"I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, the way we treat our children…it impacts everything. It’s absolutely critical to your happiness.”
Lately, some things have been brought to my attention that make me wonder whether they're actually an ally to women, or an antagonist in disguise.
It all started a few weeks ago, when I read an article on AdAge that mentioned that Dove is actually owned by the same company that owns Axe. "That's strange," I thought, "How could two products with such vastly different brand messaging be produced by the same company?" Dove is the champion of the "real woman," whereas Axe has produced some of the most sexist advertising on television.
Upon looking into it more, I found that the article was correct. Axe and Dove are both owned by the parent company Unilever. Furthermore, there's been speculation that Unilever has set up this dichotomy purposefully, as a marketing ploy.
After reading about all of this, I felt skeptical, but I decided to give Dove the benefit of the doubt. "Maybe the people who are actually working on the ads really do care; they probably just don't have a say in other brands that Unilever owns."
But just as soon as I was beginning to forget I'd even read about dove's situation with Axe, the brand was brought to my attention again. And this time, I couldn't bring myself to drop it.
What caught my attention was their most recent “Real Beauty Sketches” video, which practically clogged my Facebook news feed due to its popularity among women. I watched it, wanting to see this incredible uplifting message my friends were seeing, but what I saw instead was pseudo-empowerment and fake-feminism. But before I start tearing into it, let's talk about the ad itself.
For those who haven’t seen it, here’s a rundown:
Dove conducted a “social experiment” with several female participants who (Dove claims) did not know what they were signing up for. One by one, the women arrive at a building they had never been to, where they were told to get friendly with a person they’d never met. Then, they were called back into a space where a professional forensic artist was waiting with his back to them, separated by a curtain.
Then, each woman described her physical appearance to the artist, and he sketched them according to what they said. After that, the stranger who met and spoke to each woman came in and described the participants from their perspective, and the forensic artist drew a second sketch based on this description. At the end, each woman came back to see the two sketches, and to notice the difference between how they describe themselves and how others describe them. They all agree they look more beautiful when described by strangers, and that they are more beautiful than they think. Then they talk about how important it is for us to realize that our self-perceptions are overly harsh, and they say that we should spend more time appreciating the things that we do like. Finally, the words, “You are more beautiful than you think” scroll across the screen, and the video ends.
Well that sounds wonderful, doesn’t it??
In some ways, it is. The video definitely makes some valid points. Most of us are our own harshest critics, and it’s clear that Dove is trying to spread an uplifting message by reminding women to appreciate the things they admire about their looks.
So there’s the admirable part. Now let’s dig a little deeper….
First of all, the ads are still drilling in the idea that women are supposed to aspire to be beautiful as a primary goal in life. Sure, Dove found a way to put a positive spin on it, but the underlying connotation is the same as always: that a woman’s worth rests in how physically attractive she is. Notice that it’s not called the “Dove campaign for real intelligence”. The focus is on looks. The only difference is they’re saying it in a pseudo-empowering way.
That’s my biggest beef with the campaign. The folks at Dove are acting like they’re bravely challenging conventional standards of beauty when they’re not actually changing the narrative at all.
In fact, their ad doesn’t even seek to broaden the definition of beauty. The characteristics presented as “attractive” and “unattractive” are totally in line with cultural standards.
For example, when the women described their appearance to the forensic artist, these were some of the attributes that the ad presented as flaws (even if the women didn’t imply that she felt that way): “round face, freckles, scars, crows feet, moles, thick hips, getting old, etc.”
On the other hand, descriptive words that were presented as “positive attributes” included: “Thin, thin face (this was said twice), thin chin, ‘small cute nose’, blue eyes.”
On top of this, there’s very little diversity in the participants that Dove chose for the project All four of the women are white, 3 of the 4 have blonde hair and blue eyes, all are thin, all are tall, and all are under the age of 40. There are brief shots of people of color scattered throughout the ad, but we don’t hear them speak much. Dove definitely isn’t going out of it’s way to promote more diversity in our perceptions of beauty.
I probably don’t need to spell it out because the problem should be so glaringly obvious at this point. But I’ll say it anyway. The ad not only accepts, but reinforces our society’s narrow definition of beauty. If you tune out the inspirational music and listen to what they’re actually saying, it’s this: “You’re not quite as far away from conventional standards of beauty as you previously thought you were! Yay for you!”
Dove’s problematic message is summed up perfectly in a quote from one of the participants played at the end of the ad: “It’s troubling. I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, the way we treat our children…it impacts everything. It’s absolutely critical to your happiness.”
Let that sink in: Being beautiful is absolutely critical to your happiness.
Now where have I heard that before….Oh that’s right, it’s the core message of 90% of the ads I see every damn day. Conventional attractiveness is treated as a prerequisite to happiness. We hear it thousands of times in a million different ways, but it’s the same sorry message:
Physical attractiveness—the most superficial quality to judge a person by—is the most significant part of a woman’s being.
If Dove really wanted to take a stand, they’d be sending out the opposite message. Instead of saying, “You’re prettier than you think,” they’d encourage women to evaluate themselves in more meaningful ways beyond their looks. Instead of saying that beauty is “critical to happiness,” they’d tell the truth: that basing your happiness on well you meet society’s definition of beauty is a recipe for a miserable and unfulfilled life.
Sure, it’s nice that Dove wants women to know how beautiful they are. But I won’t be impressed until they start praising women for something other than just being pretty.