Lena Dunham responds to the controversy over her retouched Vogue photos


As we discussed last week, Lena Dunham covers the new issue of Vogue Mag. The Annie Leibovitz photoshoot is pretty bad – it’s not that Lena looks particularly rough or anything, it’s just that there didn’t seem to be very much imagination with the styling, and Lena looked very retouched in all of the shots. The retouching was so noticeable that Jezebel offered $10,000 for the original, un-retouched Leibovitz photos, just so they could make a point about how much a magazine like Vogue will Photoshop anyone and everyone. Well, within a few hours of the “bounty,” someone coughed up the original images, which you can see here.

There was a lot of discussion about whether Jezebel was unintentionally body-shaming Lena or whether we, as a society, should just accept that these magazine editorials are not “real” and maybe it’s kind of dumb to use Lena as a unintentional poster girl for that kind of message. There was a lot said over at Gawker Media about it, but I kind of saw where Jezebel was coming from and what they were aiming for. I wouldn’t have paid $10,000 though. If I had that kind of money to spend editorially, I’d put a bounty out for naked Benedict Cumberbatch photos.

Anyway, Lena was asked about the Jezebel thing and her answer was… interesting.

On tour in Paris on Friday, the actress/director/writer/voice of her generation told Slate France:

“I understand that for people there is a contradiction between what I do and being on the cover of Vogue; but frankly I really don’t know what the photoshopping situation is, I can’t look at myself really objectively in that way. I know that I felt really like Vogue supported me and wanted to put a depiction of me on the cover. I never felt bullied into anything; I felt really happy because they dressed me and styled me in a way that really reflects who I am. And I felt that was very lucky and that all the editors understood my persona, my creativity and who I am. I haven’t been keeping track of all the reactions, but I know some people have been very angry about the cover and that confuses me a little. I don’t understand why, photoshop or no, having a woman who is different than the typical Vogue cover girl, could be a bad thing.”

[As for the apparent paradox between the spirit of Girls and the spirit of Vogue, Dunham replied:]

“A fashion magazine is like a beautiful fantasy. Vogue isn’t the place that we go to look at realistic women, Vogue is the place that we go to look at beautiful clothes and fancy places and escapism and so I feel like if the story reflects me and I happen to be wearing a beautiful Prada dress and surrounded by beautiful men and dogs, what’s the problem? If they want to see what I really look like go watch the show that I make every single week.”

[From Slate]

There’s a problem here, and it’s the same problem we encountered with the Mindy Kaling-ELLE situation. I feel like both Mindy and Lena are saying, “Well, I think I look great in this photoshoot so nevermind all of the body-positive stuff I’ve said in the past, yay airbrushing and superficiality,” and that we should believe that’s the end of the story. If Lena is happy with her Vogue, good for her. If Mindy is happy with her separate-but-equal ELLE, good for her. But pardon me if I still think it’s out of whack for the magazines to practice editorial sizeism and racism with THE WAY they shoot, style and retouch their images. And that’s on the magazines – I really don’t believe that Lena or Mindy or whomever should be the target of the criticism.



Photos courtesy of Annie Leibovitz/VOGUE.

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71 Responses to “Lena Dunham responds to the controversy over her retouched Vogue photos”

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  1. Observer says:

    Jezebel didn’t even get the real untouched images of Lena.
    The images Jezebel got were STILL retouched, just not as much as the ones that ended up in the magazine. Basically, jezebel got ripped off.
    Did they really think they’d get the real untouched/unshopped photos!? How naive.

    • Sullivan says:

      At the risk of sounding naive… I had no idea the Jezebel *before* photos were also retouched. Jezebel paid $10,000 for photos without determining that they were, indeed, un-retouched?

    • della says:

      How can you tell that the before pictures are already retouched? I can believe that, because I thought that Annie Leibovitz would have a lot more processing and retouching done to the photos than it seemed here. But what are the signs and the reasons for the two-step process?

      • Observer says:

        Hi, sorry for the late reply.
        Apart from the obvious signs such as her body being much slimmer to her real body (see red carpet pics from just last week), you can also tell by the color,notice the neutral shade and how it melts in with the other colors of the background and how her and the guy have been photoshopped to have the same skin color and undertones, well, that hasn’t changed on the photos jezebel got their hands on.
        Another thing to watch out for is, and that isn’t as obvious, are the hands and calves.
        Obviously there are other details as well but these are the most interesting and most obvious to the eye.

        As for the reason…celebs and magazines have contracts and what’s in those varies, but I suspect that since anyone can buy un ‘shopped pics of celebes they’re extra careful as to not embarrass the celebrity.
        I never thought they’d be this obvious though.

