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Beyoncé, Cindy Crawford, Lena Dunham: Why can't we stop looking at unretouched photos?

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Mason Poole

Tell the truth: Do you click on unretouched photos of celebrities?

If so, you’ve been busy the past few weeks. More than 200 shots from a 2013 L’Oréal cosmetics campaign leaked on Feb. 18, showing Beyoncé with caked-on makeup and uneven skin, looking pretty—if not quite as flawless as the retouched version suggested. Just days before that, images surfaced from a 2013 Marie Claire Mexico and Latin America shoot, revealing Cindy Crawford posing in a bikini, her toned stomach lined with stretch marks.

Some cheered these images as a rejection of the media’s impossible beauty standards, a welcome blow to Hollywood vanity, or a celebration of “real” bodies. “I’m glad Beyoncé is still a human like the rest of us,” one fan tweeted. “It’s not a big deal, haters! #Beyonce #beyhiveattack.” Others felt the leaks were just as bad for women as the retouching. “How is an objectifying pic of Cindy Crawford’s scantily clad, unretouched body, released without her permission, empowering to women, exactly?” comedian Warren Holstein tweeted. Feminist websites like Jezebel tried to have it both ways, defending the stars while posting the images as clickbait.

The hypocrisy bothered me, but who am I to judge? I clicked on the photos myself.

Why do women get so obsessed with unretouched images of other women? (Sorry, Justin Bieber, but your “enhanced” underwear shots never got anyone worked up like this.) Maybe it’s because they expose our guilty pleasures. They threaten to kill the aspirational fantasies we seek out in glossy magazines. If all the paleo diets, luxury creams, and personal-training sessions in the world can’t stop Beyoncé from getting acne or Crawford from getting stretch marks, we think, then there’s no hope for us. They reveal that tearing other women down can double as female bonding. They let us punish ourselves for falling short. You could argue that unretouched photos suggest that anyone can be a beauty icon, even those with bad skin and saggy tummies. Then again, if a woman with bad skin can transform herself into Beyoncé, the rest of us clearly aren’t working hard enough. A picture is worth a thousand insecurities.

I understand the appeal of Beyoncé’s unretouched photos. This is a woman, after all, who sings “I woke up like this,” never mentioning the fake eyelashes and hair weaves that made her such a “natural” beauty in the first place. But blaming Beyoncé for the impossible ideal she’s striving for is like blaming the victim, especially since she and Crawford can’t win. Crawford either looks old or wants to look too young. Beyoncé is either too perfect or not perfect enough.

Feminism is supposed to be about freedom, and these images take that freedom away. We’re acting as if famous women’s bodies belong to us, as if celebrities have to use them for the greater good. To quote Lena Dunham, whose own unretouched photos from a 2014 Vogue cover shoot were leaked online, “Part of being a feminist is giving other women the space to make choices you don’t necessarily agree with.” If that means showing compassion for women who might understand that some beauty standards are oppressive but still want to look as gorgeous as humanly possible in a photograph, then so be it.

“I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion,” Tina Fey wrote in Bossypants. “It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society…unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.” From now on, let’s all afford each other that same right.