The Debate With Controversial Magazine Covers Is Alive and Well

Risks are not necessarily being rewarded

Headshot of Emma Bazilian

In the past four months, there’s been a barrage of magazine cover controversies. Kate Winslet, Lady Gaga and Kerry Washington were seen as being overly airbrushed by Vogue, Glamour and Lucky, respectively. Elle was accused of downplaying Melissa McCarthy and Mindy Kaling’s non-sample-size physiques, and Vogue became a subject of national discussion after its unretouched photos of Lena Dunham were released by Jezebel.

The debate over how women’s magazines represent their subjects is, of course, nothing new. “Women’s fashion magazines in particular have been dealing with criticism that we show unrealistic standards of beauty for a long time,” said Elle editor in chief Robbie Myers. But, judging by the amount of media attention these recent controversies have generated, there’s more backlash than ever. 


What’s different? For one, social media is making it easier than ever for these discussions to proliferate.

For another, magazines are taking more risks with their covers. Ten years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a magazine starring a celebrity who didn’t already look like a fashion model; now, women like McCarthy, Kaling and Dunham are gracing those covers. And these risks aren’t necessarily being rewarded. “For as long as I’ve been here, there have been people writing to us to say, ‘You need to expand your idea of what’s beautiful.’ And when we do that, we then get criticized for it,” said Myers.

Recently, however, some of that criticism has received its own backlash. After Jezebel paid $10,000 for Dunham’s original Vogue photos, then detailed all of the changes that had been made to the actress’ body, social media exploded with accusations (including from Dunham herself) that Jezebel was body-shaming Dunham under the guise of feminism. In addition, critics said, it’d be unrealistic to expect Vogue not to retouch the photos. Vogue, along with Glamour and Lucky, declined to comment for this story. 


So have we finally reached the tipping point of cover outrage? Not even close, according to Jezebel editor in chief Jessica Coen. “The whole Lena story got well over 1.2 million unique viewers,” said Coen, adding that she continues to keep up coverage of the topic. “That doesn’t happen because people are ‘over’ something.”

Myers doesn’t expect the conversation to die down anytime soon, either. But while most magazine editors seem to be avoiding the issue, Myers is encouraging it, writing about it in her March editor’s letter and considering a panel discussion to bring together magazine editors and their critics. “The conversation is a good thing,” she said. “When people get upset, we need to talk about it.”

@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.