  2. LadyMTL says:

    This is what annoys me about conversations like this: the belief that it has to be an either-or kind of thing. Like I understand that Lena would be happy with how Vogue styled her and etc but that doesn’t mean that their photoshopping her half to death is ok. I just wish one of these women would come out and say “Yeah, I think I looked hot but at the same time it would have been nice of magazine X to not shrink me down to half my size or make my cover black and white” and etc.

    Of course, I could also be living in a dream world too, hahahaha.

    • GoodNamesAllTaken says:

      I agree with you. I would think a little retouching would be one thing, but it’s odd to put her in the magazine and claim they are accepting of all shapes and sizes, then chop her half to death to make her look like everyone else in the magazine. How does that celebrate diversity in beauty or women?

    • cr says:

      I actually, sort of, agree with Lena’s statement concerning the fantasy of fashion mags vs. reality.

      But I think she understands that the fashion mags aren’t real, while I get the impression that a lot of people do not, they think that those flawless models are really that flawless, and that’s the fault of Vogue, Elle, etc.

  3. Meme says:

    I cannot stand her.

  4. TheCountess says:

    The fact is, Jezebel’s point was, “There’s no way Lena Dunham could look this good, she’s clearly been Photoshopped into oblivion” – which turns out, wasn’t the case. Their readers rightly tore the site to shreds over the situation, even as Jezebel writers doubled down and dug themselves deeper. Dunham won over a lot of fans there during this fiasco, and rightly so.

    • Inky says:

      My understanding of the stance that Jezebel was taking was that, Yes, Vogue are doing something different by using a different kind of person for the photoshoot, instead of usual models/stereotypically attractive actresses, but that they have lost the goodwill they would have gained through that by photoshopping said person into oblivion.

      I take the point though, it seems as though they have picked on Lena specifically to demonstrate hypocrisy on her part. This is easily something something that could have been done with probably any photoshoot Vogue has done with a woman in the last twenty years.

    • ycnan says:

      Yeah totally, i just looked and the photoshopping was not really that excessive. Not any different then anyone else’s photos.

      However I do agree with the separate conversation about using headshots on the cover instead of body shots if you are over a size 2.

      PS: I love Leana Dunham so much. I think she is so very very talented.

      • TheCountess says:

        I don’t know I’d say I love her, but I respect her and like “Girls” very much. I’m in my thirties and many of the situations depicted on the show make me cringe from familiarity. Even when I don’t think the plot is particularly compelling, she has a gift for dialogue that can’t be denied.

    • silly you says:

      actually, this is a thing jezebel
      does…they compare unretoched photos of celebs, m

      • TheCountess says:

        I know they have a “Photoshop of Horrors” series that appears intermittently, but this was putting a bounty out for pictures of a specific celebrity, which they have not done before. They targeted her for a specific reason – not Vogue, but Lena Dunham.

        If Vogue was their target, they would do this every single month.

  5. Kiddo says:

    I’m gonna have to split with the opinion, here. I think Jezebel is classic Gawker media, trolling all the time, with its specialized auto-generated womens’ studies outrage machine. Does anyone remember the Jezebel from years ago, where there were interesting articles?

    Team Lena, on this one. Jezebel came across as a ham-fisted bully.

    • MorticiansDoItDeader says:

      I agree. Not a fan of Jezebel at all. Their commenters bully the writers and each other and are constantly trying to one-up each other. There’s very little sisterhood to be found on a site that proclaims itself to be a beacon for feminists.

    • Green Girl says:

      I can’t stand Jezebel any more, either. I remember the well-written articles from years ago (Hortense!), and it’s just not the same.

      • tibor says:

        totes agree!!

      • TheCountess says:

        If the comments are any indication, there should be a huge hemorrhage of commenters leaving the site in disgust.

        (Not that I put much stock into internet threats to “leave [a site] and never come back!” But – I’ve been a Deadspin reader for years and can definitely pinpoint a couple of incidences where there was a mass exodus based on editorial actions or changes in site policy. It will be interesting to see if this is the same kind of moment for Jezebel.)

    • bob says:

      Yep, I stick to The Hairpin these days. Proper substance and support.

  6. QQ says:

    Meh! What i really wanna talk about is: Why is she trying to make that ridiculous pouting pose situation happen??

    • GoodNamesAllTaken says:

      Ooh, but I’m such a witty bitty wittle girl and that’s so sexy, right? Right?
      Totally agree, I can’t stand that fake look.

