Why Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” Can Do Better

Yesterday, Dove launched a new addition to its ongoing Real Beauty campaign. “Real Beauty Sketches” features a social experiment in women’s perceptions of themselves.

In the video, a forensic artist draws as women describe their own faces. He then listens to acquaintances describe the same women. He creates two sketches: one the women helped to create themselves, and one based on someone else’s description. The women get teary when they see the final sketches, which show their own harsh perception of themselves compared with someone else’s more positive one.

The video shows women’s tendency to self-hate, particularly on their looks. I’ve personally had to work very, very hard to eradicate my own self-deprecating thoughts–about my looks, abilities, and accomplishments. But as a former self-hater, I’m continually troubled by Dove’s attempts at fostering a new image of  “real beauty.”

The women describe themselves in a way we’re meant to perceive as negative: “My mom told me I had a big jaw,” “I kind of have a fat, rounder face,” “I’d say I have a pretty big forehead.”

These remarks are contrasted with the acquaintances’ comments, which are implied to be positive: “She was thin,  you could see her cheekbones, and her chin…it was a nice, thin chin.” “She had blue eyes, very nice blue eyes.”

To recap:

Bad: Big forehead. Big jaw. Fat, round face.

What of the women who do have round faces? Women who are fat? Women without high, prominent cheekbones? Women with big foreheads or prominent jaws? Why are these features positioned as inherently negative?  Shouldn’t we love and accept these attributes, too?Good: Thin chin. Visible cheekbones. Nice, blue eyes.

Dove isn’t really challenging beauty standards here. Not all women look feminine and thin, and they shouldn’t need to be described as such to improve their self-image. Blue eyes, thinness, high cheekbones–sure, these are all beautiful aspects of women’s bodies we should love and embrace. But I don’t think anyone needs convincing these features are beautiful. How many times have you seen a thin, blue-eyed blonde woman on your TV or in an ad? Plenty.

Of the five women featured and named in Real Beauty Sketches, four are white. All are thin and young, save for one woman who appears to be in her 40′s.

If Dove wants their Real Beauty campaign to truly succeed, it must dare to step far, far away from the narrow definition of beauty they purport to protest. 

And I’m certainly not denying the positive impact Dove’s campaign has had on women’s lives. The company’s “Evolution” video helped me tremendously as a teenager trying to make sense of the media images I was being fed. The professional makeup, the airbrushing, the Photoshop–I had been told these things were tainting the public’s perception of women, but until “Evolution,” I had never seen the full extent with my own eyes.

But years later, Dove hasn’t made many attempts to really stretch that conventional idea of beauty. Back in 2008, digital photographer Pascal Dangin even admitted Dove’s print images were retouched.

As Tumblr user Jazzy says:

[Dove is] 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). 

I couldn’t agree more. Sure, Dove has a positive message, and they’ve made a point to include curvier and older ladies in their ads. But until Dove can foster a totally, 100% inclusive message of beauty–one that features women exactly like the ones I see on the street–they’ll continue to alienate many of us.

Here’s a message I’d like to see Dove blast across the Web: you are valuable apart from your looks. Get to know and love every bit of your body, from your scarred legs to your soft belly to your matte hair to your wide jaw to your zits. Don’t feel the need to pretty them up or fix them–embrace them. Your actions, your words, your compassion, your consideration for others–this is what really shows your value. Loving yourself means accepting every bit of yourself on the inside, too, not just what others can easily see.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted April 18, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    That message wouldn’t exactly be good for their bottom line though. And they are certainly under no obligation to provide any kind of public service.

    I find it odd the one company that is at least trying to address this gets attacked. They probably feel like why even bother. We might as well be the same as everyone else.

    • Posted April 19, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      That’s my point though–everything is always about the bottom line, not actually about improving women’s self-image. I know big companies have no obligation to provide public service, but I’d love to live in a world in which they see that as a necessary considering their scope and power over women’s perception of ourselves.

      • Posted April 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        I understand what you’re saying however we’re never going to live in that world. Ever. Companies will by necessity always be driven to make a profit. And making a profit helps all of us btw, so I find it useless hand-wringing to expect this.

        It would be nice I agree but we have to look outside of big business for what you are after.

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