dunham is being diplomatic: The posts and the reward were a bid for clicks, and they worked. But Dunham, not Vogue, became a casualty as the conversation turned (yet again) to her body, with which the public has a seemingly endless fascination.
There’s certainly a greater point to be made about how fashion magazines treat curvy celebrities — not just Dunham — on their covers. But Jezebel didn’t make that point, choosing instead to stick to their guns with a failed publicity stunt that didn’t prove anything at all.