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…