This week the US website Jezebel offered $10 000 to anyone who could provide the original, pre-Photoshop images of Lena Dunham's American Vogue cover story. Within two hours it had received six allegedly untouched images from the Annie Leibovitz shoot and published them, complete with a list of alterations. Dunham, the writer, and star of the hugely successful HBO series Girls, and the recipient of a $3.5-million book deal, has become a poster girl for her generation. Yet, she is in danger of being celebrated more for her nudity than her deft writing, humour or acting ability. It seems, even after three seasons, that all anyone can think about is Dunham's body.
I won't say Dunham has a normal body, because what does normal even mean? Five minutes in a communal swimming pool changing room will soon present you with a smorgasbord of flesh, a veritable feast of different shapes, sizes and colours of bodies. It is far easier to recognise what is not a normal body type: impossibly skinny, taut, hard, tanned, with breasts that defy gravity – the kind you see all the time in magazines, on television, and in films. Dunham does not have one of these abnormal bodies.
Dunham is also known for her robust attitude to those who try to "fat shame" her. She responded to bloggers who bitched about the size of her uncovered thighs: "Get used to it because I am going to live to be 100, and I am going to show my thighs every day till I die". Yet, despite such shrewd retorts, Dunham keeps being forced to defend her body, because people keep questioning it, as if they can't quite compute that she's actually standing there, all fleshy and real, without an Instagram filter.
Jezebel claims it has acted out of anger at US Vogue for retouching Dunham's image, saying that the editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, "fixed" Dunham to make her "Vogue-worthy". By publishing the original pictures, Jezebel wants to declare Dunham as its own: a feminist, positive body image role model. Which is great, but it has actually acted at odds with its own beliefs. Offering money to expose images of Dunham as retouched, as opposed to any of the other myriad stars that have graced Vogue's pages, is yet just another form of obsession with the star's figure. The site seems outraged that the photos don't look like the real Lena Dunham. Well guess what? No one in Vogue looks like that in real life. Singling out one woman to out in this way is just another form of body shaming. It is no great win for feminism.
The damaging implications of retouched images, particularly on teenagers and young adults, have been widely discussed. In 2011, 76% of British MPs felt that airbrushing contributed to an unhealthy body image. About 40% thought secondary schools should have mandatory lessons on body image. As of yet, this is only recommended practice. There are no laws in place. Questioning the widespread use of retouching is a welcome discussion. Making an example of one woman's case detracts from the moral questions at play.
Vogue is a high-end fashion magazine and its capital is fantasy. As such it has provided a set of beautifully lit, whimsical images of Dunham that fit its illusory modus operandi. Vogue has delivered a very clear "after" to the naked and non-airbrushed "before" images of Dunham with which her Girls audience – largely made up of teens and young adults – are familiar. It is impossible to view the Vogue images and not comprehend the impact of retouching.
Whether Wintour intended it, Dunham's Vogue shoot has the potential to enlighten a generation to the gap between reality and retouching. That is the real win for feminism. – © Guardian News and Media 2014