Wasn’t it only last week that Lena Dunham was the Internet’s favorite body-positive darling? When she calmly responded to a television critic who objected to the presence of her insufficiently titillating body, she was lauded in a hundred feminist think pieces championing her rejection of television’s no-thigh policy. But apparently all that good will was shot when she had the audacity to have the bags under her eyes digitally removed. The horror!
After Dunham’s rather pretty Vogue spread was published on Wednesday, Jezebel posted a $10,000 bounty for the release of the unretouched photos. Was it because they didn’t believe she could look that glam? Of course not! Was it because they thought she’d look heavier in the originals? Certainly no! Was it because Dunham haters would flock to Jezebel in order to see unflattering images? Never! See, Jezebel was just trying to attack the harsh beauty standards propagated by the fashion industry and promote body acceptance. Clearly, because nothing screams “love yourself!” like pointing tiny arrows at the “flaws” in a woman’s face and figure.
But they weren’t pointing out flaws, Jezebel would argue. They obviously offered such a large sum of money because they wanted to celebrate Dunham’s innate physical charms, not offer her up for criticism. Now, if the original photos had made Dunham appear 40 pounds thinner or had chopped off various limbs, then I would have said, fine, let’s see what was so objectionable. But she looked like herself with more eyeliner. So when the photos were released, all we discovered was that, gasp!, she didn’t actually have that bird on her head. That’s some stellar reporting, guys. The Pulitzer is in the bag.
When Jezebel first began the “Photoshop of Horrors” feature in 2007 with the unretouched Faith Hill images, they were actually attacking something insidious—i.e., the fact that famous men are allowed to have veins and wrinkles while famous women remain locked in an uncanny valley populated by Bratz dolls. The feature served a real purpose. But the Dunham stunt felt less like a critique of beauty magazines and more like a lazy exercise in click-baiting, which did little but feed the unattractive impulse that makes women buy tabloids promising “Stars Without Makeup!” and “The Worst Celebrity Beach Bodies!”.
When it comes to images of Dunham, Jezebel knows they’re going to get two things: lots of page views and lots of vitriol. Dunham is polarizing—with most people either over her, annoyed by her, or confused as to why a woman with more talent than traditional beauty continues to get so much press. Jezebel knew that releasing these images—innocuous as they were—wasn’t going to be pretty. It wasn’t going to magically inspire collective body acceptance or end the reign of the thigh gap. They knew it would unleash the trolls. Which it did.
Now, I personally think Dunham is kind of hot—especially with that haircut—so I don’t understand why people act like she’s some swamp creature freshly plucked from the Gowanus. But, more importantly, I think she’s a fantastic writer and a thoughtful director. Sure, season two of Girls was uneven, but so was season six of Mad Men, and I don’t hear anyone asking Matthew Weiner to return all the awards. If people dislike her work, then fine. They certainly have every right to criticize it. But they should focus on her work, not her. And saying, “woof, I just don’t get her; put on some pants,” is not criticizing her work.
So let’s be honest. There was no winning here. If Vogue had refused to put Dunham on their cover and had instead chosen a more conventionally attractive starlet, we would all be demanding an apology. But then Dunham goes on the cover, and everyone is all, why are you supporting the beauty industrial complex! Perhaps she should have demanded a photoshop ban, but then she probably would have been criticized for using too much makeup and deceptive lighting. I guess she should have appeared barefaced and in an ill-fitting skirt—oh wait, she basically does that every week on Girls. Remember Girls: the show she writes, stars in, and often directs. But who cares about her work. Let’s discuss her waist one more time.