Some shit is just too ridiculous to engage. Let's use our energy wisely, 2014.— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) January 17, 2014
Anyone with half a brain for online media knows that words like "unretouched," "Photoshop disaster," and "before and after photos" are traffic gold. Post one particularly juicy article of the sort, and your staff might as well take the rest of the week off. We won't pretend to be above it all — sometimes, these types of media frenzy moments offer an opportunity for a really interesting conversation; other times, you just want to see the snapshots because you're human and you really can't help yourself.
Despite our own complicity in the cycle of discussion around Photoshop, a recent post by Jezebel offering $10,000 to anyone able to provide unretouched photos from Lena Dunham's Vogue shoot made us (okay, this particular writer) uncomfortable. In accordance with Gawker tradition, Jezebel has offered money for unretouched images before, but it has never (to our knowledge, and verified by a reputable source) called out a specific person in that hunt. Certainly, we can understand the impulse. There is, after all, an important discussion to be had regarding the retouching policies of major magazines with equally major influence over women around the world.
But again, it's one thing to seek out unretouched photos that illustrate a magazine's policies — Jezebel has done this before. But, it's quite another to single out a specific individual for this purpose. What stands to be gained?
The Jezebel post, written by its EIC Jessica Coen, states, "This is about Vogue, and what Vogue decides to do with a specific woman who has very publicly stated that she's fine just the way she is, and the world needs to get on board with that. Just how resistant is Vogue to that idea? Unaltered images will tell."
But, that's not entirely fair. We all know that in the case of Vogue (or for that matter, any men's or women's fashion or lifestyle title), image retouching runs rampant. Soliciting one single set of unretouched photos isn't going to make it any easier to conduct, as Dodai Stewart notes in a comment on the post, "important discussions about how and why ladymags 'fix' women — a conversation that remains vital." While we agree that the conversation is vital, singling out Dunham's images, when she herself is not opting to share or have a conversation around them, is counterproductive.
Today, these important discussions are being had everywhere, all the time, by people of many different points of view. That's due in part to the efforts of Coen and her fellow Jezebels to shed light on issues of female body image in modern media representation. But, at this point, we don't need to air Dunham's raw images in order to further that conversation. In fact, that might even be a step backward — an action that may further provoke salacious controversy and critical attention to her body.
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We know how much they've retouched here, essentially, though we should note that Vogue declined to comment on the Jezebel offer or the retouching of the story in general. We know what Dunham looks like in real life, and we can see certain differences in these photos. Vogue, in this otherworldly shoot and in its entire, decades-long body of work, presents a particular brand of fantasy that is ultimately intended to be read as fiction. Whether one version is "better" than the other is completely beside the point. The issue here is one of consent. Dunham has chosen to pose for a magazine that she knew would do a certain amount of retouching. In fact, she has been thinking about seeing her picture in Vogue since the age of 11. And, it's highly unlikely that she's unfamiliar with the work of Annie Leibovitz — and the slightly surreal, glossy finish that's intrinsic to it.
Dunham very vocally uses her own platform to promote positive body image and acceptance of women's bodies as they are. Given that, it's doubtful that she would be highly offended by people seeing unretouched images of herself, regardless of how different those images are from the final product. At the time of publication, she was unavailable for comment, but we know she's not offering up these images or complaining about the final product, in any public forum. So, how is it our place to try and steal these images (or entice someone else to steal them), as a means to an end entirely separate from Dunham's own goals regarding body positivity?
As much as we may all love a good before-and-after shot, to go out of one's way to bribe someone to steal an image that belongs to either the photographer, the publication that commissioned it, or the subject of the photograph (we're not privy to the photo agreement here, so we wouldn't deign to guess which one) can serve no purpose beyond violating someone's privacy, denigrating the value of a final published photograph as art, and promoting illegal activity.
So, it all boils down to one question: Do we have the right to violate someone's privacy in order to make a point? Dunham has formed her public persona as that of an advocate for body positivity and self-love in the face of immense pressures to conform to societal norms. She has incited criticism, scandal, and praise for that. But, that doesn't mean she's only allowed one note. If, just this once, she wants to simply be a Vogue cover girl, along with all the fancy clothing and retouching that comes with it for any star, is that not her prerogative?
Sure, we can — and should — have discussions about what that means for feminism and, in particular, the specific, Dunham-led branch of the millennial feminist movement. But, we have all the material we need for a very rich musing on the subject without going to extremes to poke, prod, and pry into the behind-the-scenes of this particular photoshoot. It's not our right. It's not even our business.
ADDITIONAL UPDATE: Jezebel has now secured the requested unretouched pictures. We're not going to link you to them (based on, well, what we just explained), but we do want to reiterate that there's really nothing to gain here. If anything, their conclusion that these images were in fact "not drastically altered" renders the entire exercise pointless — and a bit insulting to Lena. Do with that information what you will.
More on Lena Dunham, if that's your bag:
Read The Sweet Love Letter Lena Dunham Wrote For Her Boyfriend
6 Quotes That Illustrate Lena Dunham's Charmed Childhood
An 80-Page Conversation Between Lena Dunham & Judy Blume