celebrities,  feminism,  magazines

Why Jezebel’s Lena Dunham photo bounty is going too far


If you haven’t heard by now, Girls writer and actress Lena Dunham is gracing the February cover of Vogue magazine. Landing the feature spread in the fashion Bible is usually enough to light up the Internet anyway, but Dunham’s photoshoot got an extra boost of publicity this week after feminist snark site Jezebel raised a hullabaloo over her retouched photos. The ruckus culminated in the site offering a $10,000 bounty for unretouched photos from the shoot, which were subsequently delivered and failed to impress almost everyone who saw them. (You can see an example over here on Yahoo! Shine.)

So what on earth is the big deal? (More after the break.)

I mean, this is the same website that railed for days about Jennifer Lawrence’s Flare magazine slim-down, and put out a bounty for unretouched pictures from Lupita Nyong’o’s Vanity Fair shoot, and…wait, what? You mean to tell me they didn’t? But…why not? Aren’t all Photoshopped shoots created equal?

Apparently not.

There are a lot of reasons I have a problem with Jezebel’s actions. For starters, it reeks of Mean Girl faux-feminism. The assumption seems to be that Lena is clearly so fat and squishy and non-pretty that she must require loads of Photoshop to be worthy of a magazine like Vogue. Whereas, with a thin and traditionally pretty celeb like Jennifer, well–yes, it’s a big deal that she was airbrushed, because she’s pretty. She doesn’t need it. But it’s not like there are juicy, horrifyingly unairbrushed photos to be dug up, right? But surely in this case there’s some dirt to be had, and we want to see it, dammit.

Which brings me to the second thing that makes me so queasy: Jezebel is essentially saying that Lena’s body is not her own. Never mind that Lena seems to be pretty happy with her photo shoot, apparently Tweeting about it on Thursday. Never mind that it’s a truth universally acknowledged that magazines airbrush their pictures and that, as Lena herself has pointed out, Vogue‘s photo department makes a habit of retouching photos for a fantastical interpretation of the world. No one has been misled into thinking their photos are unretouched.

In Jezebel’s world, how Lena feels about her body is of secondary concern to how everyone else feels about her body. Jezebel is trying to pretend that they’re shaming Vogue on her behalf, but let’s be real here. Lena didn’t call for the release of the photos; a bunch of voyeuristic editors decided that they had the right to see them, no matter what anyone else though of the matter. Because, you know, feminism.

It would be nice to see a round of huzzahs for a female comic, and a curvy one at that, landing the cover of what is probably the most prestigious fashion magazine in the world. Being a woman in Hollywood is hard. Being a female comic is harder. Being curvy? Now you’ve got a triple threat. But instead of showing a little female support for a woman who has taken the entertainment world by storm–not for being a reality TV star, or for dating someone famous, or for posing for Maxim–but for being talented and raw and real–Jezebel decided it was time to throw her to the wolves. Because that’s what they did: under the guise of making Vogue look bad, they invited everyone to return to the debate over Lena’s fat, fat, fat body, and everything that’s apparently wrong with it (hint: fat).

It also bugs me that Jezebel is so transfixed by Lena’s body, and not by many of the other bodies that have been altered before hers. The site has been guilty before of holding up the faux-feminist myth of “the real woman” and “the real female body”, and I feel like they’re doing it again. They’re so eager to prove that a “real” woman with a “real” shape is being altered, but what about a thinner woman (J-Law)? What about a woman of color (Lupita)? They’re not getting nearly the same press, and that’s wrong. (And yes, I realized that both of those women were mentioned on the site, but they didn’t receive nearly the same level of vitriol that Lena has.) All bodies–short, tall, fat, thin, dark, light–are real bodies. All women are real women. Sites like Jezebel need to stop selectively flying the body-positive flag only when it suits them.

And you know what, I understand that some of Dunham’s fans will be unhappy with her photos. She preaches body positivity and appears in a magazine that’s known for being anything but; I can see where someone would cry foul. But let’s be honest with ourselves: how many of us edit, crop and alter our own photos before we post them to social media? Apply filters on Instagram? Ask for a light bit of retouching for the wedding photo package that cost more than our first car? Be fair. If you were appearing in a magazine read by millions of people, wouldn’t you want your photos to be the very best they could possibly be? Maybe ask for those god-awful undereye circles to be whisked away, for your terrible posture to be digitally corrected? I think Lena probably feels the same as any other young woman enjoying her moment on the world stage–equal parts thrilled to bits and scared to death–and if someone gives her a light perk in her photos, she probably doesn’t mind.

There’s one more thing that bothers me, and that’s the nasty fact that a website actually shelled out $10,000 for what basically amounts to a publicity stunt. Jezebel is notorious for their click-bait-y headlines and this just seems like another attempt to drive traffic to the site. Sure, they’re shrouding the whole thing in self-righteous rhetoric about the evils of airbrushing and body positivity, but their angle seems to have nothing to do with being body-positive; it just seems like a chance to boost pageviews. And I can’t help but wonder: how many body-positive or feminist charities could have benefited from that $10,000?


  • Arielle Thibodeaux

    I just took a look at the untouched photos and they’re really not all that different. I totally agree with everything you have to say about this matter. I’m not a huge fan of Jezebel anyway. They seem to always been on a witch hunt.

  • Amanda Rose

    I don’t get much into celeb gossip, but I love love Lena. She is so real. She doesn’t care what she does on screen or off screen because she loves herself and I love her, too.

    Amanda Rose

  • M.

    This is the first I’ve heard of this, so I haven’t read the Jezebel article or looked at most of the photos. But I feel like Jezebel’s outrage was misplaced. I suspect that their objection was more to the fact that Dunham, who seems like the anti-Vogue in her raw comedic persona, decided to be in Vogue in the first place than what Vogue did with the photos. If they’d made a case that she should have graced the cover of a more feminist publication (Ms., Bitch), I suppose that would make more sense in a way – though really, who the hell cares?
    And I admit, I was surprised to see the image of her face on Vogue. Not because she’s not pretty (I think she’s gorgeous), but because she isn’t the type of pretty I have become accustomed to seeing on the cover of this magazine – boring, homogenous, vaguely skeletal and entirely symmetrical. To me this whole thing smacks of a teenager throwing a fit because someone in their life didn’t give them exactly what they want. It feels juvenile, and yes, mean.

  • Melissa G.

    First, I love that you didn’t link to them. Second, I agree with what you’re saying. It’s like they’re trying to make a big deal out of the fact that a curvy woman was retouched which goes against body positivity anyway. And as an aside I love Lena Dunham and in my head we’d totally be BFF. Stopping by from sits.

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