Most of us are familiar with Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaigns, which broke cosmetic advertising ground by including more body types and ethnicities than the usual skincare ads. And women loved it – it was lauded as an antidote to unrealistic beauty standards that we’ve internalized from the big, bad world of commercialized fashion and beauty.
But something about their latest campaign bugs me, and it’s not just advertising hype. I’ve been neglecting some of my duties here at Wild Beauty to do other things, and one of those things was reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. If you haven’t read it, the FaceBook CEO’s book is a “been there, done that” guide to the mistakes in behavior and perception that derail talented women from getting powerful positions at work. While critics have called out Sandberg’s privilege, I found her description of societal gender dynamics regarding achievement, confidence, competition and modesty to be revealing for any woman seeking the full expression of her talents.
I’ll get back to that – but first, let’s look at the video:
Some of this is pure Television for Women: the dramatic tension of the FBI forensic artist, and the woman going to a place she’s “never been” (which is obvs a not-very-scary photo studio). The tinkling piano music cues our emotional response, as women reveal their most critical descriptions of themselves. Other people who were asked to get to know them describe them in more flattering terms, and as the women look at the differing portraits of themselves, they are shocked to see the results of these differing descriptions. And then the women come to the tearful realization that they are more beautiful than they think. And they are sooo grateful to have this pointed out to them.
While I love the idea of the sketch artist going purely from description and the differing results we get from our own descriptions versus those of others, the way this exercise in perception is framed is misleading. And wrong.
Dove wants us to think that we’re all hating ourselves for our looks, and that if only we’d accept that we’re beautiful – no matter what those other beauty companies tell us – we’d be so much happier. And it uses our own publicly acceptable behavior against us to do this.
There are several dynamics mentioned in Sandberg’s book, but many run along a certain theme: that women are supposed to advocate for others but not for ourselves, and that we are primed to accept (and anticipate!) judgement for our behavior, not our merits. The professional repercussions of these expectations that women not stand up too fast (or lean in) are shown, but we also experience them in more casual situations.
The women in the video know they’re being taped – they’ve been cast to appear in this, after all. And of course they wouldn’t go on about how they love the line of their nose, or that their hair has a great texture that rarely lets them down. That’s not an acceptable way to talk about oneself – even movie stars have to err on the side of modesty when discussing their looks (and achievements.)
By talking critically about their looks, these women aren’t just following leading questions from the FBI artist. They are behaving in the most socially acceptable way – and then they’re being shamed for what was, only twenty minutes earlier, the right way to talk about themselves. No wonder they’re crying.
And they’re supposed to feel grateful for it – after all, isn’t shaming us for our behavior expected? Aren’t we waiting to be told what we should think? Isn’t the (socially acceptable) public kindness towards our looks given by others (on videotape) the truest expression of how wrong we are?
How women really feel about our own looks is a tricky subject – to be overly critical is to be falling into low self-esteem, yet admitting that we are perfectly comfortable with our looks is to risk making others uncomfortable. But this campaign suggests that Dove is the one that finally gives us permission to feel the way we want to feel – or the way we truly feel. It’s a pimp’s argument – “don’t worry, baby, all that family abuse is in the past, think what I tell you, and you’ll be fine”.
It may be a while before women are comfortable owning all our power, and yes, that includes our beauty as well as our intelligence and strength. And even when we do, we may still consider it “polite” to describe near strangers’ appearance in more flattering terms. Dove may believe that they are expanding the public beauty conversation, and in way, they are. But shaming women for being polite and then expecting them to feel grateful for it? Sorry, I’m not buying it.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg.
More critiques on Dove’s latest campaign:
One Narrative Fits All: Dove and “Real Beauty” at The Beheld.
Science vs. Dove: Thanks, But It Turns Out We Are NOT Our Own Worst Beauty Critics… at A Year Without Mirrors.