  7. Lindy79 says:

    Where is her left arm in the bed shot??

  8. Patricia says:

    Are we supposed to be shocked and surprised that vogue photoshopped her! Really? At least they fixed her dumpy slouching posture, which is more than half the problem with Lena.

  9. Anna Scott says:

    Most covers and photoshoots are heavily photoshopped these days. Why she’s the one to get picked on is beyond me. If some kind of Photoshop Committee was to look at all covers of magazines, there would have to burn them all and start all over again.

    • Kiddo says:

      Because people don’t like Lena, so that makes it okay to savor the schadenfreude of the before and after shots, since Lena should not have been given the photoshop treatment because she spoke of normalizing her body-type. It’s petty bitchiness at its worst, under the guise of progressive women, championing the cause of eliminating ‘shaming’. And as an aside, I’m neither a fan of Lena’s or the show.

    • malina says:

      Exactly! I find the whole thing really strange…

    • lucy2 says:

      That’s what I was thinking too – they ALL get photoshopped in one way or another. I saw one a while ago where every inch of a photo of Jessica Alba was ‘shopped, including making her a lot thinner, which is ridiculous. They made a bigger deal of it this time because Lena and her appearance is an easy target for their “outrage”, but she should be treated no different than any other subject who’s photos have been altered. And I say that as someone who finds her rather obnoxious.

  10. themummy says:

    I blame the magazines, not the people they’re photoshopping. In the end, it is the magazine which decides to photoshop, how to photoshop, and how much to photoshop. Len just had some pics taken. That said, I agree that her response to this is a double standard…she is all body positive and such, but she likes these purty pictures, so all is well. That isn’t cool. Overall, though, I’m team Lena on this one. Vogue screwed up–not her.

  11. ALJsMom says:

    I cannot stand Lena but what Jezebel did was pretty sh*tty. Lena is not a very attractive girl and this shoot probably made her feel really pretty. She is still really average looking in the photos. It’s not like they made her into a VS model

  12. danielle says:

    Magazines Photoshop everyone, including the extremely thin. Jezebel was picking on Lena on this one.

    • cr says:

      I don’t think they were really picking on Lena, though, if you follow their links in the articles they’ve been picking on Vogue’s photoshop addiction for quite some time. This article just happened to get more notice.

  13. blue marie says:

    Of course she was photo shopped, who isn’t anymore? The way Jezebel showed the differences though made it seem like they were pointing out her flaws and no one wants that.. I mean, there is no way I’d look at any of those photos and be like “that’s what she really looks like”, so pointing it out seems redundant.

  14. Sandy says:

    Lena: “Vogue supported me and wanted to put a depiction of me on the cover.” WTF does she mean “a depiction of me.” She means not a photograph, but an image that is roughly her. Seriously, she doesn’t even look like herself. Total BS.

    • Nina W says:

      I agree, it’s BS. She wanted the cover, which is fine but let’s not pretend she’s some champion of un-represented women.

  15. RobN says:

    Of course she takes some heat. She spends half her time talking about how she’s proud of her “normal” body and then allows her photos to be photoshopped all to hell and can’t figure out why some people feel the need to point out the hypocrisy. Apparently, “I’m pretty!!” trumps a lot of things. She’s a big enough name, for some reason, that she could have forced the issue and said no photoshop or no cover, but she wasn’t interested.

    I have no interest in blaming the magazine. They present photoshopped images every single month; it’s what they do and they don’t claim to do anything different. It’s up to Dunham to decide whether she participates in the farce and, apparently, her answer was “Yes, please.”

    • sienna says:

      I see your side, but in some ways it isn’t about her. She is part of a show that employs lots of people. Getting a Vogue cover is a fairly prestigious honour in the industry and is therefore good for the entire show.

      There is no way Anna Wintour is putting any unretouched images in her magazine. So whilst she could have said no, that would have been the end of the cover and probably the entire story inside. That choice would have its own brand of selfishness.

    • dominique says:

      Agree with RobN and Sandy. They shrink her head to make her eyes look bigger and she is ok with that? Sure, I’d love to play model for a day too and see how ‘beautiful’ I could look in the hands and artistry of Vogue, but I haven’t become famous while using my body to famously reject those standards, as Lena has done. Not a Lena hater at all, just sad to see her now so casually sell her soul to the devil that wears prada.

      This is a win for Anna Wintour… she snags the demographic she needs and proves that no one is immune to the siren call of a vogue shoot and all the fakery that goes with it. No wonder she turned down Kim K – where’s the challenge in that?

