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'Vogue' cover of Ukraine's First Lady Olena Zelenska sparks debate and controversy


What does it mean to sit like a girl? Well, people have been debating this question since last week, when Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska appeared on the cover of Vogue sitting, as some have criticized, in a very unfeminine posture. NPR's Ashley Westerman reports.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: When 30-year-old Polina Karabach saw her first lady on the cover of Vogue last week, she was filled with pride.

POLINA KARABACH: I found it very important to spread the word about the war in Ukraine. We're still standing strong. We're tired, but we're still doing whatever we can.

WESTERMAN: Shot in Kyiv last month by photographer Annie Leibovitz, the series of photos, some including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the accompanying interview paint Olena Zelenska as a woman stepping up to the great challenge of her many roles in this war - a first lady, a female role model and, increasingly, a diplomat. So Karabach was taken aback when the criticisms started pouring in, particularly those about Zelenska's appearance - her too-glamorous hair, the bags under her eyes and her posture.

KARABACH: Sit like a girl. It's inappropriate for the first lady. It's inappropriate for the women to sit like this.

WESTERMAN: Leaning in, elbows on her knees, legs not zipped together. Zelenska has also been accused by some of her fellow Ukrainians of stealing the spotlight from actual women working on the front lines and promulgating a cult of personality around President Zelenskyy in the West. Meanwhile, overseas, the photoshoot has also been criticized simultaneously as war propaganda and making light of the conflict. A critical tweet by Houston-based podcaster Jalisa Danielle went viral. She says Vogue just didn't seem like the right vehicle for the message Zelenska may have been trying to send.

JALISA DANIELLE: To look at that and see, on one hand, people are saying this is very serious, a lot of crazy conflicts going on and then to see, like, somebody has time to, you know, do a high-fashion photoshoot - although it wasn't, like, you know, high-fashion clothes and stuff like that, but that's what it's associated with.

WESTERMAN: These criticisms have prompted Zelenska to defend the photoshoot. Here she is on the BBC last week, speaking through a translator.


OLENA ZELENSKA: (Through interpreter) I will repeat myself again that I'm using every opportunity to speak about Ukraine. That was a massive opportunity because millions of people read Vogue.

WESTERMAN: Enter hashtag #sitlikeagirl, now being used by women all over the world in recreating Zelenska's now-iconic front-page photo - soldiers, police women, activists, artists, women both outside and inside Ukraine.

VALERIIA VOSHCHEVSKA: I think it's amazing. And I think it shows, like, the power that civil society has in Ukraine, which is so nice to see in juxtaposition to, you know, Russia.

WESTERMAN: Valeriia Voshchevska is a Ukrainian activist who works for Amnesty International in London. She says it's really nice to see Ukrainian women in particular stand up for themselves and challenge stereotypes at such a crucial time.

VOSHCHEVSKA: And it's nice to see that, like, you know, sometimes you don't even need words to stand up for something. And I think this is, like, such a great example of that, right? Like, when you see that, you 100% know what they're talking about, which is the fact that, like, it's OK for a woman to sit however the hell she wants to.

WESTERMAN: Polina Karabach recreated first lady Zelenska's photo in her Kyiv apartment and posted it onto Facebook. Her portrait was taken by her husband, Yuri.

KARABACH: I think that we should stop paying attention to this and start focusing on what's important.

WESTERMAN: Like the Russian invasion, now in its sixth month, not how women are sitting. Ashley Westerman, NPR News, Lviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.