It’s been a newsworthy few weeks in the world of Lena Dunham. First, a reporter asked her what good there was to gain by her displaying her naked body on screen in her hit TV show, Girls. (Mentor and Girls‘ executive producer Judd Apatow was not pleased.) Then, she displayed said body at the Golden Globe Awards in a yellow dress arguably worth more than most peoples’ rent, only to continue to display the aforementioned naked body in an hourlong premiere of the aforementioned TV show on the same night. Moreover, earlier this week, her long-rumored Vogue cover was confirmed, with the fancy Annie Leibovitz spread and fancy clothes and fancy costar-slash-prop, Adam Driver that only a Vogue feature could offer. And now, Jezebel’s Editor-in-Chief has offered $10,000 to any Vogue staffer, Leibovitz underling, or Dunham confidante (maybe Lamby, her dog, who also appears in the spread?) who will cough up the unretouched versions of these photos. They can do so anonymously, if they wish, a Deep Throat of digital, pixelated proof that the Girl to end all girls succumbed to that seductive liar, Photoshop.
They have, by all effects, put a bounty on Lena Dunham’s body.
Now, Dunham is no stranger to attention being drawn to her body. In a world (read: Hollywood) where Jennifer Lawrence feels like she is fat, Dunham is markedly Other. Yet instead of apologizing for it — because after all, she does not need to apologize, nor should she — she has gotten naked on screen. Multiple times (though not as often as you might think.) Not only that, as the creator of her show and the writer of the movie that launched her to fame, Tiny Furniture, she has written some of those scenes herself. Knowing full well that people find her body wanting, she has gone ahead and authored her nakedness anyway.
Nakedness is a part of who the character of Hannah Horvath, a struggling, bumbling, awkward 20-something, is. She is naked with her boyfriend Adam, played by Driver (who is himself shirtless for much of the show, but because he is a man and because he has the markings of someone who works out, no one really cares), and their sexual relationship plays out often on screen because to talk about being in your 20s in this day and age is to talk about how you’re coming to terms with your sexuality and your body. Hannah walks around her apartment in her underwear, one of the most simplistic forms of freedom that people living in their first apartment experience. (Ask my roommate, I consider it a clause in my lease.) And Hannah is emotionally naked throughout the show — with Adam, with her friends, with total strangers because she is raw and awkward and doesn’t know how to use a filter on her mouth. And in this unmasked portrait of a girl who is just trying to figure out life on her own, we see a lot of Dunham’s body.
The argument here is that it serves an artistic purpose. Hannah’s bare body, in whatever size it is in whatever scene it is in, acts as allegory.
But Dunham’s spread in Vogue also serves its purpose. The magazine, which regularly employs lithe, otherworldly models to display the clothes of the season, is no stranger to cultivating a certain image. In fact, that’s what its aim is to do. Vogue is an image, and has been long before Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour took the masthead by storm. Condé Nast’s premiere women’s glossy has carefully curated its message and imagery since its inception, with the likes of Gay Talese remarking on its staffers ability to speak in italics, curse in French, and know when one should call something a ball gown or an evening dress in his 1960 article called “VOGUEland.” Even Diana Vreeland, the famed Editor-in-Chief who helped cement Vogue‘s place as the final say in all things fashion and style, grew up with a mother who called her ugly, and was quoted as saying that she “adored artifice” (so you know she would have loooved what modern Photoshop can do).
As much as it sells clothes — and indeed, people do buy the dresses and bags and coats with thousand dollar digits and “ask upon request” listed coyly next to the designers’ names — Vogue sells a lifestyle. Vogue sells its own image. If it didn’t, readers would have absolutely no more reason to pick it up than they do with any other magazine. They are invested in Vogue because it is its own label. It has its own ideals and its own vision. Lena Dunham may be atypical of the standard image that Vogue serves up, but that does not mean that she cannot be fashionable and stylish and on trend. That does not mean she does not want to dress up and look pretty and pose for a photographer who has snapped photos of everyone from Barack Obama to Miley Cyrus to John Lennon.
It honestly comes as no shock to me that Dunham’s photos may have been retouched. After all, this is what Vogue does. (As to that so-called missing arm in the shot of Dunham on the bed? I’ll warrant that that was just a weird pose. Her legs are akimbo in that photo as well. And after all, Dunham’s signature as Hannah, the premise of whom the shoot was loosely modeled, is to be weird and awkward and at all the wrong angles with her body and with life. The pose, minus its designer dress, actually works in line with the Girls narrative.)
