Behind The Lena Dunham Photoshop Backlash

Feb 2, 2014
Originally published on January 22, 2014 3:36 pm

The latest round in the battle over body image, a dust up between the upstart online magazine Jezebel and the Conde Nast giant Vogue may be going to Vogue.

Jezebel accused Vogue of photoshopping images of HBO sensation Lena Dunham, who famously insists on displaying her real, somewhat rounded shoulder and chin on her own show, “Girls.”

Jezebel jumped on the Vogue covers, which streamlined some of those features. Jezebel offered $10,000 for the un-retouched images.

“Despite the fact that Vogue did clearly Photoshop Lena Dunham, their cover girl, they’re actually winning this,” Emma Bazilian, media reporter for AdWeek, tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. “Vogue is supposed to be this sort of fantasy version of a fashion reality, and it’s really nothing that you wouldn’t expect from them. And plus, they really get kudos for putting such a real girl — who’s not like a size 2 model or actress — on the cover.”

Yesterday, Vogue released a charming video of Dunham and Vogue European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, made on the day of the photo shoot.

Meantime, American Eagle’s lingerie brand Aerie has launched a campaign called “Aerie Real,” which features un-retouched models.

Read More

Jezebel “Aside from the obvious lighting tweaks that any publication would make, the unretouched images are pretty perfect. Which makes some of the adjustments — slightly narrowing a jaw or raising a waistline — seem that much more unnecessary. Why bother? These slight tweaks, the “you look great, but you’d look just a little more great if…” stuff is insidious.”

The Daily Beast “Compared to other Photoshop jobs in women’s glossies (many of which Jezebel has singled out), these were so anti-climatic that we can’t help but roll our eyes when Coen calls them “insidious.” The cover alterations were impossibly subtle, but Coen detailed the portrait’s offenses against the “real” Lena Dunham in the language of a police report.”

Lena Dunham’s response via Slate “I understand that for people there is a contradiction between what I do and being on the cover of Vogue; but frankly I really don’t know what the photoshopping situation is, I can’t look at myself really objectively in that way. I know that I felt really like Vogue supported me and wanted to put a depiction of me on the cover. I never felt bullied into anything … 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.”


Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit




The latest round in the battle over body image, a dust up between the upstart feminist online magazine Jezebel and the Conde Nast giant Vogue may be going vogue.

To recap, Jezebel criticized Vogue for Photoshopping images of HBO sensation Lena Dunham, who's so famously insist on displaying her real somewhat rounded shoulders and chin on her show, "Girls." When she appeared on the cover of Vogue and inside, those endearing attributes were streamlined. Jezebel paid $10,000 for unretouched pictures. Many of Dunham's fans were appalled. Maybe round one to Jezebel.

But yesterday, Vogue released a charming video of Lena and Vogue European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, made on the day of the shoot. She's in her PJs. He's in top hat and tails. She confesses she's nervous. He offers that they act out Vogue covers of the past, say, Cindy Crawford.


HAMISH BOWLES: We could do Cindy who's like crazy, athletic, Amazon. Feel the core. Feel the core.


BOWLES: What about Twiggy? Like pigeon-toed, goofy. That, I think, you really nailed it. That is good.

DUNHAM: I think I'm really starting to get this.

YOUNG: The video ends in a choreographed dance as if this nonmodel is already saying back then, look, I'm not a supermodel. Maybe score this round to Vogue. Emma Bazilian is a staff writer at AdWeek, in the NPR studios in New York. Emma, what do you make of all this?

EMMA BAZILIAN: I think that, you know, kind of against all odds, despite the fact that Vogue did clearly photoshopped Lena Dunham, their cover girl, they're actually winning this because, you know, I think that Vogue is supposed to be this sort of fantasy version of, you know, a fashion reality. And it's really nothing that you wouldn't expect from them. And, plus, you know, they really get kudos for putting such a real girl who's not like a size two model or actress on the cover in the first place.

YOUNG: Well, that's what Lena Dunham said to Slate Paris. She said, 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. But Kate Waldman responded to that in Slate by saying, well, having a woman who's different from the typical Vogue cover girl means daring to embrace the qualities that make that woman different, not wishfully minimizing them.

And if you look at the Jezebel site, you can see the touch-ups: the back is a little less rounded, the chin is more streamlined, the waist may be cinched a tiny bit. You know, don't people who are being critical have a point that you sort of ruin the point of putting a different person on if you make her look the same?

BAZILIAN: I think that, you know, despite the Photoshopping, sure, she looks beautiful. She looks like her best version of herself. But she still doesn't look like your typical model or starlet. You know, she still looks like someone that you wouldn't necessarily expect to find on the cover of Vogue.

YOUNG: Well, and this is part of a much larger conversation. Remind us, what are some of the other stories that have come up recently of people pointing fingers at women who've been Photoshopped?

BAZILIAN: Yes. So in just the past few months, it seems to have exploded. There's first, that Elle cover with Melissa McCarthy where they put her in, you know, a really big, oversized coat. They were accused of trying to cover up her body because she wasn't thin. And then Lady Gaga was on the cover of Glamour. She actually, at a Glamour event, condemned the cover for, you know, overly retouching her and, you know, not making her look like herself when she wakes up in the morning. I mean, of course, it's funny because at this event, she's wearing a crazy wig and looks nothing like, you know, what she probably looks like in the morning.

