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Column: Outrage over magazine covers translates to body shaming

Discussion about celebrity cover girls focuses too much on their imperfections.

Elise Moser

Jan. 21, 2014

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

Maybe it’s time we take a step back from over-analyzing magazine covers.

In the past few months, there has been a laundry list of fashion-magazine cover photos that are supposedly controversial because of the way they portray larger women. I use the term “larger” loosely here, because the women in question are more representative of the average American woman, yet they are bigger compared to the usual Hollywood cover girl.

In November, Elle’s cover featured Melissa McCarthy wearing an oversized coat. The magazine was admonished for hiding the plus-sized actress under the voluminous jacket. Then in January, Elle was again the topic of discussion when Mindy Kaling’s cover photo only featured her from the chest up, contrary to many of Elle’s recent cover images featuring full-body shots.

The most recent cover controversy comes from Vogue: the website Jezebel offered $10,000 for “unretouched” photos of Lena Dunham’s January cover shoot. When they received the photos, they annotated all the ways in which Dunham had been retouched.

Here’s the thing: each of these women have spoken up about the media uproar regarding the so-called controversies, and said they are very happy with the way their covers turned out. McCarthy stated on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno that she chose the coat herself because she liked the cashmere fabric.

Kaling said she was excited to be on the cover of a fashion magazine for the first time in her career. And Lena Dunham, creator, writer and star of the HBO series “Girls,” tweeted a thank you to “everyone who supported me just as I am, especially @voguemagazine.”

All of these women are known for their body-positive attitudes. Dunham often appears nude on her television series, and is a well-known feminist. So shouldn’t we take our cue from them before critiquing their appearances on these covers?

It’s no secret that magazines alter images of their models, often creating unrealistically perfect women. But what seems to be an attempt to call out the magazine industry actually turns into body-shaming three women who are already body-shamed by the media every day.

Jezebel’s attempt to call out Vogue for editing Dunham’s photos is a prime example of body shaming. The website was basically saying they couldn’t believe Dunham could look that good in a photograph. In fact, the photos were not heavily retouched. In the photo where Dunham is posing in front of a bathtub, the only major changes made were bringing up her neckline, thinning out her neck and removing the bags under her eyes. But she still looks like the same Lena Dunham we all know, if only a little glammed up.

When I think about these three covers, I don’t think about the way the magazines hid or altered these women’s bodies. Instead, I think about how wonderful it is for them to be featured on a magazine cover at all. How often do we see plus-sized stars like McCarthy grace the cover of Elle magazine? It’s rare to see a feminist on the cover of Vogue.

I don’t look at the photographs of Lena Dunham and think, “Wow, they’ve changed her because they’re ashamed of her body.” I instead think that Vogue and Dunham worked together to create images that highlight Dunham’s beauty without overly editing her body.

But, really, it doesn’t matter what I think. If Lena Dunham says she likes the photos, I’m going to think they’re acceptable too. Here’s where feminism isn’t so cut-and-dry. A woman can be featured in Vogue magazine and allow them to alter her image, and still be a feminist.

In the end, it’s about how you see yourself, whether it’s through your own eyes or through the lens of a camera. Each of these women were given a choice to portray their bodies in this way, and each of them proudly stood behind their decisions. That’s body positivity, and we should stop turning it into shame.

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