Photoshopocalypse: there’s more to be worried about than airbrushed legs


The Vogue in question

This week popular feminist site Jezebel embarrassed itself by offering $10,000 to anyone who could provide the before-photoshop shots of Lena Dunham’s US Vogue cover. Now, I love reading Jezebel on a daily basis. It’s a bit hit and miss, but generally I appreciate its mixture of popular culture and feminist analysis. Though this latest stunt has got me wondering: when it comes to cultural analysis, what is worth spending our time worrying about?

This has really been on my mind since I read this article from The Guardian, that asks “should popular culture be a site for political debate?”. Aside from the bit about the “deluge” of Miley Cyrus analysis (which gave me pangs of PhD fraud-guilt), I generally agree with the gist of the article. We should be careful not to get too caught up in deconstructing particularities of entertainment, lest we forget the bigger issues – of binary gender, economic disparity, racial prejudice, and so forth. 


When we focus on the small stuff we can get lost (or stuck in the refrigerator)

In other words, we want to be careful that we can still see the political forest despite the pop culture trees.

Given that popular culture is a huge part of daily life and a source of enjoyment for many people (whether we agree it should be or not) it certainly warrants attention. But I do agree we should make sure our critique doesn’t become so narrow and specific that we miss the point. From what I can see going on in the Dunham-cover debate, there is a pretty narrow focus not on a tree, but on a tiny bug sitting on a leaf.

And it’s not like the issue of photoshopping doesn’t deserve attention, it’s just that we have the same conversation time and time again. It goes something like:

Photoshop: making celebrities look slightly alien since 1988

Photoshop: making celebrities look slightly alien since 1988

“BEFORE this woman looked NORMAL and BEAUTIFUL…
But then society deemed that she was NOT BEAUTIFUL ENOUGH.
Oh the TRAVESTY that we can’t just be our bumpy NORMAL selves”

“What do you EXPECT, the public want to see BEAUTIFUL people.
I mean, if you want to see FAT and UGLY just go out on the street.
This is FANTASY, this is fashion, it is MAKE BELIEVE”

Vogue-Nippon-No-Crime-to-be-RichAnd so the banal conversation continues, until we have it again next time someone’s leg or muffin top is lopped off by photoshop. And we’re so busy having this debate over whether it is permissible for fashion magazines to have shiny airbrushed people in them, that feminism goes over to the corner and dies from boredom.

I mean, if we’re going to spend our time and money ($10,000, really Jez?) critiquing Vogue, why not look at it’s full-on reinforcement of class disparity? Why not look at it holistically, as a cultural artefact: what does it keep us aspiring to? That it proposes a vision of beauty that isn’t just a particular form of femininity, but is perhaps more grossly white, upper-class and heterosexual?

Is it just me, or are "real women" all veeeeery similar looking...

Is it just me, or are “real women” all veeeeery similar looking…

And part of the problem with focusing on photoshopping as *the* political issue, is that we then so readily accept “normality” as a selling point. Take the various Dove campaigns around “natural beauty”. We dance in jubilation – finally a company willing to show normal women! Never mind what might be left out, or the fact that this is all done in the name of profit.


No photoshop here? No worries!

When we’re doing these analyses, why don’t we ask: who is the *real* enemy?
The women posing, willingly participating in their objectification?
The individual photoshoppers, for being so brutal with their brush?
The editor of Vogue, for dictating what is socially normal and acceptable in fashion and beauty?

…Or, something bigger?…

I’m not saying that individuals are devoid of ethical responsibility. I’m not even saying we should stop reading Vogue or Jezebel, and strip off all our clothes and makeup and run into the bush and live like a hermit (that’s a different conversation). But I am saying that when we invest our time in critical analysis and commentary, we also need to make sure we focus on the wider picture.

9 thoughts on “Photoshopocalypse: there’s more to be worried about than airbrushed legs

  1. Maybe instead of focusing on the photoshopping aspect, we should look at who is being depicted on the covers and what these people represent. I am delighted to see Lena Dunham on the Vogue cover instead of yet another skinny model, whom nobody can relate to. The main focus of Vogue is aesthetics in the end, therefore we should just get over the fact that the covers and photoshoots featured will always be enhanced to keep the readers satisfied. Anyway, great article!

  2. Yes thank you, good post. It is always important, though it feels cynical to say this, to consider the motivations behind companies embracing “natural bodies” or “real women” – I was particularly skeptical over Pantene’s Labels Against Women advertising, which claimed to release women from all kinds of boxes, but was still selling them hair-shining shampoo…

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  4. Even “photoshopping according to judith butler: why giving accountability, post-subjectivity, and the manipulation of the image via technology and social media is a sign of the new paradigm to come” would work. what do you think? Isn’t that what continental philosophers do? “here is a thing in the world, according to somebody who graduated from European Graduate School, and talks in a strange french accent!” Yes yes, that is a lot of that!

  5. What is your critical analysis of photoshopping?

    Or is this post a friendly reminder “people need a wider perspective on photoshopping”? why try to encourage your audience to do something (Critically analyze the nature of photoshopping from a postmodern/philosophical/psychological/pop culture perspective while providing your own input) you can’t do?

    I’ve already thought about photoshopping, what now? Sadly tina fey has put it best in her autobiography “funny pants”, which I suggest anyone reading this should definitely read.

    • Hey, thanks for the comment. My aim here wasn’t to provide an analysis of photoshopping, but instead point out that with cultural items like Vogue there are other concerning things we might pay attention to too (i.e. the class, profit, race, issues I point out) – things that can sometimes get overlooked when you are constantly having the same photoshop debate. But I take your point, and see how you can turn the kind of critical lens I am applying to others (“why don’t you do more!”) to this piece.

      I completely agree with your Tina Fey recommendation! For anyone that wants to read a witty and insightful commentary on photoshopping, Fey is the way to go. Thanks!

      • Fey is my favorite “power woman” She understands the need for equality but is willing to laugh about some of the aspects of feminism that make achieving female equality more difficult. Thanks for this reply!

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