One Narrative Fits All

A few years ago, the Mad Men marketing team came up with the ingenious idea of building a tool that allowed you to create your own personalized Mad Men–style avatar. And once we found out about it, a good friend and I came up with the ingenious idea of making avatars of each other, along with avatars of ourselves, and then comparing the results.

Here are—re-created from loose memory—the avatars of my friend. On the left, the one she designed of herself. On the right, the one I designed of her.

 

^^How my friend “drew” herself // How I “drew” my friend ^^

 

Notice anything different?

I thought of our avatar exchange when I first heard about the most recent arm of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, i.e. the campaign that brought us those billboards several years ago of “real women” modeling for Dove, and that launched the viral “Evolution” video about the process that goes into making media images. This particular project featured women describing themselves to a forensics sketch artist—who was separated from the women by a curtain so he couldn’t see them—and then having near-strangers describe the same woman to the same artist. When the results were compared—ta-da!—the sketches drawn from the strangers’ descriptions were conventionally prettier than the sketches drawn from the women’s descriptions of themselves.

It’s an interesting exercise, one I’d love to try myself—if out of narcissism/curiosity more than, as the Dove tagline would have it, finding out that I Am More Beautiful Than I Think. (Maybe I’ll just sign up for Selfless Portraits instead.) It’s intriguing enough, in fact, to make me overcome my knee-jerk “oh, brother” reaction to the Real Beauty campaign to consider exactly why I find myself disgruntled with a campaign that, on its face, shares many of my own goals as far as getting people to question the meaning of beauty.

Yes, the women in these ads are overwhelmingly conventionally pretty, and trim, and white; no, the ads don’t aim to question the essence of beauty standards so much as expand them to include more women; yes, in the process of examining beauty these ads also limit its definition. But not only have other people critiqued these angles more incisively than I could, the truth is, those aren’t my deepest problems with it. My real problem is this: Just as ads of yore leveraged the attitudes that made women feel bad about their looks in order to sell products, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty leverages the response to those attitudes in order to sell products. It allows for exactly one way that women can feel about our looks—bad—and creates a template for women’s relationship with their looks that’s just as rigid as the beauty standard it’s challenging.

But hold on, lady—didn’t you know that only 11% of girls around the world feel comfortable using the word beautiful to describe themselves? Isn’t that problematic? You can find that statistic right on the Real Beauty Campaign’s website—preceded by a statistic about how 72% of girls “feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful.” I look at these numbers and ask myself: How many girls now feel tremendous pressure to use the word beautiful to describe themselves? Another unanswered question stemming from those neat statistics: How many girls and women might not use the word beautiful to describe themselves yet still have a generous interpretation of their looks? How many women, when asked to describe themselves to someone they love or trust as opposed to a total stranger, might dare to use kinder words about their looks? How much our hesitation to claim beautiful for ourselves has to do with either a satisfaction with being pretty, or lovely, or striking—or with not wanting to be seen as suffering from “she thinks she’s all that” syndrome?

With our Mad Men avatars, my friend saw herself as being slimmer than I’d “drawn” her. Now, I don’t want to conflate thinness with beauty, but I knew she was somewhat aesthetically unhappy with her weight at the time we did one another’s avatars—so by the very guideline she was looking toward at the time, she depicted herself as being “more beautiful” than I did. It pains me to say that, because I’ve found her beautiful at every size I’ve seen her inhabit, and I’d be saddened if she thought my avatar of her meant anything less than that (which I don’t think it does). But my point here isn’t which avatar was more accurate—after all, none of the three body choices look particularly like her, or like me, or like anyone except perhaps Christina Hendricks. (The bloody mary, of course, is totally on par.) It’s that in an exchange with someone she intuitively trusted with her mental snapshot of herself, she defaulted not to the more conventionally negative image but to the more conventionally positive image. And like I said, we’re talking here about someone who wasn’t terrifically happy with her body; my friend is psychologically healthy but hardly has bullet-proof bodily self-esteem. Yet her experience of herself as relayed to the “sketch artist” of the app wasn’t one of hesitant self-deprecation—an experience we saw nowhere in the Dove sketch artist video.

The Dove campaign has confounded me from the beginning. I’ve alternately felt annoyed by it, touched by it, in simpatico with it, turned off by it, patronizing toward it, and thankful for it. In other words: It is having exactly the effect it’s supposed to have. And that’s what makes it both an effective campaign and a gold mine/red herring for skeptics like me. Dove’s parent company, Unilever, does not exist to make women feel good about themselves; Unilever exists to sell products. That’s fine, that’s their mission—they’re not a therapy center, they’re not a nonprofit (though they do sponsor nonprofit groups that work specifically for girls’ self-esteem)—and at day’s end, whatever my intellectual quibblings, I’d rather have a company trying to meet its mission in a way that’s socially responsible rather than in a way that grasps for the lowest common denominator. But to forget that their goal is to sell products to you, and that all these campaigns exist to generate buzz—call it “start[ing] a global conversation” if you will, it’s the same thing as “buzz”—in order to make you want to buy those products would be a mistake. Hell, by contributing to this “global conversation” here I’m doing unpaid PR for Dove, regardless of what I’m actually saying about their work. (And for Mad Men too, for that matter.) If that sounds cynical, remember that the entire concept of branded content (i.e. what the Dove campaign is, as opposed to a traditional commercial) exists because consumers got tired of regular advertising. And—hold your breath here, folks—female consumers ages 25 to 34 prefer Dove’s “branded content” approach to a traditional ad by a 7:1 margin.

I just can’t help but wonder if part of the reason those consumers prefer this approach is not only their own cynicism, but their own imprinting of the idea that women’s greatest challenge in this world is to love their looks. It can be a challenge, yes, of course it can be—an enormous one, one that, without any path outward, can inhibit any of us to the point where we can’t accept any greater challenges. It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it? I know it well. For make no mistake through my critique: There’s a part of me that feels fiercely empathetic when I watch the Dove video, and that’s because it’s an ad that gets me where it hurts—for when I’m in that zone, I’m intensely vulnerable. Intense vulnerability is easily recalled in the body; tears sprang to my eyes during the part of the sketch-artist video when the women’s side-by-side portraits were revealed to them. And intense vulnerability that is easily recalled in the body makes for a highly receptive consumer.

Do I get something out of the Dove campaign? Yes, I do. And Dove will always get more.