Lilian Min
March 02, 2016 4:29 pm

Yesterday, Lena Dunham called the magazine Tentaciones out for Photoshopping her cover image. Dunham, no stranger to Photoshop controversies, posted an open letter to the magazine on Instagram, asking: “BUT this is NOT what my body has ever looked like or will ever look like- the magazine has done more than the average photoshop. So if you’re into what I do, why not be honest with your readers?”

Turns out, Tentaciones didn’t actually distort Dunham’s body, and the magazine provided her with the full cover shot as proof:

In Dunham’s caption apology, she explained:

We’re glad to see Dunham, who’s extremely vocal about how both she and the media portray her body, stand up for herself. But, her point about not even recognizing her own body — this touches on a larger cultural phenomenon in which everybody with a smartphone can filter and manipulate their self-presented images to their idealization, to the point where your “actual” appearance is totally distorted.

For Dunham, this is manifested very publicly, and falls in line with her own existing feelings about body image and representation. For most people, it leads to this conundrum: You can insulate yourself against your “natural” reality, whereas public figures are called upon to embrace theirs. Either way, there’s no real push for change from the culture at large. This means conversations about body image only start at the individual level, and are stalling there.

Heavily Photoshopped images are among the most obvious symptom of our image-obsessed culture. But, peoples’ desires to both look their “best”/”better” self, which often aligns with unconscious race-based and gender-based norms, mean we’re part of the culture we’re now being taught to unilaterally condemn. Like, look, these kinds of “beautifying” apps can be a lot of fun. But the contrast between the public and private acceptance of body-altering technology has gotten to the point where we have to ask: Is it actually important to call out bad Photoshop or image editing anymore when its effects are literally everywhere in our lives? Do we owe it to ourselves to constantly be presenting only our “natural” selves in the world, when part of the reality of the modern age is a tacit agreement that the URL/IRL divide, or in Dunham’s case, the public/private divide, means less and less every day?

In addition, it can’t just be the same people talking about the same points. As we’ve seen with the recent conversations around the #FreeKesha movement, it’s mostly self-aligned female feminists who are being called to defend or attack these “social issues.” But in both cases, these conversations are only happening after the inciting incident, whatever it may be, has happened. Whose opinions do we have to change, whose voices need to be signal-boosted, so that we don’t get there in the first place?

On the flip side, does that mean that we’re complicit in a body-shaming culture when we apply certain aspects of it, in ways large and small, to our own lives? (Or, even when we take it upon ourselves to applaud them?) Not necessarily — but when we’ve got five-year-olds worrying about their body image, the origin of that discontent is probably starting closer to home.

We’re not suggesting that, as in the recent cases of Dunham and fighter Ronda Rousey, they should let misconceptions about and alterations of their bodies slide — after all, both women are very strong-spoken on that specific issue. For most public figures though, Photoshop-free messaging is more of a gimmick, or rather just par for the course, than anything else.

We live in a world where celebrities and other people facing body-centric scrutiny have countless channels to present their “real” selves. For those who feel strongly about body image and body positivity, they have endless opportunities to reiterate their “realness.” (And for those who don’t feel as strongly, there’s nothing to call out.) Edited fashion editorials or advertisement images can take their toll on your self-esteem or, at the very least, be totally eye-roll-worthy. But solely condemning Photoshop and image-editing for the early and continued demolition of peoples’ self-esteems and self-perceptions seems short-sighted, and that doesn’t seem to have actually changed the quantity and extremity of egregiously edited images.

Just look at the UK, which instituted an “excessive Photoshop” ban and has enforced it several times, mostly for cosmetics and fashion companies. While lawmakers’ hearts were in the right place, it’s tough to ascertain what “should” or “shouldn’t” be the results of purposefully body-shaping clothing or heavy makeup. Judging these kinds of ads after the fact doesn’t change the fact that they were deemed acceptable by their creators either.

A UK-banned ad featuring the supermodel Twiggy

And, it isn’t as though “all-natural” imaging doesn’t come with its own loaded conversations — think about the last person (most likely a “well-meaning” man) who told you, “I like it when a girl doesn’t wear makeup and just looks natural.” That, and the equally distorting effects of lighting magic and good makeup (which is oftentimes folded under the “unnatural” banner) can mimic the effects that we often attribute to Photoshop.

As The Hairpin put it in this fantastic piece:

And as The Lingerie Addict blogger Cora Harrington wrote, specifically about Aerie’s “Aerie Real” campaign:

So long as campaigns for and about “real women” still use the visual language we tacitly ascribe to edited campaigns, there’s no lasting change being effected — it just shifts the standards we consciously or unconsciously hold ourselves to. And honestly, the one major saving grace of badly-edited campaigns is that when they’re botched, it’s obvious. Of course nobody’s upper thigh area should look like (pre-body diversification) Barbie’s! Of course nobody’s midriff area should taper into a sharp point! But let’s be honest about the standards we’re applying to ourselves, and change the way we discuss self-presentation across the board — to not respond to/applaud incidents one-by-one, but reject the structures that create them in the first place.