Changing The Conversation Pt. 2: The Dove "Real Beauty" Sketches

If you've been anywhere near social media in the last few days then you've probably already seen or heard about Dove's latest campaign effort: The Dove "Real Beauty" Sketches.

The sketches are presented as a "social experiment" to show women that they are "more beautiful than they think." A forensic artist draws two sketches of each woman: one drawn from descriptions she gives of herself, the other from a stranger's description of her features. We then sit back in awe as the woman in question is presented with both sketches; confronted with the fact that she is perceived to be significantly more attractive than she considers herself to be.

Now, I've taken Dove to task for this campaign before (in fact that post remains the most read and visited post on this blog, week after week, more than 6 months later) but I think that it bears repeating why this campaign, while clearly well-intentioned, is horribly misguided.

I'll even admit that I fell for it at first, I really did. When you watch these women's reactions to seeing how much worse they perceive themselves, it's very hard to not get sucked into the emotion of the moment, and to commiserate with your own insecurities about your appearance. It's a burden that women are forced to bear from the moment they are old enough to perceive their femininity. We all know how critical we can be about our appearance; we're desperate to find a way to fit ourselves into the box that is society's definition of "beauty".

So I smiled, and I felt fuzzy inside, and I came away with the message Dove wanted me to come away with: "You are more beautiful than you think." And I even felt good that Dove had "finally gotten it right". But after reading this excellent piece that calls out all the problematic elements of the campaign, I realized that I had let myself be bamboozled by good intentions. The marketing machine had swallowed me. 

Because in actuality, this new iteration of the campaign is just as problematic as the first.

And I don't want to discount Dove's good intentions. One of the things that I found fascinating about the "experiment" was the way that it was very clear that both sketches were meant to be the same person. In almost every instance, the self-described sketch looked like a cruel parody of the one described by a stranger, and it really solidified for me how severely our standards of beauty have been warped over the years. This isn't a solution in search of a problem.

via DailySavings

But the thing is, as Jazz details in her piece, while the people behind Dove are trying to say one thing, they are actually saying something entirely different. Namely, "You are not as far away from the socially constructed ideal of beauty as you think you are," rather than "You are perfectly beautiful just the way you are."

Not only does the Dove campaign severely limit its sample size to women who would already be considered conventionally attractive, it also severely limits the demographics of the campaign by race, age and size. Apparently Dove isn't quite ready to acknowledge that the old, overweight Asian woman is also beautiful.

But even more problematic is the idea that a woman's beauty is all she has. Again, as Jazz details, the idea that a woman's worries are over once she has independent confirmation of her beauty is deeply troubling, because as women, we are so much more than the way we look. It's not okay to tell women what amounts to "You do in fact fit the f*cked up definition of beauty (that brands like us have helped create), and now that you know that, you can live your life free and unburdened." It's not okay to continue to imply that beauty is a woman's most important or desirable quality.

Because I'll tell you a little secret: It shouldn't matter what you look like. It shouldn't matter if you are grotesquely deformed, because that fact has no bearing on your ability to function as a person. Our looks do not make us more or less capable. And while intellectually most of us understand this, we still live in a world that demands that we submit; demands that we feed the beauty industry with our self-loathing.

Think about it: If women simply decided that they didn't give a flying f*ck about the conventional aspects of beauty, and decided to let themselves age gracefully rather than chasing eternal youth, the beauty industry would CRUMBLE. There would be no market for pimple creams or wrinkle creams or makeup or cosmetic surgery. There would be no one who believed that there was anything shameful about the natural state of their faces, and therefore would feel no need to fix it.

Because make no mistake: their intentions may seem good now, but Dove still wants you to buy their soap to make your skin smooth, and their lotion to keep it soft, their shampoo to keep your hair vibrant, and their deodorant to keep your armpit hair from growing back too soon. At the end of the day, Dove may be trying to buy some goodwill, but what they really want id\s for you to buy their products.

And none of that even touches on the fact that Dove is owned by Unilever, the company that also owns Axe; a brand that has single-handedly flooded the market with some of the most misogynistic, anti-feminist, and sexist campaigns ever seen in advertising.

But the real problem with these sketches is the same one that existed with the "Real Women" campaign last year. The impossible standards of beauty that women are expected to live up to are are a real issue, but Dove is approaching a solution to the problem all wrong. Rather than working to expand the narrow definition of beauty that exists, Dove is trying to convince women that they already fall within those boundaries, and therefore have nothing to worry about; it's the marketing equivalent of "You TOTALLY look like Giselle Bunchën!" It's a poor salve to a third degree burn.

I appreciate Dove's efforts to tackle this problem with sincerity  but the fact remains that confronting this issue head on would mean taking a hit to their bottom line. If women finally understood that not only were they already beautiful, but that they didn't even really need to care if they were, what need would they have for Dove?

And therein lies the eternal conflict.

What did you think about Dove's Real Beauty Sketches? How did they make you feel about your perception of your own beauty? Let me know in the comments below.