But Jezebel’s take on the matter is interesting, in part because it’s supposed to be interesting. Jezebel, much like this website, functions on a matter that they have to find an interesting side to the story. This is their version of the lifestyle that sets Vogue apart. If nothing set their articles apart, the chances that people would go to their website would be much smaller. And they need people to go to their website. They, like this website, and like all websites run on a business model, need the page views. This is not news to anyone. It is not wrong for a website to run on this business model, either. And it is not necessarily wrong for them to go to the most inventive ends imaginable to completely repackage a story for their voice and their audience. But to offer $10,000 for photos in the name of celebrating a woman’s body might be missing the point.
Because it is not celebratory. Because there is no glory in comparing the original images to the ones that appear in the magazine like there is no glory in logging onto Instagram and debating if Kim Kardashian photoshopped her selfie. Yet we do this all the time, and compare bodies to their airbrushed counterparts (even in reverse, which is all at once mind-boggling and depressing). Sometimes, it’s right to call bullshit when it comes to excessive photoshop. We live in a society that is constantly plagued by body image issues, by cleanses and diets and weight loss pills and extreme exercise routines and eating disorders left, right, and center. We are told daily that cellulite is bad, that a cookie is bad, that not being any larger than a given prescribed size is bad. We are told that fat is the enemy. We are told how we ought to look. And sadly, we often buy into it.
But even when we do buy into it, we do so in detrimental ways. Even though thinner may ostensibly be healthier — though not always so, because of course, why should anyone ever be allowed to win? — making such a commodity out of it and shaming people about it will only lead to unhealthy ways of achieving that. After all, between quick fixes and yo-yo diets, the weight loss industry reaps billions of dollars in revenue a year. This business model works for them. Helping people lose weight and stay fit is not as lucrative as it is to shame people into losing weight, waiting for them to grow complacent and regain the weight, and offering the same expensive methods to lose those same pounds all over again. To try to “fix” your body from a place of shame and self-loathing will not actually fix it, especially because your body does not necessarily need to be fixed in the first place. What it needs is care and love and acceptance, most of all from the person whose soul inhabits that body, let alone from society and the media.
There is, of course, resistance to the weight loss shame spiral, and yet the body positive movement — and especially the fat acceptance movement — tends to get its own share of criticism. Leaner people are healthier, critics say, and most doctors would agree, but bodies are also capable of more than just an acceptable muscle-to-fat ratio and looking good in expensive clothes and sparking thinkpieces (like this one, I fully admit to the irony in this statement) on the internet. Bodies are capable of moving and dancing and running and hugging one another and celebrating the thing that courses so strongly through our veins: life.
Is it right to demand less retouching in photographs and on magazine covers? Yes. Is it right to demand that designers show a wider array of bodies when they select models for their ad campaigns? Definitely. Is it also right to acknowledge that women who are naturally a size 2 or 0 — for indeed, they exist — are as much women as are any other women of any other size? Absolutely. And by putting a woman like Dunham on the cover, Vogue is slowly showing that its italic-speaking staffers are beginning to listen to the argument that all bodies are valid. Maybe. Possibly. At least it’s another baby step in the right direction.
Vogue has one narrative, and it is rooted in over a hundred years’ worth of its own dogma. Jezebel has its own narrative, and it is a far younger, far more actively progressive piece of media. Neither stance is wrong, because an audience exists for both views. (Some people even read both, because two different views can exist in one world.) And to go so far as to offer a ransom for proof that Lena Dunham has allowed Photoshop to contour her body isn’t fair. And I honestly fail to see how it will do any real good.
Lena Dunham isn’t the problem, and we know this because we already know what Lena Dunham looks like. And when it is appropriate in her art, she will continue to remind us. But only when it is appropriate. Because Dunham is an artist — a creative, whatever you would like to call her — and whether you love or hate Girls, she has made millions by providing an audience with a hit, award-winning television show on a major network. And she has helped to change a narrative in the realm of 20-somethings who were scared and confused and naked and raw to their friends and significant others and parents and the world, but who now think that they can be the voice of a generation as well.
Dunham may not be the voice of your generation if you do not want her to be. Her character Hannah never claimed to be the be-all, end-all for those young women who still refer to themselves as “girls” in that painful in-between of adolescence and adulthood known as the millennial generation. But her body is not your body, and it is not ours to lampoon like a trophy when someone gives into a bounty that could do much more good in the world than lining the pockets of a staff member who capitulated to greed. To focus on that is also to take away from the good that Dunham can do by being in the pages of Vogue.
Because retouched or not, she does not apologize for the number that is listed on the label in her designer clothes. Nor should she. Nor should anyone else else, regardless of how much those clothes cost.