Lena Dunham’s body-image issues: has the photo-shopping gone too far?

It seems that Lena Dunham’s body is once again under scrutiny. On Monday, the comedian and creator of the hit US HBO series, Girls, took to Instagram to comment on photos of her in the Spanish magazine Tentaciones that she claimed were airbrushed. In her comments, the star exclaimed: “this is NOT what my body has ever looked like”. The photos, taken in 2012, recently appeared in the supplementary magazine of the Madrid-based newspaper El País. Ironically, on the rare occasion when a celebrity decided to condemn a magazine for inaccuracy, it turned out that the magazine had not, in fact, airbrushed the photos. To add to the embarrassment, it also transpired that both Lena’s agency and publicist had approved the use of the image. Lena swiftly apologised to the magazine, citing her “long and complicated history with retouching” as the reason for her accusation.

It is disturbing how Lena was not even able to recognise her own body to the point where she felt that the magazine needed to be publically confronted, but it shows the moral dilemma Lena faces on a daily basis. Whilst needing to be visible in order to promote her work and the causes she stands for, she simultaneously has to resort to the fickleness that is fashion in order to do this. Her decision to call Tentaciones out may come as a surprise to some, considering that this is not the first time that ‘Lena’ and ‘airbrushing’ have been used in the same sentence. In 2014, her appearance in Vogue led to outrage, especially from the online blog Jezebel.

Immediately after the Vogue shoot was published, Jezebel put up a $10,000 award to anyone who could provide the original images. On this occasion, despite Lena being airbrushed, she defended the magazine: “It was the most minimal retouching. I felt completely respected by Vogue”. Maybe this shows inconsistency on Lena’s part… maybe not. Maybe Lena is simply fed up of her body being more often the source of fascination than her other achievements and activist causes, such as her endorsement of access to safe and legal abortion. Jezebel should have reckoned on Lena’s autonomy before jumping on the bandwagon and using her body to shoulder their attempt at a publicity stunt.

In an ideal world, we would not airbrush. However, a high fashion magazine such as Vogue sells itself on its ability to offer a fantasy world into which people can escape. What would be unique about a magazine representing what we see every day on the street? Vogue’s target audience is women in their late 20s who generally have an interest or career in fashion. They know that the pictures are altered. The people we need to be thinking of are young girls and boys who are most vulnerable to falling into the trap of believing that magazines represent reality. The arguments against airbrushing are well-known and quite disturbing: it is reported that 77 per cent of teenage school girls describe themselves as ugly when confronted with digitally-enhanced photos of models and celebrities, and the number of teenage girls skipping meals is said to have trebled since 1986.

If we believe that what we see in magazines represents reality, then that says something about society at large. Magazines and airbrushing are not the causes, but the products of our society. We write the magazines, we take the pictures, and we develop the apps that magically wipe away our imperfections. And in a world where the distinction between real and fake is rather hazy, there is no denying the reality: we need more people like Lena. People who are willing to show that ‘perfect’ is not a word that fits with reality.


[Image: Flickr @ David Shankbone]

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