Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign‘s latest attempt to engage consumers has gone viral, and you’ve likely seen some of the criticisms about it. The video “Real Beauty Sketches” depicts a group of women being asked to describe their physical appearance (faces) to an FBI profile artist who couldn’t see them; afterward, the women were described by strangers, including each other. The punchline is that the drawings on of the women based on their own descriptions are far less conventionally attractive than those based on others’ descriptions, and the tagline is “You’re More Beautiful Than You Think.”
Not buying it.
“A Social Experiment”
From Dove’s Youtube page:
Women are their own worst beauty critics. Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful. [Ed: Where are your citations, Dove?] At Dove, we are committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety. So, we decided to conduct a compelling social experiment that explores how women view their own beauty in contrast to what others see.
Several other writers have already taken the campaign to task. Miss Representation linked to Jazz Brice’s post “Why Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry, ” in which the author discusses the video in terms of lack of intersectionality and the value of conventional beauty. She writes,
When it comes to the diversity of the main participants: all four are Caucasian, three are blonde with blue eyes, all are thin, and all are young (the oldest appears to be 40). The majority of the non-featured participants are thin, young white women as well. Hmm… probably a little limiting, wouldn’t you say? We see in the video that at least three black women were in fact drawn for the project. Two are briefly shown describing themselves in a negative light (one says she has a fat, round face, and one says she’s getting freckles as she ages). Both women are lighter skinned. A black man is shown as one of the people describing someone else, and he comments that she has “pretty blue eyes”. One Asian woman is briefly shown looking at the completed drawings of herself and you see the back of a black woman’s head; neither are shown speaking. Out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds.
Brice continues that, based on the verbal descriptions included in the video, “beauty” seems to be defined by thinness and youth. As for the ultimate takeaway of the campaign, she writes,
And my primary problem with this Dove ad is that it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are (if you look like the featured women, I guess).
Having a positive body image is important, but a lot of the flaws these women describe almost sound like something out of the Twilight and associated fanfictions-turned-published-fiction world of faux-character flaws: oh, no! I’m too pale and clumsy and thin and my hair is weird. Woe is me. No one will ever love me.
Meanwhile, Erin Keane cuts right to the bone in her brilliant piece “Stop posting that Dove ad: “Real beauty” campaign is not feminist” in Salon:
Take-away: Women are our own worst critics!
Except we’re not — at least, not naturally. All of that body image baggage is internalized by growing up in a society that enforces rigid beauty standards, and since the target demographic for this ad is clearly women over 35 with access to library cards (which is to say, women who have had some time to figure this reality out), it is baffling that Dove can continue to garner raves for its pandering, soft-focus fake empowerment ads.
She also notes that,
When he reveals both sketches to each woman, everyone has feelings, because Sketches A, based on self-description, look like outtakes from the Napoleon Dynamite Book of Cryptozoology. Sketches B, of course, look like actual human beings.
The Tool of the Weak
In addition to the aforementioned issues of selling “empowerment” in the form of beauty products and the conventional beauty of the models*, I’m bothered, too, by Dove’s missed chance to address what I saw as an obvious point about showing women and men that they don’t have to 1. judge other women solely based on appearance and 2. that judging others on appearance divides us. The time women spend snarking on each other’s appearance and (perceived) sexual history could be used instead to join forces against problematic depictions of women in media and increase awareness of intersectionality. Instead of judging, we could be creating our own media, selling products to other women with the respect and consideration we deserve.
This is the critical part to remember: we are socialized to be this way by society. Women are not born with a natural predisposition to be catty, sneaky, or backstabbing. When a group of people lacks power in society, the way to get ahead is to compete with treachery, to tear down others with rumors, lies, and criticism based on fatuous standards that are forced upon us by those in power. That includes using our internalized body image issues to sell us products to correct our “problems.”
And this isn’t just about worrying that one’s body isn’t in fashion–rejection of problematic discussions about bodies can also lead to shaming and snarking. I’m reminded of other advertisers and individuals who talk about “real women,” as in “real women have curves.” Just because this body type or that one is “in” or “out” of fashion doesn’t make any body type better or worse. It’s just another thing to fight over. It keeps us weak.
When people accuse women of keeping themselves down, they usually mean that somehow having less power politically, professionally, and socially has some sort of “benefit” and that we want to preserve the gap to continue said “benefit.” For example, recently, Kaori Shoji wrote in The Japan Times** that
Once upon a time [the 1980s] the joshi (女子, girls) of the nation were courted, coddled, wined and dined. Christmas meant dinner at a swank shitī hoteru (シティホテル, city hotel) and the okimari (お決まり, routine) tryst in a deluxe double room with a bottle of Champagne. Two decades later one hears such things assailing the lives of women, sure. But these days, they are more likely to assail Beyonce than the average Japanese joshi. (“The life and times of the destitute girl“)
Even after breaking down the household economics of single women of meager means in Tokyo, instead of actually addressing the issue of women systematically earning less than men due to rampant sexism in all levels of society, Shoji would rather treat the issue as if it were in some sort of vacuum. No social issue occurs in a vacuum: this is all interconnected. (For some overview graphs of how Japan compares to other countries, see Sarah Mirk’s “Nine Graphs That Show Babies Aren’t Solely to Blame for the Wage Gap” on Bitch Media.)
