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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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Dove “Real Beauty” Redux


I call retouching on dove.

I’m fascinated by the continued coverage of the most recent video in the Dove Real Beauty Campaign arsenal. Though much of the coverage has been critical, its very discussion shows how effective the campaign has been—and how ready women are for a new conversation about beauty, one that doesn’t rest on the belief that we don’t like the way we look.

I’ve heard from several readers who have pointed out that whatever quibblings I might have with the Dove campaign, the fact is that it’s better for women than traditional advertising, specifically the type that relies on sexist tropes. I agree: At the end of the day, if I had to choose between Dove’s “BFF marketing” style and the rest of ’em, I’d choose Dove. (And I’ll readily point out that the sketch artist ad “worked” on me: I totally got teary at the big reveal.) But as Cassie points out, we’re not limited to either/or options here, and as cynical as I might be about advertising, I’d feel more cynical if I just threw up my hands and said, Well, this is the best we can do, so I’ll take it.

More to the point: I’m not so sure that the roots of the Dove campaign are all that different from conventional ads, though the feeling each creates is quite different. The Dove campaign exploits women’s beauty-related self-esteem for its own purposes. In other words, it’s doing exactly the same thing as the ads that tell women they aren’t good enough as-is. The means are different, of course, but the tool of leverage—and, of course, the end goal of selling products—is the same: Without a self-esteem crisis, neither type of ad would work. It’s this bare fact—that without women disliking their looks, Dove would lose its ace in the hole—that should make us suspect of the premise. Do women feel bad about their looks? Yes! Sometimes. Sometimes.

The feminist argument against beauty advertising often hinges upon a neat equation: Companies need to make women feel bad about the way they look, so that they can then supply the fix—lipstick, hair conditioner, whatever. Contrast this with what people within the beauty industry (like the beauty editor I interviewed here) say: The beauty industry has a stake in making women feel good about themselves, by giving us tools of independent self-care and the ability to enhance our natural gifts. At first glance these two arguments seem pitted against one another, but in fact they exist in symbiosis. The beauty industry has a stake in keeping women in the space between desperate unhappiness with our looks and bulletproof self-esteem. A consumer who simultaneously believes that she is beautiful and not-beautiful makes for a better consumer. And in fact it’s simple for advertisers to leverage our chronic cognitive dissonance because that’s closer to the actual experience of beauty than some neat yes/no box. If there was no part of us that didn’t secretly believe we just might be beautiful, the Dove ad would have no effect. It’s not only the possibility but the permission of the Dove ad that makes it so powerful.

Yes, there’s an enormous problem with appearance-related self-esteem among women (and men). Yes, we need to continue to address this concern on a sociological level. Yes, it is incredibly painful for any of us in those moments of exquisitely vulnerable self-loathing. Yes to all that. And yet: Yes, most of us have looked in the mirror at some point and liked what we’ve seen. Yes, we look forward to wearing certain outfits because we know we look fantastic in them. Yes, we now snap so many self-portraits that we had to invent the word selfie to describe the phenomenon. Yes to all the natural human joy and pride and immodesty and pleasure we take in our looks. To deny that side of the beauty question is to deny our lived experience. To deny that side of the beauty question is to take shame in those moments of pride, to deny ourselves lest we be seen as thinking we’re “all that.” To deny that side of the beauty question is to publicly deny other women the same right we privately give ourselves. We don’t give ourselves that right all the time, no. But we don’t need to.

I’d be hesitant to put this thought out there, that maybe we like the way we look at the same time we don’t like the way we look—because really what I’m saying is that this is true for me, and my my, isn’t someone arrogant? But when I look at the numbers—the numbers we don’t hear about all the time in clucking tones—I see that my experience of beauty duality isn’t mine alone. Check out the numbers that writer and sociology PhD candidate Kjerstin Gruys points out: According to another study, 58% of women are satisfied with their appearance. 65% of women consider themselves “above average” in appearance. Or, hell, look at Dove’s own numbers from their 2004 research for the launch of the Real Beauty campaign: While only 4% of the Dove survey respondents copped to considering themselves “beautiful,” 55% of them were satisfied with their body shape and size. One of these numbers works in the narrative Dove is creating with the Real Beauty campaign. And one of them doesn’t.

Add to that the other structural concerns Virginia Postrel points out about the Dove video: We only see the results of seven women; 20 women participated in the initial experiment. (Did some of those women’s sketches fall out of line with the desired result?) The sketch artist—i.e. the person whose work the entire ad centers around—knew what the experiment while doing his sketches. There was no opportunity for women to correct the sketch as would happen if the goal actually were accuracy; how would someone know whether what she called her “long nose” differed wildly from the artist’s rendering of it?

And there’s that word beautiful, which, according to Dove research, only 4% of women describe themselves as being. What Dove doesn’t tell you is how they came up with that number: They asked survey respondents to choose one word to describe themselves from a list of 10 words. Here’s a list of the words respondents were given to choose from (on page 10): natural, average, attractive, feminine, good-looking, cute, pretty, beautiful, sophisticated, sexy, stunning, and gorgeous. Does me choosing, say, sexy, or pretty, or natural or attractive signal a self-esteem problem? Hell, even choosing average doesn’t mean we’re suffering—if you’re approaching the question from a statistical standpoint instead of an interpretive one (and some respondents undoubtedly would), by definition most of us would indeed be average. (Speaking of averages: When respondents were asked to place themselves on a “bell curve” of beauty, 13% of respondents said they thought of themselves as somewhat less or much less beautiful than other women. And 16% of respondents said they thought of themselves as somewhat more or much more beautiful than other women.) 

But back to why I bothered to revisit the campaign in the first place: I think some of us have had enough. Just as Dove created the campaign in response to the fact that women had had enough of traditional advertising that asked us to feel lesser-than, it’s clear from the overwhelming response to the ad that while we’ve still had enough of that type of ad, we’re also becoming wary of the ads that use those feelings as leverage. And frankly, I’m thrilled to see such a variety of responses to the campaign. To me, it signals a desire to shed the therapeutic narrative of beauty. The question is: What narrative will we design in its place?

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