thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Drawing Beauty: Limits and Surfaces in Dove’s Social Experiment

In advertising, body politics, feminism, gender, girl culture, race, Television, Women's health on April 18, 2013 at 9:06 am

Chelsea H.

By now, you’ve probably seen that Dove “social experiment” that’s going around, but just in case you’re as behind as I am, here it is:

The premise here is simple and, if I’m honest, well-meaning: many women, as evidenced by the way they describe themselves, don’t recognize – or are reluctant to acknowledge – their own beauty.  Any flaws they have in appearance are magnified when they view themselves; every crease set by joy and laughter is a “crow’s foot.”  Every tiny, cinnamon-dust dot is a big ugly freckle.  Chins protrude invasively.  Cheeks that don’t have flesh-slicing angular edges are chubby.  These flaws are captured when they describe themselves, all unseen, to a trained forensic artist who draws their portraits to match their descriptions.  And really, this shouldn’t be terrifically surprising.  Women are hard on themselves.  We’ve been taught to be.  Lines, wrinkles, creases – these are harbingers of mortality.  Any freckle, any spot, even the hopefully named “beauty mark” is looked upon as a flaw.

But then the tables are turned: earlier on the day of the experiment, each woman met and chatted with another participant.  Each is asked to describe the other person, and again the sketch artist draws the face that is described.  Results are, as you might expect, startlingly different: faces described by their owners as fat are simply pleasantly oval in shape.  Chins that are claimed to protrude are “nice” and “thin.”  Noses are “short and cute.”  Each woman is then shown the two portraits: one “drawn” by her own eyes, one by the eyes of a stranger.

Most of the women stand in stunned silence.  Some tear up.  Some smile ruefully, and some seem – not ashamed – but a bit bashful at their own perception of themselves.  The one older participant, Florence, who is given a lot of face time, says “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.  It impacts the choices in the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”  The images of the women standing in an otherwise empty gallery gazing on the sketches send a powerful message, the tagline of the whole campaign: you are more beautiful than you think.

At first viewing, my impulse was that this video rocked.  I got a little teary.  I said some affirming things to myself.

But then I watched it again, and I started asking questions.  Yes, the message is good: women should celebrate their beauty, but what is really being said about beauty in this depiction?

As blogger Jazz has said perhaps more eloquently than I can, there is a disparity in the types of woman being represented here.  Most are white – and not just white, but blonde.  Most are young.  All are thin-to-average in weight and build.  The women of color who are shown are featured less – say less and receive less screen time – than their Caucasian counterparts.  The one Asian woman represented, as Jazz points out, says nothing at all.  Beauty is, then, a young, thin, white woman.

Bitch Magazine has also picked up this issue and paraphrases it perfectly: “The hearts of conventionally beautiful women can grow a little warmer today.”  And really, isn’t that what’s being shown here?  While Florence is a bit older than the other participants, she barely tips the scales at middle aged.  She talks about her wrinkles and crow’s feet, but she’s barely got any to worry about.  All the women featured have feminine hairstyles, all wear make-up, all are dressed in casually stylish but unremarkable ensembles.  Women should consider themselves beautiful, then, but the depiction of beauty we are told should be celebrated fits within a stiff, traditional mold.

Dove, I commend you for selling us a vision of much needed self-affirmation.  I commend you for acknowledging this tendency in women and encouraging a move away from it.  I commend you for resisting the urge to sell us your skin care in a promise to enhance the beauty we already having.  As Bitch notes, there is no product schilling in this ad, and that’s nice.  But this video does sell us something.  It sells us a standard: while telling us to celebrate ourselves – we are more beautiful than we think – it sells us what beauty means, and what we should do with it.

What beauty means here, beyond an image of a thin, fair-skinned, young woman, is a physical appearance.  There is no acknowledgment of personality.  There is no discussion of inner strength or kindness or courage or wisdom.  We see chins and cheeks and eyes and hair.  We see surface.  What is revealed about these women’s thoughts is appearance-based as well: each woman is made to think, and think deeply, but her thoughts are all – every one of them – about how she looks.  Everything is about the surface.

So beauty means what someone looks like on the outside.  And knowing our surfaces meet a standard makes us feel good which, as self-affirming messages go, is bad enough already: the right kind of beauty = happiness!  Let’s look again at Florence’s conclusions: “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.  It impacts the choices in the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

Do I really want to live in a world where my physical appearance and how I interpret it impacts what choices I make when I seek friends?  Friends, I can tell you with certainty that neither my looks nor your looks were what drove me to desire your friendship.  Are my own looks really going to impact how I treat my children?  My wrinkles and laugh-lines, as they develop, will somehow influence the way I love?  Beauty as Dove defines it – how I look on the outside – is not, and should not, be what is most critical to my own happiness as a person.