YOUNG: Well, actually, we have some of that sound of Lady Gaga. Again, she was the recipient of Glamour magazine's - one of the Women of the Year awards they handed out. Here's Lady Gaga on the red carpet before the awards, speaking to reporters.


LADY GAGA: In order to help young people to understand that they don't have to put so much pressure on themselves to look so perfect all the time. They should know a whole lot of money and time went into that shoot. I don't like look like that when I wake up in the morning.

YOUNG: So, Emma, it's funny. As you point out, she wants to get across the message to young girls - and she has so many, you know, young fans - that, hey, I don't really look like that. But you point out, well, she also doesn't look like the image that she presents to them on stage. Nobody walks around in their underwear.

BAZILIAN: Yeah. I think that, you know, it was definitely a mixed message and especially the fact that this Glamour cover - at least compared to other magazine covers she's done - was one of the more natural, less made up, less outrageous-looking photographs of her.

YOUNG: Well - and this has happened outside of entertainment. Katie Couric you could say was a victim of Photoshopping CBS, Photoshopped her first publicity pictures. And, of course, it's supposed to be news operation and they'd taken several pounds and inches off of her. Oprah is on the cover of the magazine she owns every month and sometimes looks impossibly thin. So the controversy is, of course, that this is deceitful to especially young women who are starving themselves to try to look like something that isn't real.

Earlier this week, Aerie, American Eagle's lingerie store, launched a new campaign that flaunts no Photoshopping. Here's Aerie style and fit director, Jenny Altman. She's on "Good Morning America."


JENNY ALTMAN: We left everything. We left beauty marks. We left tattoos. What you see is really what you get with our campaign.

YOUNG: So, Emma Bazilian, again you're with Advertising Week, AdWeek. Is this just a winking nod by a company, or do you any change really happening? We saw some change on runways. We saw runway shows decide, well, maybe we shouldn't have 12-year-old models in some cases. But can you put this genie back in the bottle?

BAZILIAN: Honestly, I don't think you can. I think it's really commendable that brands like Aerie are trying to do this and trying to, you know, present a more realistic picture of women for their young customers. But, you know, I don't think it's realistic to expect that. At some point, we will see an un-retouched Vogue cover or any un-retouched magazine covers at all.

YOUNG: Well - but Aerie isn't the only campaign. There was the Dove Real campaign.

BAZILIAN: Yeah. The Dove Real campaign has actually kind of started this whole marketing approach towards this real woman because it was really one of the most viral ads of 2013. And, you know, a lot of people said it was the best ad of 2013 and because we know women really embraced it, because they hadn't seen anything like this before. And I think there's definitely a trend towards showing the real woman and, you know, not airbrushing her, not covering her up.

Seventeen actually launched its own Body Peace Treaty it's calling it after a group of teenage girls started a petition last year to ask Seventeen to print one unaltered photo spread a month. And Seventeen has run un-retouched photos of young women, you know, not much on the same vein as Aerie. These are obviously beautiful girls to begin with, but, you know, the fact that they are not being made even more perfect is definitely a step in the right direction.

YOUNG: And what does the ad world say about this? Do they say, that will never last or, you know, financially, there won't be no - the magazines will - that do this will drop off?

BAZILIAN: I think in the ad world at least, they are interested in things that are going to create buzz and draw in more eyeballs. And right now, what's creating buzz and getting people to pay attention is these un-retouched campaigns. I mean, ever since the Dove Real Beauty sketches came out, this has really been something that's gotten great, great positive reaction. But at the same time, I think that you have to look at the difference between, you know, an ad campaign that's speaking to young women and a fashion magazine cover which, you know, it's not supposed to be real. It's supposed to be a beautiful stylized version of reality.

YOUNG: This is exactly what Lena Dunham said. I'm wondering, too, if there's an aspect of this that's just human. You know, you can condemn Photoshopping until you're the one who has the opportunity to a million-dollar photo shoot.

BAZILIAN: Yeah. I mean, I've always said, if I was ever in a magazine, on a magazine cover, there is no way I would do it if I was not Photoshopped.

YOUNG: Well - but do you think this is going to hurt Lena Dunham's product? I mean, she is a product in a way. The "Girls" show is a product. It's funny. We spoke about it recently with young girls who's done the poem that's gone viral about wanting to, you know, take up space and be - instead of shrinking herself as girls are doing. And Lena Dunham had complimented that young girl for, you know, what they tried to do on "Girls," splay themselves across furniture and take up space and, you know, lower their shirts on their shoulders even if that shoulder is a little pudgy.

BAZILIAN: Yeah. I think that as far as the Lena Dunham brand, you're still seeing her in, you know, all of her rawness every single night on HBO. I don't think that a single Vogue cover, you know, where she's been touched up a bit is going to change the fact that she's still putting herself out there every week and, you know, showing her body. And, you know, she's not hiding anything.

YOUNG: Emma Bazilian, staff writer at AdWeek from the NPR studios in New York. Thanks so much.

BAZILIAN: Thank you.


YOUNG: OK. And if you've been scratching at the radio trying to get in this, please do. Let us know what you think at From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.