In March 2012, Vogue ran an excerpt of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, in its “power” issue. When Strayed, the writer behind the beloved advice column Dear Sugar, learned that Vogue wanted to feature her work, she was thrilled. But when she finally got her hands on a copy of the issue, she says she felt anything but powerful. The photo that Vogue had published of her was Photoshopped so heavily that her husband didn’t recognize her at first.
Strayed discussed the incident in a recently re-upped episode of Dear Sugars, the podcast she co-hosts with Steve Almond, reflecting on what it felt like to be Photoshopped beyond recognition in a magazine issue ostensibly celebrating women’s power. “Everywhere we turn, [women are] undermined, even in this age where feminism is popular now,” she said, adding that this fact was never “made more alive” to her than during her experience with Vogue.
On the podcast, Strayed recalled the day her publicist called her with the news that Vogue wanted to run the excerpt and do a photo shoot of her in Portland. She remembered thinking, “this was going to be an enormous coup for me as a writer.”
Strayed also recalled her “very first thought” after hearing about the photo shoot: “[It] was, ‘I’m gonna try to delay the photo shoot for as long as possible because I need some time to lose weight,’” she said. “I promised [myself] I wouldn’t eat anything. I was a size 12 and you can’t be a size 12 and be in Vogue magazine.”
Though Strayed said her “diet failed,” she said she felt “beautiful” the day of her photo shoot in the woods. When the issue came out, Strayed said that she and her husband couldn’t get their hands on a copy fast enough. When they flipped to the page featuring her, though, their hearts sank.
“We open it up and there is a picture of me, and immediately my husband says, ‘Is that you?’” she said. “Because we were not sure.” She continued:
They made me skinny, they gave me a boob job and some weird face job. They actually made me uglier than I am. But they made me thinner … Here I am in my mid 40s, I’ve been working all my life for this moment, and what they did was they corrected me … They said, “You know, we’re going to feature you as powerful, but we’re going to make you skinny first because that’s how you have to be.”
The main emotion Strayed felt upon seeing the photo was embarrassment. “What does [this] say about their idea of female power?” she asked in the episode.
Eight years later, Strayed said, “I wanna dig into all of this because I would like to say, ‘Oh that experience woke me up, and I said, Screw all of you, I’m gonna be who I am,’” she said. “It woke me up, but it didn’t stop me from the cycle that I’ve been in essentially all of my life, which is I have my skinny phases … and then I have my fat phases. I feel good when I’m at one phase, though it’s never thin enough, and I feel bad when I’m at the other phase. And I know this is not an unfamiliar cycle for so many women.”