“Everybody’s beautiful, in their own way,” the Grammy-winning but ungrammatical Ray Stevens sang back in 1970. A lovely sentiment, but to say that everyone is beautiful means that no one is beautiful. I think even Stevens knew this, which is why he added the wishy-washy disclaimer, “in their own way.” The harsh truth is that every culture has a standard of physical beauty against which all are judged. In our time, the fashion industry is under fire for pushing an impossible standard, but the truth is more complicated than that.
Hoping to whip up outrage over the industry’s photographic manipulation of the female form, the radical feminists at Jezebel recently offered $10,000 for Vogue’s unretouched photos of Girls star Lena Dunham from a recent shoot. Someone wasted no time forking them over, and Jezebel used them to deconstruct the magazine’s artful depictions of Dunham, who is notoriously dumpy by Paris runway standards.
But Jezebel miscalculated: first, people are no longer ignorant of or shocked by the orgies of Photoshopping that go on in fashion magazine editorial offices; second, Dunham herself was pleased with the results; and third, its obsession with highlighting Dunham’s imperfections painted Jezebel in a worse light than Vogue. In the article’s comments section, readers overwhelmingly condemned Jezebel for making a mountain out of a molehill.
In her response to the fizzled controversy, Dunham no doubt ruffled feminist feathers further by rolling out an inconvenient truth:
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.
“Yes, Vogue is fantasy,” Jezebel shot back,
but no matter how fantastic the clothes or the setting or the lighting, the people in these images are real — and yet Vogue has to take the reality of a human being's body and make it part of the fantasy too. It's escapism, absolutely, but the message is clear: while you dream of wearing that gorgeous dress, you should also dream of physical perfection as defined by Vogue.
Slate’s Katy Waldman agreed, finding Dunham’s justification “not terribly persuasive”: “[W]hile lady mags do purvey luxuriant escape, there’s no reason why their dreams of ‘beautiful clothes and fancy places’ must also feature punishing, unnatural body norms. Why is that the fantasy?”
That is the fantasy because women fantasize not merely about luxuriating in beautiful clothes and fancy places, but about being beautiful themselves as well. As Dunham suggested, “realistic” women don’t want to see themselves in haute couture; they want to see their idealized selves in haute couture, which is why the industry’s tentative efforts to use “realistic” women in advertising have met with mixed results at best. This is simply human nature, not fashion industry brainwashing, and it goes for men as well, which is why the “unnatural body norm” of David Beckham is a successful male model and a “realistic” guy like, say, Jonah Hill is not.
But Lena Dunham’s point is also well taken: the industry creates fantasies in which we are complicit because we enjoy them, because they inspire us, because we yearn for beauty even when it is unattainable. Some may dream of an egalitarian time when standards of beauty will be so inclusive that everybody’s beautiful, as Ray Stevens sang; but meanwhile, rather than march on Vogue with torches and pitchforks, let us enjoy the fashion fantasy while refusing to be enslaved by it.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/23/14)