  16. DenG says:

    It’s been awhile, but Jamie Lee Curtis presented herself AS IS in a sports bra and bike shorts, not retouched, in More magazine (?). I like her. So whether they’re slim or no-so-slim, these celebs who profess to be Real and Proud and Natural blah-blah should do the same and quit with the special effect. Not fooling anyone.

    • Kiddo says:

      Because Vogue is the place to ‘let it all hang out’ historically, right? They are using Lena in the photo shoot in an attempt to become or remain relevant to a certain demographic, but they are not going to change the fantasy element of the brand to accommodate some other agenda.

      • fruitloops says:

        But is Lena the only one they could use to achieve that goal? I like Lena, and Girls, but in this case I think they both went over the top a bit. There are physical requirements for all kinds of jobs, so if for example army people must be fit to get in, then Vouge’s models should look more like models, and if Vouge wants to use ‘real’ women as their models they should accept their body figures and not photoshop as much.

      • Kiddo says:

        Vogue doesn’t want to use REAL women for anything, including models, who are shopped, and sometimes within pictorials that are ouright unearthly and dreamlike. Lena isn’t an every day Joe, or Joanne, as it may be. She’s the star of a very talked about TV show that pulls in viewers of her age and some younger. I suppose one could argue that on principle, she shouldn’t have taken the Vogue shoot, but then on principle, woman writers shouldn’t work at Gawker at all either because some of the most blatant misogyny has been demonstrated there over the years.

        I don’t watch the show, but it is my understanding that Lena doesn’t alter the appearance of her figure or its flaws during taping. So in that sense, I guess she puts her money where her mouth is. Why should she give up the opportunity to be in Vogue, just because it pisses someone off at Jezebel?

      • fruitloops says:

        I didn’t mean real women as an every day Jane, but average sized ones, I expressed myself poorly. No, women shouldn’t avoid working in misogynist environments because it would just be like giving in to chauvinism, and Lena shouldn’t have decided not to do the shoot, but she should have insisted not to be photoshopped to death, on the principle of everythig she preaches all the time regarding her body and looks and women in general.
        I don’t think she alters her appearance on the show, and because I watch it I see how photoshopped that shoot was and it is shameful.

      • Kiddo says:

        A lot of what I saw photo-shopped was inattention to clothing fit, posture, styling, lighting, toning, saturation and there was very little done with her over all. We will have to agree to disagree, but again, Vogue is about fantasy and art. Why is no one giving the photographer or stylist shite for not having addressed some of the above issues with the composition and their subject before the photo was submitted?

  17. lunchcoma says:

    I find everyone involved in this stunt annoying. Vogue has photoshopped women to death forever. Dunham likes to play both sides and present herself as the real thing while also enjoying the perks of access to the fashion world. Jezebel knew exactly what it was doing, and there’s a reason that it didn’t post this bounty on unretouched pictures in general or on the pictures of a more conventionally attractive woman. In my opinion, it also wasted its money, as I didn’t see anything unexpected in the unretouched pictures.

  18. Nerd Alert says:

    The thing is, we’ve all seen stills of her naked from her show and in dresses at premieres and awards shows. Even the “original” photos sent to Jezebel were obviously retouched to make her look a lot smaller than she is. That said, if I were Lena I’d probably like the shoot and not want all my flaws pointed out in GIF form, either, but you run that risk when you talk so much about “natural” bodies and body shaming, etc..

    • fruitloops says:

      Exactly, I watch the show and her pictures on red carpet and when I saw these ‘originals’ I started wondering if I was crazy and she magically lost weight since her last red carpet event, or these photos were still far from original. :-D

      • Nerd Alert says:

        Right! She would have had to lose 30 lbs for the shoot then gain it back before the premiere of Girls. On carpet she’s a 14 but in Vogue she’s an 8! MAGIC!!!

        It’s sort of insulting that Jezebel passed those “originals” off as real, but clearly a lot of people bought it.

  19. Roma says:

    Has anyone read Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth”?

    This is why this bothers me (from both sides). The myth of beauty is used to demoralize women at a time when we are starting to make equality gains in success and power. Love or hate Lena, she is a successful woman in a traditional male environment.

    So what does Vogue do? Perpetuate the myth by trying to make her *their* standard of beauty. Which is what fashion magazines do, so there should be no surprise. But it breaks my heart to essentially hear Lena say “but I felt pretty”. Because even though she’s felt incredible success, she still feels like she is falling short in – what Wolf has coined – the professional beauty quotient. And in our society, if you’re not beautiful enough, then you’re not quite a true success.