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to use the manga Ôoku briefly as an example. This manga is an alternate history of a genderswapped Edo period brought on by a pox that kills off most of the male population; you can find all my posts on it in the Ôoku tag. I’ve made the same point about it time and time again: those in a position of less power are taught to and use backhanded methods to cut down their “opponents”:
As I stated in my posts on the film and first volume, any group of people, women or men, kept in luxurious isolation with the sole purpose of competing for romantic partners, are likely doomed to a life of frivolity in attempting to outdo each other and also amuse themselves. We’ve seen evidence of this cattiness in volume 2 through the cruelties the men of the ôoku inflict on Arikoto and Gyokuei… (“Like Goldfish: The Sexual and Cultural Revolution in Ôoku, Vols. 3 & 4, Part 3“)
Most notably, she is angered by her lack of real power and takes out her frustrations on the men of the ōoku. She enjoys playing humiliating power games with the men to show who is in charge. She refers to all the men by feminine names [because it makes them angry and]…because, as members of her harem, they are “like women” (85). She forces them to dress as women and dance to amuse her (205). (“Bodhisattva and the Beast”)
What do you think court gossip was, after all, but a tool for faux-empowerment through hurting others, a vote of social no-confidence?
Verbally, the words used to refer to women to shame and hurt them–words like ugly, old and fat, but also slut and whore–have consequences. It could be as “small” as making someone feel ashamed of her/his body once or as much as constant, ruthless bullying and violence. When young women are committing suicide due to continued bullying by female classmates following sexual assault, what does that say about our society? And, furthermore, what does that say that the words we use to hurt the most always seem to be about female bodies and female sexuality? Backstabbing and shaming isn’t constructive, and it averts our focus from addressing actual issues, like ending rape culture and getting a fair and living wage.
It’s certainly not easy to retrain oneself to fight the urge to make critical comments about other’s bodies after years of being told, both overtly and through interacting with one’s culture, that we can judge other women’s bodies with impunity. You might not like Sarah Jessica Parker as an actress and you may not find her attractive, but her chin and nose don’t exist just to piss you off. You may be proud of your curves without accusing women with fewer curves of being anorexic or slutty; you may be proud of your “boyish” figure without thinking that femme people are weaker or somehow lesser. You’re allowed to be attracted to a certain body type (say, small-breasted women) or to have small breasts without implying that women with larger breasts are unathletic, slovenly, or dumb just because this cycle of fashion has–or has not–deemed them the figure victor of the decade. (Speaking of which, check out the site of photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero, whose series Wait Watchers features bystanders reacting to her body.)
So what does this have to do with “Real Beauty”? The chance for Dove to reach out and show that women can interact positively with each other and be kind regarding others’ appearances was lost. It was not the focus. It was not even mentioned.
It’s not enough, Dove, to tell us we’re all “beautiful” and just don’t realize it. That is not empowerment. Stop perpetuating the idea that women are no more than the bodies we inhabit, whether it’s a “socially acceptable” body here for the pleasure of the male gaze or an “incorrect” body to be ridiculed.***
Furthermore, have you considered the reason that we just ourselves so harshly is because others judge us so harshly? That we are trained to judge women based on their appearance rather than their contributions to society? What about ending that cycle as a means to feeling more self-confident?
Imagine a world in which you don’t pretend that beauty allows you to “reach your full potential.”
Imagine a world in which Unilever doesn’t pander to cultural biases about appearance and gender expression by selling skin whitening lotions or use objectifying ad to sell men’s products like Axe/Lynx (see Elena Rossini’s “The Problem with Dove” on The Illusionists.)
Imagine a world in which we work together and discuss intersectionality, where we stop colluding with an outdated, exclusive, damaging view of feminine (and masculine) beauty that keeps us from fulfilling our potential because we’re too busy calling each other ugly sluts, where we refuse to be objectified by individuals, advertisers, and the culture at whole.
Dove, imagine a world where you actually help us do that.
*I will say that even people who are considered to be attractive DO find faults and flaws in their appearance, whether it’s a crooked nose or a scar or stretch marks. That doesn’t make their internalized fear of being judged by others less, especially when it happens to them on a grossly exaggerated level: just look at the headlines about celebrities’ bikini bodies or pregnancy weight gain. However, for the rest of us, comments about acquaintances’ (or stars’) weight (going all ways–thin people criticizing “fat” people or fat-positive bloggers calling thin women “fake” and everything in between), facial features (can’t help the nose you’re born with), and so on are hurtful to the party in question and perpetuate the stereotype that women are judgy and catty.
**If this newspaper is supposed to represent the voices of the English-speaking expat community in Japan, why doesn’t it give a fuck about women? You have the chance to provide real news on social struggles of people other than Debito, you know?
*** According to its own press/Yahoo Finance, Unilever, Dove’s parent company, is supposedly one of the best companies to work for based on their LGBT policies and is supposedly attempting to reduce environmental impact. (Call me when you stop using SLS…) Why not highlight those points as a selling point?