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The Conversation I Wish We Were Having About Lena Dunham, ‘Vogue,’ and Jezebel

The whole conflagration between Lena Dunham, Vogue, and Jezebel over the ethics of photoshopping makes me very tired. It makes me very tired because I hate talking about fashion.

There, I said it.

I hate it because I was that kid in my suburban Canadian middle school who never wore the right outfits, no matter how many times she trotted out the Club Monaco sweatshirt everyone else was wearing. It took a few years’ hard time among the Mean Girls to learn that I was never going to get it right. That relieved me of the constant hope-despair cycle that was getting dressed and going to school, but it didn’t mean the Mean Girls let up at all, so my adolescence was mostly awful, appearance-wise. Kind adults in my vicinity at the time told me to wait. When I grew up, looks would not matter so much. People would allow you to be original, and they would care about your work and your personality more than what you looked like.

Unfortunately, those adults were lying to me.

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In adult life, as it turns out, there is actually a legitimate (and coveted!) career available in sitting around picking apart each others’ looks. It’s called being a “fashion editor.” (Many editors at women’s magazines are upstanding people, for what it’s worth; I really am just talking about the fashion side.) And the behavior these people encourage in the rest of us plebes? We embrace it in a way I find inexplicable. Whenever the Internet is sitting around critiquing outfits on the celebrity red carpet, or rhapsodizing over the very latest in extremely expensive shoes, or having an aneurysm about whether a magazine cover is “flattering,” we are behaving like Mean Girls. Only, and this is the part I don’t understand, whereas Mean Girl-ism was discouraged in our youth, now it’s seen as a legitimate “critical” practice. When what it is is just lateral women-on-women violence masquerading as aesthetic criticism.

That brings me to Dunham and Vogue.

I confess, when the news came down the pike, I found the idea of a Dunham/Vogue collaboration depressing. Here Vogue is, the magazine embodiment of every Mean Girl cliché you can imagine, a magazine that routinely photoshops women into total unrecognizability in the name of “fashion.” Here Dunham is, a person whose appearance is caught in a fast-whirling, internet-fed vortex of celebration and backlash. My own idiot-media-fed expectations here are partly the problem: I guess I’d internalized some idea that Dunham was a person who might understand how toxic this all is and have a strong desire to stop it. Instead:

Over at Salon, my friend Roxane Gay explains that Dunham is “human.” Sure, but I’ve learned from this little affair I don’t even have to get to the point of either endorsing or picking apart her personal behavior. It’s probably wrong to expect just one human being to stop this entire toxic dynamic on her own. It’s a function of the crappy way that celebrity journalism delivers figures like Dunham to us that we find it even possible. Mea culpa in that regard. I will no longer expect very much of any one person.

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But I am still going to complain about the enormous tangle of catch-22s this affair makes apparent in the fashion-celebrity complex. First, it’s annoying as hell that fashion magazines can’t seem to figure out a way to celebrate “beauty” that doesn’t involve changing the way women actually look in real life. They insist that it is simply necessary to erase the kind of “imperfection,” like a wrinkle or a zit, that is just evidence of women being alive. Sometimes, they get completely carried away, and chop off an arm or basically put someone entirely different into the picture. People seem to think that’s the only damaging sort of photoshopping, but I have to say I think we should throw baby out with bathwater in this regard. Start from scratch. If you can’t deal with wrinkles and bags-under-the-eyes in a fashion spread, you are, I am sad to say, a part of the problem.

Similarly: I don’t have a problem per se with Jezebel wanting to see pre-photoshopped images of just about any fashion shoot. I think that for a lot of women there has been a kind of liberation in knowing the precise distance between magazine cover and reality. But there is a kind of ugliness involved in finding one woman on the playground in popular culture and singling her out as a flashpoint for all your complicated feelings about the trap you’re in. There is something that feels personally aggressive in their demand to see Lena Dunham’s pictures particularly, whether or not that aggression is consciously chosen.

Because the truth is, we don’t really have these discussions about women who are better fits for narrow beauty standards. (Or men, for that matter, but that’s another post.) As a person frequently enlisted to write about Dunham or Mindy Kaling or Melissa McCarthy, I am quite frustrated by the fact that discussions about their photoshopping will be conducted at a higher volume than others would be. No one is that interested in seeing pre-photoshopped pictures of Karlie Kloss, or even Cate Blanchett. And I suspect that’s because they don’t hold out quite the promise of revealing a person much fatter or uglier than pictured. And that’s why I feel simultaneously encouraged by the presence of Dunham et al. in the culture and depressed by the way their talents, whatever they are, get totally ignored in these debates about what they look like.

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As I was writing this, Jezebel put up the photos that it did, inevitably, receive. One picture is now annotated with the various flaws that the retouchers corrected. I understand that it is necessary to do this to get a precise sense of what changed. On the other hand just looking at it makes me kind of ill. It reminds me that this is the cost of being a visible, public figure in America: you will have your looks picked apart and debated to shreds, sometimes in the name of freeing the rest of us from the bonds of beauty. There are people in all the comments sections and the blog posts being generated by this small affair who think they are doing important work by debating whether or not Dunham is “really pretty” or “really ugly,” or by opining on whether Vogue did her a favor by correcting the actual line of her shoulders.

And so the wheel turns ’round again. In a better world we’d all be talking about whether her art is any good, and what she has to say about it. But instead we’re back at square one: what does Lena Dunham look like, and can we call her pretty? As she herself put it responding to the controversy, the people asking this question can probably find enough evidence for this “debate” on HBO. I’d be happier if they did that while ignoring Vogue altogether. But as we’ve already established, in the matter of beauty, I’m a pipe dreamer.

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