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Ukraine's first lady posed for 'Vogue' and sparked discussion on how to #SitLikeAGirl

LVIV, Ukraine — What does it mean to "sit like a girl"? The question arose after Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska appeared sitting on the cover of Vogue last month. Some critics ridiculed her pose as not being feminine.

In the portrait, made by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz in Kyiv, Zelenska is dressed in pants and a shirt with rolled up sleeves, wearing flats and minimal makeup. She's seated on marble steps, leaning in with her elbows on her knees — her legs not zipped together.

"'Sit like a girl,' " Polina Karabach, a 30-year-old resident of Kyiv, recalls reading online while scrolling through a deluge of criticism. "[They say] it's inappropriate for the first lady, it's inappropriate for women to sit like this."

Karabach believes that Zelenska sent an important message by showing up in the magazine: that even though Ukrainians are tired, they are "still standing strong." So she was taken aback when so much criticism, including from fellow Ukrainians, focused on the first lady's appearance.

Her hair? Too glamorous for wartime.

Her eyes? Too tired-looking.

Her posture? Too manly.

The media may have noted President Volodymyr Zelenskyy looking worn-out since the war. But few people criticize him when he's in the press, Karabach says, so the backlash against his wife is "a sign that it's really about trying to humble down women and Olena, specifically."

Critics took issue with all sorts of aspects

Zelenska's photoshoot has garnered other sorts of criticism, including from fellow Ukrainians who have accused her of stealing the spotlight from women actually working on the front lines, and of promoting a cult of personality in the West around President Zelenskyy. He appears embracing or holding hands with his wife in some of the photos.

Meanwhile, outside of Ukraine, the photo shoot has also drawn criticism as war propaganda and making light of the conflict. "Is the magazine romanticizing war, or is the first lady weaponizing glossies?" asked a critic's notebook piece in The New York Times.

Peter Dickinson, the editor of the Atlantic Council's UkraineAlert service who runs a publishing business in Ukraine, says most of the criticism seems to be coming from Russia, Russian proxies and people critical of their government's support of Ukraine in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy.

"I think it was a good opportunity for people who are critical of the overwhelming support for Ukraine, to shout to Ukraine and say, 'Look, this country doesn't need our help, they're doing Vogue photo shoots, they don't need help, they don't need support,' " Dickinson says.

Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert shouted exactly that. While the U.S. is sending billions of aid to Ukraine, she tweeted, "Zelenskyy is doing photoshoots for Vogue Magazine. These people think we are nothing but a bunch of suckers."

Jalisa Danielle, a Houston-based podcaster, also voiced skepticism about the seriousness of the conflict. "How serious is the war in Ukraine?" she asked in a tweet, which has received large numbers of retweets and likes.

Danielle told NPR that Vogue just may not have been the right vehicle for the message Zelenska may have been trying to send.

"To look at that and see, on one hand people are saying this is very serious, there's a lot of crazy conflicts going on, and then to see somebody has time to do a high-fashion photoshoot, although it wasn't high-fashion clothes or stuff, that's what it's associated with," Danielle says.

When Zelenska was asked by the BBC about criticism that her appearance in Vogue was "glamorizing the war," the first lady said, "I'm using every opportunity to speak about Ukraine — that was a massive opportunity, because millions of people read Vogue. ... And to be able to speak to them directly, that was my duty."

Dickinson agrees, writing in his blog:

"An attention-grabbing photo shoot with a global media brand is a smart move by Zelenska that plays to Ukraine's strengths and enhances the country's ability to punch well above its weight in the information war against Russia. At a time when scenes of death and destruction in Ukraine have lost the power to shock, she offers a compelling personal perspective that brings home the reality of the war to outside observers."

It's become an important moment for Ukrainian women

A growing number of people have been pushing back against the criticism of her pose in particular.

Women are using the hashtag #SitLikeAGirl on social media with images of themselves sitting like the first lady's cover photo, in a challenge against female stereotypes. Supporters have included people of different walks of life — soldiers, police officers, artists, singers — and just this week, the justice minister of Slovakia.

Valeriia Voshchevska, a Ukrainian activist who works for Amnesty International in London, says this response is "amazing" and goes to show the "power civil society has in Ukraine, which is so nice to see in juxtaposition to, you know, Russia."

This moment is important for Ukrainian women, she says, because not only is a woman leading the way for the country to be more seen and more heard, they're standing up for themselves in the face of criticism and stereotyping at a crucial time.

Back in Kyiv, Karabach recreated first lady Zalenska's photo in her apartment. Her portrait was taken by her husband, Yuriy Karabach.

"I think that we should stop paying attention to this and start focusing on what's important," she says — like doing what you can to support Ukraine in the war.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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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 NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.