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The Feminist's Dilemma: Why We Can't Stop Caring About How We Look

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LENA DUNHAM
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Like most modern feminists, I rail against slut-shaming, tabloid culture and the unfairness of women being rewarded more for their appearance than their brains. But at the same time, I wear makeup, I exercise to stay in shape and I've been known to retake a photo because I thought I looked bad or take too long to pick out clothes because everything in my closet makes me feel unattractive. I say "thank you" when people compliment the way I look instead of saying, "please never tell me I'm beautiful because I find it insulting that you would even notice my appearance," as I imagine a more enlightened woman would.

I find myself constantly trapped in a world where I desperately want to be judged by my work but at the same time, I want other people to think I'm pretty. I'm permanently berating myself for caring about my appearance, because I am aware on a mental level that to care at all is to be superficial. But at the same time, I find myself squirming uncomfortably when I run into someone at the supermarket when I'm a sweaty, disheveled mess. I prefer to hide behind sunglasses when I don't have makeup on.

This cognitive dissonance is a state that most modern women inhabit all the time, but refuse to acknowledge. Instead, we talk and write and judge like we live in a post-superficial world. We judge other women for using their looks to their advantage and attempt to course-correct their behavior by snickering behind their backs about who's had Botox injections and who still goes to a tanning salon. But these same women -- myself included -- take time everyday to put on mascara and concealer and occasionally even fake eye lashes. I hate when I have to get ready somewhere without a full-length mirror because I can't properly assess my outfit. So, how can these same women so readily judge other women for being too superficial?

It appears that there's an imaginary line all women live within. A line which allows for makeup, excessive attention paid to clothes and de-tagging bad pictures on Facebook, but which for no reason other than arbitrary tacit agreement does not allow for wanting to be retouched in a magazine, trading on your looks, caring too much about what you eat or heaven forbid, plastic surgery. But instead of admitting that we're all superficial up to a point, we all talk about ourselves like we're not superficial at all, and it's only those women who cross that line that are really shallow. But we're all shallow (except maybe for the cat lady who lives in your building and hasn't seen a comb or wardrobe change since the Seventies), so we're all hypocrites the minute we turn into the superficiality police and shame and judge people who we think are more frivolous than we are.

The best and most recent example of this is the scandal the website Jezebel tried to create over Lena Dunham, the writer and star of HBO's "Girls." The self-styled women's website Jezebel offered $10,000 to anyone who could provide original un-retouched photos of Dunham from the Annie Leibovitz photo shoot that resulted in Dunham appearing on the cover of the world's premiere fashion magazine, Vogue. It only took two hours for raw images to surface and Jezebel posted its analysis of where the photos were retouched and, just incidentally, happened to point out all the flaws they could find with Dunham's appearance.

Jezebel has said that they did this to point out "how unforgiving the media is when it comes to images of women" (not that articles entitled 'This week in tabloids' would ever do the same). And as the incident gained traction, they continued to assert that this stunt had nothing to do with the schadenfreude that arises from watching a "normal" girl who looks just like us but who then became beautiful get taken down a notch, so we can feel again like that girl really isn't any prettier than we are. How preposterous! But rather, Jezebel was compelled by its feminist principles to point out that "the taller, longer-limbed, svelter version" of Lena Dunham on the cover of Vogue is not what she actually looks like in real life and Vogue is promoting an unattainable ideal. Of course, their high-minded mission had nothing to do with making themselves feel better about how they themselves look compared to Dunham in the magazine.

Other commentators went on to say Jezebel's bounty was justified in their "crusade against the fashion magazines that make us all feel like crap and have, in many ways, contributed to a pop culture in which Dunham's perfectly lovely physique is so outside the norm." But as the Washington Post pointed out, Jezebel did not resort to such a tactic for pictures of Jessica Chastain, Kate Winslet or Sandra Bullock, Vogue's last three cover girls. So what makes Dunham special? Allegedly, it's her hypocrisy! Her show and her work is, according to Jezebel, sending a message that is different -- the message that she's OK with her body. And according to the superficiality police, it is impossible to be OK with your body image and appearance, and at the same time hope that you get the benefit of retouching should you be on the cover of a magazine -- that is where the line is for Dunham. She crossed it, and thus must be stopped by the rest of us!

But any woman who's ready to jump on Jezebel's indignation train needs to ask herself first if she's not doing the same thing. If you wear high heels, aren't you sometimes favoring a taller version of yourself? If you wear concealer on a zit, aren't you telling the world that you want them to see a face that's smoother than it really is? And anytime you forgo one dress for another because it's not as slimming, you're committing this same horrible crime of preferring a leaner version of yourself. I find it very hard to believe the pretty writers and editors at Jezebel have never taken actions that suggested they favored the slimmer versions of themselves. Do the editors and writers not wear makeup? They clearly do wear makeup, at least on TV, and they are more than entitled to care about lighting, what they are wearing and how they look on TV. No one should be offering money so we can see pictures of Jezebel's editors at their worst so we can feel better about how pretty they look on TV. They have a right to try and make themselves look as good as possible and the rest of us would be right along with them, picking out their best colors to wear on TV. But the hypocrisy of doing all that and then attempting to generate opprobrium toward other women for doing the same thing must stop.

The Daily Beast alleged that Jezebel's actions were motivated more out of a feeling of betrayal when Lena Dunham was no longer their "poster child," no longer the girl on TV who portrayed a body that made you feel better about your own. And if that's true, Jezebel is doing just as much harm as any of the glossy magazines in distorting women's images of our bodies. I would hate to think that this whole incident revealed an ugly truth that Jezebel loved Lena Dunham not because they championed Dunham as an artist, but because seeing Dunham naked on TV made them feel better about themselves. And the minute Vogue took that away from them, not by turning Dunham into a rail-thin, surgery-enhanced version of herself in real life, but simply by embracing her as she is and doing the exact same type of Photoshopping they do to everyone else they put in their magazine, Jezebel turned on Dunham.

Jezebel is like the goth high school girl that talks about how horrible all the popular girls are and how great goth culture is. But then when her best goth friend becomes popular -- not by changing, but just because she made goth cool -- Jezebel renounced her, but blamed the popular girls for changing her. It's classic jealousy. Erase the jealousy and Jezebel would be saying "you go girl" and "good for you" and "I hope you get elected prom queen and accept the award in your black cape!"

Because that's what Dunham did. She made it to the cover of Vogue and she didn't become a size zero to do it. Let her be the hero to the common woman she deserves to be. Here's the message Jezebel should be lionizing from the rooftops: You don't have to weigh 95 pounds to be on the cover of Vogue!

It's a rare breed of woman who truly doesn't care about her appearance, and there are some women who only care about their appearance. But most of us fall in the middle -- wanting to be appreciated and loved and valued for more than how we look, but unable to completely expunge all interest in our outward image. If this is where most of us live, shouldn't we be asking for acceptance to be in this middle space? Can you honestly say that if someone wanted to put you on a magazine cover tomorrow that you would have no investment in looking your best? Isn't it normal to hope that the picture of you is not taken from a horrible angle the moment you wake up and at the same time be concerned with society's obsession about the ubiquitous worship of an unattainable ideal of the female form?

In the meantime, Dunham and Anna Wintour get three cheers from me! I hope Dunham sees much continued success as a cover girl and if Jezebel wants to prove they're not a hypocrite, every time we see one of their writers or editors on television looking pretty, I hope we see a big headline on Jezebel's home page that reads "We're Offering 10k to Anyone Who Has Ugly Pictures of Our Staff." Long live feminism.