being a woman

Beauty Above All Else: The Problem With Dove’s New Viral Ad

With the soundtrack of soft, tinkling piano music, a former police forensic artist asks a woman to describe her features. Later, he asks a stranger to describe the woman, too. Then the woman is shown both sketches — the one based on her description, and one based on the stranger’s — side by side. The reveal is that the two portraits vary greatly, which is perhaps not so shocking given that we all have a hard time seeing ourselves accurately. The video was posted Monday on YouTube and already has over 7 million views.

It’s the latest ad in Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, a marketing effort launched in 2004 to “start a global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty.” The initial ads featured women of various sizes in white underwear frolicking across billboards and magazine spreads under headlines like, “Fat or fab?” A follow-up video a few years later showed an already-gorgeous model being made up and photographed and Photoshopped into commercially viable perfection. The campaign succeeded in sparking a debate about what a “normal” woman’s body looks like, but critics charged that it barely widened the definition of beauty.

“The ‘real women’ pictured in the thigh-cream billboards may not have looked like supermodels, but they were all young, with symmetrical faces, feminine features, great skin, white teeth, and hourglass shapes,” wrote Virginia Postrel in a 2007. “Even the most zaftig had relatively flat stomachs and clearly defined waists. These pretty women were not a random sample of the population. Dove diversified the portrait of beauty without abandoning the concept altogether.”

The new Real Beauty Sketches ad (which like its predecessors, was created by the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather) is based on the idea that “women are their own worst beauty critics.” According to the campaign’s website, “only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.” The statistic comes from a survey commissioned by Dove’s parent corporation, Unilever. Because the sketch video is focused on faces, it doesn’t get bogged down in the old debate about body image and eating disorders that we’ve been having for decades. And its pop-psychology gloss is intended to feel like it’s conveying some objective truths about women, even though most of the seven participants are white and conventionally pretty.

Dove has tapped into some very real frustration. We can all agree it’s a problem that the women we see in ads and movies and on magazine covers are held to impossible standards that then trickle down to the rest of us. Increasingly, men are held to some tough physical standards, too — all research says that beauty is a factor in success, no matter what your gender. Sure, there are exceptional women who succeed despite being outside the bounds of conventional beauty and youth. But it seems that for every Roseanne there are six Louis CKs, for every Hillary Clinton there are a dozen Dick Cheneys. And even for the most conventionally attractive women, focusing on their appearance does more harm than good. New research suggests that when female political candidates’ looks are discussed, even positively, they fare worse at the polls — something to keep in mind in the wake of Barack Obama’s comment that California’s Kamala Harris is “the best-looking attorney general.”

“Research shows that men generally have a much more positive body-image than women — if anything, they may tend to overestimate their attractiveness,” according to the Social Issues Research Centre. “Some men looking in the mirror may literally not see the flaws in their appearance.” Contrast that with the women in the Dove experiment. One after another, they say the sketch based on their own description is uglier.“She looks closed off and fatter. She just looks kind of shut down. Sadder, too,” one woman says. “The second one is more beautiful.” The women seem to grasp that the problem isn’t really their looks. “I remind myself that I have to use what’s inside me, my authentic self, to feel good about who I am,” says Florence, one of the participants.

Writers at Jezebel, Huffington Post, and elsewhere have praised the ad and, indeed, a message that “all women are beautiful” is empowering, but it’s not that simple: These ads still uphold the notion that, when it comes to evaluating ourselves and other women, beauty is paramount. The goal shouldn’t be to get women to focus on how we are all gorgeous in our own way. It should be to get women to do for ourselves what we wish the broader culture would do: judge each other based on intelligence and wit and ethical sensibility, not just our faces and bodies.

But that’s a tall order. Even when “real” women do have great self-esteem, they are often mocked for expressing it. What if Dove had filmed a woman who looked exactly like one of the “negative” self-descriptions — maybe someone with a heavy brow line and a prominent mole and deep, dark circles under her eyes? Someone who wore a size 14? And what if that woman had said to the sketch artist, “Well, first off, I’m really pretty.” Imagine how the Internet would react. Indeed, one of the campaign’s participants says, “There’s a stigma around the word ‘beautiful,’ feeling confident, and using that word about yourself.” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Unlike other Campaign for Real Beauty ads, I’ve noticed that just as many men as women are sharing the sketch-experiment video. I imagine each one of these men has, at some point, listened to a woman he loves declare that she’s ugly. In the final seconds of the video, we see one of the sketch-experiment participants cuddling with her man, a tall bearded fellow in a denim jacket. The ad seems to be saying, “Your Brooklyn boyfriend thinks you’re sexy, so you probably are.” Sweet? Sure. But not exactly a new advertising technique.

Beauty Above All Else: Dove’s Viral Ad Problem