Yesterday, the lady blog Jezebel posted that they were willing to pay $10,000 for unretouched photos from Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover shoot, writing:
Our desire to see these images pre-Photoshop is not about seeing what Dunham herself “really” looks like; we can see that every Sunday night or with a cursory Google search. She’s everywhere. We already know what her body looks like. There’s nothing to shame here. Nor is this rooted in criticism of Dunham for working with Vogue. Entertainment is a business, after all, and Vogue brings a level of exposure that exceeds that of HBO. This is about Vogue, and what Vogue decides to do with a specific woman who has very publicly stated that she’s fine just the way she is, and the world needs to get on board with that. Just how resistant is Vogue to that idea? Unaltered images will tell.
Today, Jezebel has posted those unretouched images, which they said they received within two hours of their original post. The comparisons between the altered and unaltered images are so unremarkable, I’m almost surprised Jezebel posted them. I say “almost” because I’m assuming they had to fork over the promised $10K and likely want to get their money’s worth — in traffic if not in impact. The unaltered images are unremarkable in that they show what we already know — that Vogue Photoshopped Lena Dunham’s photos just as they Photoshop every photo in the magazine. But — and this probably came as a bit of bummer to Jez, considering how much dough they spent — the before and after shots of Dunham are not all that different, and are certainly not an example of the egregious retouching they no doubt hoped for. In fact, the biggest differences between the original photos and the ones that ran in the magazine have little to do with Dunham at all.
In one photo that ran in the magazine, Dunham sits atop Adam Driver’s shoulders, crossing an intersection not far from The Frisky’s office. The original photo shows that Dunham and Driver were actually photographed in an entirely different setting; the final image was a composite. And that photo of Dunham on a Brooklyn street, with a pigeon atop her head? Photographed in a studio and composited together. Sans pigeon, naturally.
As for changes made to Dunham’s face and body, the changes Jezebel was willing to pay $10K to see? They’re relatively minor in my view, especially when you consider how gung ho Vogue and photographer Annie Liebowitz usually are. In the image below, you can see that the neckline of Dunham’s dress has been shifted up to cover more of her cleavage, and the bunching at her waist, more fabric than flesh, has been slimmed down slightly. Her face has been slimmed and smoothed out slightly, but she still looks exactly like herself. The changes around Dunham’s mouth area seem less about making her look thinner and more about softening the frown on her face. Dunham’s body has not been Photoshopped to look noticeably thinner; her arms and legs look almost untouched. All of the photos have been brightened and there are small, inoffensive changes — the length of a hanging washcloth, the position of Driver’s knee — throughout. As far as I’m concerned, this is actually an example of Photoshop done right and well.
When Jezebel posted its callout yesterday, they were met with a lot of criticism from readers, who complained that the site was essentially body-snarking Lena Dunham under the guise of doing some sort of service. “Let’s look at how much Vogue Photoshopped Lena Dunham by comparing her REAL body to the one in the magazine!” The assumption was that Vogue MUST have altered the images significantly and that by pointing out all the ways in which they made Dunham look thinner/prettier/smoother etc. the site would be exposing some ugly, previously-unknown about the fashion and publishing industries. Except they already did that, quite successfully in fact, in 2007 when they posted an unretouched photo of a Faith Hill cover of Redbook. That photo showed just how much a magazine would Photoshop a woman already considered to be one of the great beauties of country music. Since then, much discussion has surrounded the excessive use of Photoshop, and we can certainly credit Jezebel for furthering that discussion.
The problem with this exercise in regards to Dunham is that A) there is no mystery surrounding what the “Girls” star really looks like, because she shows us on every episode on her HBO show; and B) she is not considered a great beauty by society’s standards. Ultimately, even if Vogue had retouched those photos to hell and back, what would posting them have done? Prove that Anna Wintour detests people bigger than a size 2? Shocker! Proving a point that’s already been made time and time again, by making an example of woman who already very bravely exposes her so-called “flaws” and is picked apart for the way she looks on a regular basis? Annotating just how Vogue changed those flaws feels like body snarking to me, but it’s more disingenuous because it’s being done under the guise of some bullshit, lofty purpose. The thing is, I don’t believe the site’s goal was to find some clever new way of shitting on Lena Dunham; I think they saw a traffic-growth opportunity and went for it. Unfortunately, their justification is misguided and smells like BS, so while they’ll get the traffic, it’ll likely cost them some readers.
Ultimately, Lena Dunham decided to do a photoshoot with Vogue and is seemingly very happy with how it turned out. And as these unretouched photos prove, she has every reason to be. She got to put on fun, fancy clothes, have her photo taken by one of the most well-regarded photographers in the world, and is featured on the cover of Vogue, looking very much like herself. If anything, the best thing to come out of this “controversy” is the realization that maybe some progress has been made after all.
But personally, if I had $10,000 of extra funds laying around The Frisky, I could have found better ways to spend it.