    And really, shame on Jezebel. Here was an opportunity to really discuss the third wave feminism behind how media and images perpetuate our insecurities to make women less powerful, and instead they dropped the ball and just appeared catty towards Lena.

    • Kiddo says:

      Advertising relies heavily on creating pain. You’re not good enough, you’re not happy enough, you’re not rich enough, your sex isn’t as good as it could be, you’re not enjoying the most delicious food. Here is the remedy for your pain in OUR PRODUCTS. Once people understand the pervasive psychology behind this con, they can move on with their lives in greater happiness by not buying into this manufactured ‘need’ and ‘notgoodenoughness’ pain. It’s nasty manipulation, but when you look at it that way, it’s easier to just say no.

      • fruitloops says:

        Except that not many people can see it that way, and that’s why it works so easily. Manipulation via media is such a subtle thing, brought to perfection so that when you go and buy or buy into something advertised you are deeply convinced that it was your decision and your thinking only that brought you there.

      • Kiddo says:

        That’s why they have to be told and remind themselves of it. Advertising isn’t going to change a formula that works. You have to remain cognizant of the con, and ask yourself, do I really need this? Is this what will make my life complete? What is the motive behind the ads? Do they care about me, or do they want to make money off me?

        Next time you look at an ad or commercial, study it. Contemplate what vulnerability they are playing to, to get you to spend money.

  20. The Original G says:

    I think that because they have photo-shopping as a club in their bag, and that shows in the quite sloppy styling.

    These photos were taken knowing that there would be a lot of creative work on the back end before they were published,

  21. LaurieH says:

    I think it’s just more of the usual “do as I say, not as I do” stuff. Neither Lena or Mindy are thin actresses, but they still seem to be buying into the notion that they SHOULD be – hence, the constant talk about how they’re happy with their bodies as is. In fact, the more one talks about how happy they are with their bodies “as is”, the more I am convinced they are not and are just fishing for reassurance and affirmations for their insecurities. In point of fact, we don’t know that Elle didn’t do a full body shot of Mindy and that it was HER decision to only do a headshot and then have it appear in black & white to appear more artistic. And obviously, Lena KNEW that Vogue would photoshop her – they photoshop everyone – but she had no objection to it. As she said, it is “fantasy” – meaning that to qualify as a “fantasy”, her body has go be thinner. I other words, they say they are okay with their bodies, but they really aren’t.

  22. Denise says:

    Every single image is retouched. I’ve shot stunning girls who still have an arm that looks weird in an otherwise perfect shot, and one model had practically transparent skin and appeared blue so I had to even out her skin tone. I’ve been skinny most of my life, but I’ve also been fat. The last thing I wanted to see when I was fat was a girl who has lumps sticking out of her dress – when I’ve bought a fashion magazine. Lena is right, it’s Vogue, it’s about imagery, fantasy…..and if you want real, you know where to go. Please let us have our fantasy, that is why these things exist. I get enough of reality on a daily basis thank you very much.

    • fruitloops says:

      Well don’t put fat woman in a dress that shows her lumps if you want her in your fashion magazine.
      It’s fine if you want to have your fantasy, but fixing a weird arm or blue skin is so far from what happened in Lena’s photoshoot. And it’s even more sad in her case because she didn’t support fantasy you want, on the contrary actually, until she got a chance to ‘be pretty’ in some fashion magazine.

  23. MickeyM says:

    I like what Jezebel is doing. While in general I know these shoots are photoshopped, it helps to see the details of how much of these photos are really depicting a fantasy representation of their subject, as for Lena – meh, I think she kinda wants to be an hit girl and not shake the boat. I am more disappointed in Mindy Kailing not calling out the fact that she was the only one with the head shot and owning why that was . . . she’s usually so outspoken about this stuff. And it seemed like in her situation, she was like ‘well, this time I am gonna shut up about it because I got to be on Elle.” Boo.

  24. Blue Iris says:

    Magazines photoshop every cover. They make things look perfect and dimple free. Why are people so surprised and faux offended. Yawn.

  25. Leila in wunderland says:

    Unfortunately, this will be used to make anything and everything this woman has ever said about body image and being comfortable with her body invalid. The same thing happens when a woman who used to be overweight loses weight. Remember Jennifer Hudson?

  26. Mayday says:

    I think this is all being blown out of proportion. EVERYTHING in vogue is photoshopped. EV-RY-THING.

  27. FunFactor says:

    When I saw her Vogue cover photo, I immediately thought “Carrie Fisher.” Maybe it’s just me.