Though I have my criticisms of the HBO show Girls, in general I’m a big fan, and I especially love Lena Dunham’s frank, unapologetic baring of her curvy body and the way in which she treats nakedness as not just a part of sex, but of day-to-day life. Because it’s true: in the privacy of our own homes, we lounge about in states of undress, or strange dress. I’m writing this in PJs for example, sitting at the kitchen table sipping the dregs of a cold cup of coffee. For propriety’s sake, I won’t say whether or not I’m wearing underwear, but I will admit to being un-shaven and un-showered. Such is the glamorous life of the stay-at-home dad writer.
So while I’m happy that Dunham, a style icon for real people, made the cover of Vogue, I’m not happy with the obvious photoshopping that was done to her face and body, especially on some of the interior images. In particular, the shot of Dunham perched on the shoulders of Girls co-star Adam Driver by the Flatiron Building seems digitally composed from a variety of photos, more George Lucas than Girls, which tends to portray New York City with an appropriate amount of grime, litter, bad lighting, and sweat.
I also wish that Vogue would have been brave enough to show Dunham’s whole body and not just her head. It’s like the similar instance when Elle put Melissa McCarthy on its cover draped in a trench coat. The message seems to be that if you’re of a certain thin-wasted, skinny-legged body type you can wear tight clothes or hardly any clothes at all, while if you’re an attractive “big-boned” woman, we only want to see your face.
I’m not alone in these criticisms – Jezebel has offered a $10,000 bounty for un-retouched copies of the photos, though that move itself has prompted criticism of fat-shaming. That critique seems misguided, as the site also detailed Vogue’s history of photoshopping even the thinnest of celebrity women that have appeared on its cover, from a bizarre morphing of Gwyneth Paltrow into a strange animatronic-looking fashion monster (which perhaps she is), to an uncomfortable looking shot of Claire Danes where she appears to have only one leg.
What I wondered is, is it all that different for men on the cover of fashion magazines? The obvious answer is yes, the beauty standard for men is less restrictive than it is for women—don’t be an idiot, Gresko! And yet a few months back, I remember sitting on the toilet gazing at Chris Hemsworth (AKA Thor) on the cover of Esquire wearing a chic charcoal suit and exuding satisfied confidence with a beaming, relaxed grin. Despite a slightly awkward, “I don’t know whether to put this hand in my pocket or what” move with his right arm, he looked fit, svelte, and handsome, with just the right amount of scruff. I will admit, I felt envious of the be-muscled bloke, who my wife thinks is pretty dreamy. I’ll never have that core strength, I told myself, or shoulders broad enough to fill a dress shirt like that. Nor did I think I’d ever be as relaxed and yet commanding when posing for a photograph. This wasn’t the greatest feeling to have.
Looking at the other men who made the cover of Esquire last year – Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Robert Redford, Leonardo DiCaprio – I noted a few similarities. First, while Megan Fox and Scarlett Johansson appeared in lingerie, the guys showed little skin. Only Sean Penn wore a short-sleeved tee shirt, and while he’s not smiling or even looking all that comfortable in the photo, he’s doing that thing where his arms are folded and he’s pushing his bicep out with his hand to make it look bigger, and his stomach is cast in shadow so he looks very thin. Every other man wears long sleeves and pants, and appear in tip-top shape. Redford’s body is hidden in a coat, and the contrast on the image has been kicked up to better accentuate his craggy features and striking blue eyes, a treatment I’d love to see the lovely Helen Mirren get, though that seems unlikely. Nor do I expect Esquire or GQ to feature a star like Louie CK in a tee shirt that doesn’t hide his gut and man-boobs, like the one he often sported in the last season of Louie, or run a spread of hip-hop veterans in their forties with their kids, such as Jay Z, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre.
As the parent of a four-year-old boy, I’m aware of the messages that magazine covers send not just to me, but to my son as well. I want my boy to recognize beauty in all the many flavors it comes, but most especially when it’s dressed-down in everyday casual wear, with greasy hair, a crooked smile, and a pimple or two. I’d like for him to grow up feeling secure in his appearance, and the decisions he makes about how he looks, and to accept the changes of age with grace, good humor, and pride. If he wants to get a tattoo, or dye his hair, or shave it off, or walk around bare chested even though instead of a six pack he has a jiggly belly from drinking too many six packs, well hey, that’s alright. I’m sure he’ll look great, if he does it with confidence. And I hope that he’ll see the beauty in everyone, and look at people less with a judgmental eye, and more an accepting one. In short, I want him to respect how other people look, and respect how he looks too.
Fashion magazines for both men and women perpetuate models for attractiveness that are negative and difficult to achieve. The stars granted access to these covers have to fit the magazine’s brand, which sometimes means sacrificing a bit of themselves in the process. It feels to me that Dunham has done that, though not unwillingly. She’s tweeted her thanks to Vogue, and I can imagine she’s grateful for both the exposure and the acceptance by one of high fashion’s signature magazines. If only Dunham had been able to somehow undermine Vogue’s standard, rather than have Vogue compromise her message of being who you are without filter, or apology, or shame. Or if Dunham had admitted that she, like all of us, takes pleasure (perhaps perverse pleasure) in being desired and celebrated even if it means being manipulated, as Jennifer Lawrence did when she thanked Photoshop for making her look great in a Christian Dior ad campaign. Who knows, perhaps Dunham will. She certainly doesn’t keep much of her life private.
Men and women need more messages in the media that they can look great by being comfortable in their own bodies, and that beautiful human bodies come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages. I’m tired of this false, bogus media! It’s high-time we start seeing, and demanding, a celebration of the real, and not a perpetuation of unobtainable fantasy.