For the February 2014 issue of Vogue, the beautiful Lena Dunham was featured on the cover. Dunham has been praised for promoting body positivity through frequently appearing naked on her HBO show Girls, but she has also been criticized for this artistic decision for a number of reasons – some people are uncomfortable seeing nudity so often. But another sad source of backlash is the fact that Dunham is not a size 0 and is not ashamed to be completely naked anyway, which seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable.
Dunham stands for body acceptance and the idea of the “real woman” who is not superskinny but of average body size. So many were confused when Dunham appeared in Vogue looking sufficiently post-processed – that is, she was Photoshopped just as most magazine features are. On the day of the magazine release, the online magazine Jezebel took one look at the photos and promptly offered $10,000 to anyone who could get them the original, unretouched photos. They got the pictures within two hours. Now, I don’t particularly agree with this decision on Jezebel’s part. I understand that they wanted to be the first to expose the pictures, but putting an emergency bounty on them seemed a little less than graceful.
The use of Photoshop in the media has been under heavy scrutiny lately, especially in the world of magazines and print advertisements. Post-processed images have been criticized because they promote an unrealistic image – making thin women thinner, whitening teeth, or even erasing pores from faces. When Jennifer Lawrence was featured in Flare magazine, the Internet freaked out over the before and after GIF:
Jezebel summed up the horror in one statement: “I mean. They moved her bones around.”
Vogue’s photos have been condemned by some as an insidious message of unrealistic perfection, but defended by others as artistic and “fantasy-like”. A few days after Jezebel exposed the original photos, NPR wrote an article called “Does It Matter That Lena Dunham Was Photoshopped By ‘Vogue’?” The answer is yes, NPR, yes, it does matter. Both NPR and Dunham herself argued that even though the photos were retouched, at least it was a positive move to even feature Dunham in the magazine at all – which is a pretty depressing thing to say, when you think about it. Dunham said, “I understand that for people there is a contradiction between what I do and being on the cover of Vogue…[but] a fashion magazine is like a beautiful fantasy. Vogue isn’t the place that we go to look at realistic women.”
But the problem has nothing to do with the fact that Dunham was featured in Vogue. The problem isn’t even that she was airbrushed to perfection. The real problem with Photoshopping images in the media is that it lets the magazine editors set the standards for what is considered beautiful in society. It lets them decide what perfection is. It gives them the power to determine that wide eyes, high cheekbones, and poreless skin are what make a woman more beautiful. Not only does this put a lot of emphasis on external appearances, but it creates specific standard appearances.
Last month, American Eagle’s sister store, aerie, launched the ad campaign aerie Real, featuring entirely unretouched models – birthmarks, tattoos, stray hairs, and all. And it’s not just the ad campaign, it’s the entire site. All of the pictures on aerie.com are unretouched, and you can tell because their bodies are all different. Their abs are asymmetrical, they have uneven skin tones, and these are things that photo editors would consider “imperfections”. Compare what you see shopping for bras at aerie with what you see on the Victoria’s Secret website. The difference is striking. It shows that there exists a standard image of women that most people accept as normal because they’re so prevalent in the media. And that’s just not okay.