This wasn't feminism. This was bitchiness, pure and simple.

You may or may not have heard of the LENA DUNHAM VOGUE CONTROVERSY. It has been all over the news for the last few days (we covered it here). It has broken my brain and I need to talk it out with myself.

But first, here’s a brief timeline of what happened:

Lena Dunham with the cast of girls.

1. It’s 2012. Lena Dunham, creates a television show called Girls. The show is a massive hit, and Dunham gets lots of attention in particular for her ‘normal’ body – which she refuses to hide on screen.  NB: ‘normal’ being not the usual thin standard expected of women on television.

2. Everyone loses their shit with excitement about seeing a woman who isn’t less than 45kg or taller than 5ft10 on screen. Lena Dunham is appointed the unofficial spokesperson for body image and body diversity in the media.

4. It’s 2014: US Vogue asks Lena Dunham to pose on the cover. Vogue releases the cover, and some pictures from Lena’s fashion shoot. In one shot, Lena has a pigeon on her head. Because whimsical. All of the photos are – as per usual for Vogue – airbrushed (albeit somewhat minimally).

6. Jezebel, a popular women’s website, offers a $10,000 bounty for the original, ‘unretouched’ photos of Lena Dunham. Literally, a bounty. The headline was: “We’re offering $10,000 for Unretouched Images of Lena Dunham in Vogue.”

7. It takes less than two hours for Jezebel to get the original photos. They then proceed to publish a detailed ‘before and after’ analysis. The stunt backfires a little, since there is not that much difference between the ‘befores’ and ‘afters’. One of the biggest ‘reveals’ is that the pigeon on Dunham’s head was actually photoshopped in.

8. Everyone argues about who has done the wrong thing here. Lena likes her cover. Vogue likes her cover (especially the pigeon, which they really wanted everyone to know was actually real):

Websites like Jezebel hate the cover. Feminist commentators hate the cover.

9. Me? My brain explodes, because I can’t decide what I think about any of this. I love Lena, and I hate the problems caused by excessive photoshopping, but I think I’m on her side here. Or not. Maybe I’m with the pigeon. I don’t know. I have a very long, detailed argument with my brain, that you can read here:

1. Should Lena have refused to appear in Vogue on the basis that it retouches all its images of women?

The Vogue cover in question.

Lena has put herself out there as a spokesperson for body diversity in the media. As a result, some people are understandably disappointed in her for not telling Vogue (who worship at the shrine of Photoshop) to get lost in the first place. I mean, this is VOGUE, the magazine that is famous for the blatant exclusivity of one kind of body type in its pages. Because THIN. Because FASHION.

But, photoshop aside, surely just by being on the cover, Lena has broken down some barriers.

She is not a model. She’s not an actress with the body of a model. She’s not a fashion person. She’s what, a size 10-12? That is basically obese when you consider Vogue standards. And the girl is ON THE DAMN COVER! Can we take a minute to celebrate that fact (or at least 30 seconds)?

That Anna Wintour stopped stroking her hairless cat for a second and made this choice is a huge deal. We are constantly harrassing magazines to include more body diversity, and this month, Vogue has done that. Can we at least give them credit for that?

But, they did photoshop Lena. And maybe, given everything she stands for, she should have been bold enough to simply refuse.

But but but…. what would Lena (and any of us) have gained from refusing?

This is how it would have gone: Vogue offers Lena the cover. Lena says sure but no photoshop please. Vogue laughs. Vogue hits the stands with another impossibly thin model on the cover. Nothing changes. The end. So, having an issue with Lena on the cover it IS a step forward.

And a step forward is still a step foward, even if that step is not as big as we would like.

2. Do we get to expect more of Lena because she’s been such an amazing advocate for body positivity already?

Probably. Probably.

Lena in a 2013 Emmys sketch.

But Lena is human. She’s not perfect. It’s easy to talk about her like she’s some kind of demi-god of body image and feminism, but it’s impossible for anyone to live up to those standards all the time. Some may be disappointed in her for agreeing to be in Vogue, but she’s a person. People are filled with contradictions and imperfections. It’s unfair to put the pressure of all body image issues on her shoulders.

There could be any number of reasons Lena chose to be in Vogue – it could be that she was trying to make a feminist statement, or it could just be that she has a bloody show to promote. Or it could just be that she’s 27 years old and she wanted to be on the cover of freaking Vogue. It’s VOGUE.


She’s not a supreme being, she’s a human. Humans can’t be placed in a perfect feminist box with body-image wrapping tied with sanctimonious string. She’s never going to be exactly what we want her to be, and that’s on us, not her.

Give the girl a bloody break.

3. Was it bitchy of Jezebel to offer the reward and then run the ‘before and after’ photos of Lena?

I think yes. It was school girl bitchiness dressed up as feminism. I can see what Jezebel were trying to do – they were trying to further lift the fucked up veil of photoshopped perfection that shrouds all womens’ magazines.

Lena on her TV show Girls.

And in that sense, showing before and after pictures is a good thing (we do it here at Mamamia all the time). It is massively liberating for women to see that perfection isn’t real; that their bodies aren’t grotesque because they have cellulite or wrinkles. And I am pissed off that Vogue photoshopped the shape of Lena’s body in some points – you can see that her hips have been made thinner and her neck minimised.

But, Jezebel could have proved that point with photos of any famous person, so why target Lena Dunham specifically? When Jezebel pulled this stunt a few years ago, they asked readers to send them any magazine cover – it was not aimed at a specific person. And that meant it was more about the problem rather than the individual.

It just seems cruel to base this stunt around one particular woman, rather than the photoshopping epidemic in general. Vogue brings out a magazine every bloody month with people like Miranda Kerr or Giselle Bunchen airbrushed to all hell. So why target THIS woman THIS month? Why not offer this bounty ridiculous $10K bounty for every issue of Vogue?

And… When you think about it, it actually makes LESS sense to do a comparison like this with Lena. Realistically, she is probably the woman who’s ‘before’ images would be the least shocking because we already know what she looks like after seeing her naked body on Girls every week (not to mention the make-up/filter free shots she constantly puts on Instagram).

If you’re really going after the photoshopping problem, wouldn’t it would pack a lot more punch to see the ‘before’ photos of a celebrity or model who is rarely seen without extensive photoshopping?

4. Who is the villain here – Jezebel or Vogue or the pigeon on Lena’s head?

Clearly the pigeon. Or Society. Or the patriarchy? Or Anna Wintour’s hairless cat.

Ugh. Help me. What do you think?