But that’s not all.  In the final scene of the ad, one of the women’s voices tells us “We spend a lot of time, as women, analyzing and trying to fix the things that aren’t quite right, and we should spend more time appreciating the things we do like.” As she speaks, the scene changes from a reflective moment in the gallery of portraits to an outdoor setting.  Against a bright beam of sunlight, she is suddenly enfolded in the arms of – judging from what we can see of him – a young, conventionally attractive, well-dressed man.

So, it’s not just that women should celebrate their own beauty, it’s not just that the women in this video are what beauty looks like, but part of the message is also about heteronormativity.  That’s disappointing, even though it’s not strange.  But what really bothers me here is that even as we are told that women should stop worrying so much about how they perceive themselves and concentrate on more important things, we are told exactly what those more important things are.  The couple depicted here at the end of the video embrace each other, her hand grasps at the bottom of his jean jacket as they walk, and the video closes with this image of her tucked under his arm, almost disappearing against his body – providing a clear interpretation of what it is that we should “spend more time appreciating” and what it is that, at least in her case, “we do like.”

What we get here, then, is suggestive.  Beauty suddenly isn’t an idea in itself; we are shown what appreciating our own beauty does for us.  When we aren’t so worried about our fat cheeks and pokey chins and gross freckles, we can devote our time not to building our self-confidence or learning new things or celebrating our independence, but to hooking, hanging onto, and demurely all but fading into the protection and strength of a man.

Now that’s a message I want to send to my friends and my children…

  1. nicely said, Chelsea. Nicely said, indeed.

    • I love this. Thanks for sharing. I have been wrestling with this video ad in discussion with others and I am glad to realize that I am not alone in my discomfort. I like the premise of self-visualization vs. observational-visualization, but I wish it were framed by an artistic, rather than a commercial venture. The ad is an incredible example of pathos, but I think it just reinforces normative ideals particularly that beauty angst is a woman’s issue, but not an issue with which men struggle or in which men play a part (unilever makers of Dove, also make AXE). As someone with an extraordinary (in the dis/Abilites sense of the word extraordinary) body I keep waiting to see a truly unique or diverse face in any advertisement and I am continually left alone.

  2. Chels,

    I’m going to say something a bit controversial for this site, and that’s that I think you’re being a little too hard on them. I think it’s hard to make the GIANT leap outside the up-to-now normal box, but I do think they’re trying to take steps here. There are multiple women who are not white. The woman who gets some of the most time in the video is older, and if I’m being honest, I very much noticed that she had a large gap between her teeth. I thought that while they all looked clean and not un-stylish, many of them were NOT what we might consider “conventionally beautiful,” though some were. I felt they looked realistic enough to not make me think, “Well, that’s fine for them, but I’m still ugly.” And I feel like that often enough in relation to magazines.

    I think you’re also a little harsh with your criticisms of what they were missing. I think it is still important to affirm that people are beautiful, even if you’re not also affirming their intelligence, humor, friendliness, etc. Although I absolutely think those things are more important, I also think that appearance is something that makes people ache so much that we should applaud an attempt to alleviate that ache. Not every source can cover every important and self-affirming topic. This one was focusing on beauty. I don’t think that undermines other equally or more important characteristics at all. I think it simply chooses to celebrate something that frequently deeply impacts many people.

    I think Dove was trying. And maybe it doesn’t hit every correct thing, but it was an attempt. I can see encouraging something more, but I don’t think it is the great evil that is undercutting progress that you seem to make it in this article. I think what they attempted was important, and progress, even if it was a small step, and didn’t cover all the bases. And I think there is a whole lot to be said for that. You can’t always do it all. And in fact, there will probably never be an inspirational short like this that everyone can relate to. But starting somewhere and helping someone is still helping. I find it unfair to claim it only would help conventionally beautiful women. That magazine statement not only implies a slight bias of, “They don’t need it,” (ignoring that ALL women suffer feels of lack of beauty), but also implies that if it doesn’t reach everyone, it doesn’t count. It’s not good enough to try if people who’ve already “got it” are the ones it mainly reaches.

