Earlier this week, Dove released an advertisement called Real Beauty Sketches, the latest video in their self-esteem campaign. Reception to this video has been largely positive, and while I understand why women are embracing the ad, all that glitters is not revolutionary gold.
We live in a society where we are told in many different overt and covert ways that a woman’s only value is her beauty. Smart? Successful? Courageous? Not enough. Germaine Greer wrote about the ridiculousness of this idea late last year:
“At an event in Amsterdam recently, I was ordered by a woman on the stage to take the hand of the woman next to me, who happened to be 76-year-old Hedy d’Ancona, and tell her she was beautiful. This would be more conducive to her self-esteem, apparently, than reminding her that, having served as a minister under two Dutch governments, as a member of the European Parliament, and as chairman of Dutch Oxfam, she was immensely distinguished and I was honoured to be sitting next to her.”
On top of that, this Dove ad tells us is that it is also not enough to be merely beautiful, you have to know it too. Those superficial messages of body politics – Love yourself! Nothing is sexier than confidence! You’re prettier without make-up! – is just another way of prescribing how women should look, feel, and act. It’s not your responsibility to be beautiful.
Not to mention that the form of ‘beauty’ that is being valued by Dove is the same beauty ideal that is presented by other beauty companies. I am loathe to rewrite things that have already been written perfectly, so I am going to quote a massive chunk of jazzylittledrop’s excellent post on this subject:
Let’s look at which descriptors the editors chose to include. When the participants described themselves, these were some of the things that were implied as negatives: fat, rounder face, freckles, fatter, 40— starting to get crows feet, moles, scars… Whereas some of the implied positive descriptors used by others were: thin face, nice thin chin, nice eyes that lit up when she spoke and were very expressive (my actual favorite), short and cute nose, her face was fairly thin (this was said twice), and very nice blue eyes. So… I don’t know if anyone else is picking up on this, but it kinda seems to be enforcing our very narrow cultural perception of “beauty”: young, light-skinned, thin. No real diversity celebrated in race, age, or body shape. So you’re beautiful… if you’re thin, don’t have noticeable wrinkles or scars, and have blue eyes. If you’re fat or old… uh, maybe other people don’t think you look as fat and old as you do yourself? Great? Oh, and by the way, there are real women who look like the women on the left. What are you saying about them, exactly?
Indeed, for all their talk on real women and self-esteem, Dove has only ever presented a narrow definition of beauty in their advertisement campaigns. In 2010, Jezebel revealed a Craigslist ad seeking models for Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign that seemed at odds with their messaging:
DOVE “REAL WOMEN” PRINT CASTING JUNE 28-30, 2010 in NYC
ABSOLUTELY NO ACTRESSES / MODELS OR REALITY SHOW PARTICIPANTS or ANY ONE CARRYING A HEADSHOT!!!!
REAL WOMEN ONLY!
LOOKING FOR 3-4 REAL WOMEN for a DOVE PRINT CAMPAIGN!
AGES 35-45, CAUCASIAN, HISPANIC, AFRICAN AMERICAN, & ASIAN!
SHOOT: SUNDAY, JULY 18 in NYC! MUST BE AVAILABLE FOR THE SHOOT!
RATE: $500 for Shoot date & if selected for Ad Campaign (running 2011) you will be paid $4000!
USAGE: 3 years unlimited print & web usage in N. America Only
YOU WILL BE PHOTOGRAPHED FOR THE CAMPAIGN IN A TOWEL!
BEAUTIFUL ARMS AND LEGS AND FACE WILL BE SHOWN!
MUST HAVE FLAWLESS SKIN, NO TATTOOS OR SCARS!
Well groomed and clean…Nice Bodies..NATURALLY, FIT Not too Curvy Not too Athletic.
Great Sparkling Personalities. Beautiful Smiles! A DOVE GIRL!!!
STYLISH AND COOL!
Beautiful HAIR & SKIN is a MUST!!!
PLEASE SUBMIT SNAPSHOTS of FACE & BODY ASAP & WE WILL CALL YOU IN FOR A CASTING NEXT WEEK 6/28-6/30 in NYC!
According to Dove’s description for their latest video, “Women are their own worst beauty critics … Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.” What Dove fail to explain is the part they play in this statistic (and the part of their parent company, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Dove claims to promote ‘real beauty’ in ‘real women’ but only if that beauty is accessible, and more importantly, marketable to a mainstream audience. Which gives you a strong sense of their motivation.
Dove is owned by Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company with products from foods and beverages to cleaning agents to personal care. Two of Unilever’s brands are Pond’s and Fair and Lovely, both of which market skin whitening products in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Timor Leste. In 2007, Fair and Lovely had to withdraw television advertisements that depicted sad, unemployed, single, dark skinned women suddenly finding new boyfriends and glamorous careers after they had lightened their skin. There is a very clear message there that stands in stark opposition to Dove’s “You are more beautiful than you think” rhetoric.
(The hypocrisy of Unilever owning Lynx/Axe, renowned for its sexist advertisements, has been written about by people more intelligent than me.)
No matter how unethical you think that is, Unilever is well within its rights to send those kinds of mixed messages because they are a company responsible for many brands in many countries selling products for profit.
This is not to offend or dismiss people that have gained something from this ad. I certainly value my body-confidence and, as someone who’s first positive thoughts were the result of compliments from others, I know that there is no ‘right’ path to a strong self-esteem. However, Dove’s campaigns deserve to be critiqued. To paraphrase @definatalie, a multinational company is not the best source of empowerment (particularly when that company is actively trying to disempower your brown sisters).