    I completely agree that this doesn’t accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished in terms of helping people reach their full potential, realizing their self worth, and highlighting important things aside from beauty. But I don’t think that that means they’ve done nothing here or done it so “wrong” as you are saying. It feels a little like you and bloggers commenting on it are looking for reasons that it isn’t good enough. Being offended at something that was really trying to do something good, and something at least a little bit new, instead of realizing the start and building constructively from that to something even better. You have to start somewhere, and like I said, you can’t always tackle everything at once. I hope this makes some sense.



    • R –

      I don’t think this is too controversial a response – in fact, I do think this is progression for Dove. The most progressive thing about it, even though their name is still clearly recognizable and identifiable with a line of “beauty” products, is that they don’t close by giving us some crass product placement or note that “all the women pictured here use Dove lotion” or something like that. The fact that this is an “advertisement” free of advertised, purchasable products is good. Many, if not all, of their previous “real beauty” campaigns have advertised a particular product even while showing “real women” of shapes and sizes honestly more diverse than what are depicted here.

      Further, I do think, as I say early on, that this is a well-meaning premise. I like the idea of encouraging women not to feel overwhelmed or disappointed about their appearances. I just think we have been hammered at from the “you have to be beautiful” angle for so long that another ad, even when it tells us “hey, guess what? You actually ARE beautiful – this other woman (or man) said so!” leaves me feeling disappointed. I get that Dove sells beauty products, and so expecting them to concentrate on something other than outside appearance is perhaps too much to ask for. But I can’t help wishing the issue were approached from a different angle: “you’re more beautiful than you think because the surface – which is lovely anyway, by the way – also isn’t everything.” I think the video has opportunities to move into this, but it doesn’t. One is when the woman with the short, blonde hair comments that the portrait resulting from someone else’s description looks “more open” and “happier.” The other comes from Florence.

      I think that Florence’s comments about “natural beauty” are interesting, and I wonder if they actually go deeper than they appear to in the video. Is she really talking solely about her appearance, or does “natural beauty” imply something more, closer to the kind of acknowledgment I was hoping for? I don’t think we have an opportunity to find that out, though, since what the gallery lay-out leads us to concentrate on are the comparisons of faces.

      Really, the thing that bothered me most of all – and the thing that would have been easiest to change – is the last scene. If they had shown the last woman doing something besides shrinking into a man – she doesn’t even look particularly happy! – I would have been less vehement in my protest here. If she had been rock-climbing, if she had been with female friends, or a mix of male and female friends, if she had been walking her dog or reading or running or, just, basically anything else, it wouldn’t have bothered me so much. But the pairing and the posture in that final scene just really bug me. It’s like we are being told that either as soon as we stop worrying about our physical flaws we will be able to maintain a successful hetero relationship, or that the worthiest thing we can do to make ourselves happy (now that we know we are beautiful) is to embark upon a successful hetero relationship. Maybe it’s not that the women being featured here are conventional in appearance so much as the representation of beauty and what it’s good for is so conventional.

      I agree with you that I’m asking a lot. But my intention here wasn’t to say that this does nothing, just that it isn’t enough. I just can’t help feeling like more could have been delivered with even a little acknowledgment that outer beauty shouldn’t be everything.

  3. Chels! I love this article and your spot-on analysis. But as a freckly folk representative, I have to wonder–are freckles really a thing people freak out about and think are gross? Do we have to call freckles cinnamon-dust dots because the word is so pejorative? I have a boatload of them, and I feel 1) fine with them and 2) like they’re not really something I’ve actually received a ton of negative cultural messages about, apart from like, when I read Anne of Green Gables. Anyway, this is a tangent that has nothing to do with the insightfulness of your article. (SUPER INSIGHTFUL.) But thought I’d mention it since I was curious to hear your thoughts.

    • Sarah –

      I’m so glad you love your freckles! I don’t have any myself to speak of, but I’ve known folks who do and don’t love them. A close friend in high school bemoaned her freckles, which appeared in droves during the summer when she’d gotten a bit of sun. My husband has freckles too, and he doesn’t like them much, although I think they are cute. To some people, I think, they are “spots,” and the media tells us we are supposed to strive for clear skin. Therefore freckles end up being a bad thing, which is a shame.

      My main reason for mentioning them – and trying to put them in a lovely light with my “cinnamon-dust” comment – was that one of the women in the video references her freckles. She says she’s gotten more of them as she’s gotten older. I suppose I could be projecting negativity onto that comment, since she doesn’t actually say she hates her freckles, but because most of the things the women say about themselves are cast in a negative light, I assumed she didn’t really like her freckles, especially since she was pairing mention of them with getting older, which many of the women seemed concerned about.

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