The problem with Dove’s real beauty

// 24 April 2013

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This is a guest post by Louise McCudden.

The latest viral video campaign from Dove shows a forensic artist sketching the faces of women he can’t see: once based on their own description of what they look like, and once based on someone else’s. The result is that the women look more “beautiful” in other people’s eyes, and the women conclude that they shouldn’t be so hard on themselves:

Let me say first that I realise there’s no right or wrong response to the campaign and I can understand why some people did like it. But the video is designed to evoke a feeling, and this is how it made me feel: patronised, infantilised, and dismissed.

I don’t need an advert telling me that I am beautiful. And I really, really don’t need an advert telling me that I should feel beautiful. The dichotomy of women-who-hate-their-looks vs women-who-love-their-looks seems to be an extension of the Real Women trope which Dove itself is playing on: another false dichotomy that dehumanises women by labelling us as types and tropes instead of individuals with experiences, emotions, and opinions.

Some days I’m not beautiful. Some days I am. Some days I’m sexy and run around in lace stockings. Some days I slouch in my jammies and feel too depressed to comb my hair. Some days I feel sexy as hell in pants and a t-shirt, sometimes I feel repulsive, even if I’m being told by everyone around me that I look fabulous. That’s not being a Real Woman, it’s being human.

In the video, one woman speaks about how her mother always criticised her chin, so believes it to be unattractive. She’s then reassured that, actually, her chin is lovely. That’s touching, but I can’t help but think this: I have a birthmark above my right eye. Some people hardly notice it; some people think I’m beautiful; some people do find it ugly. I know this because it’s my own face. It’s my own lived experience which has taught me that lots and lots and lots of people do think that. I’m not imagining it. As a teenager, I was told how ugly I was every day by my peers. I’ve lost count of everyone who’s kindly since told me: that’s awful, because, hey, actually you’re pretty. And, yes, that’s lovely, but the thing is, that isn’t the reason it’s wrong to devalue or dehumanise someone because of a physical characteristic. Lots of people will still think I’m ugly. Lots of people will think that woman in the video has a horrible chin. It isn’t the point. The point is that those people think they are entitled to define our worth that way – and that’s the dangerous part we internalise.

The advert tries to connect with personal emotions. Our personal emotions as women are not all the same. The video doesn’t try to deal with anything like birthmarks, or deformities, or acne; things that a lot of viewers will laugh at, or say, oh, God, but she really is ugly! That’s too complicated.

In fact, it has been reported that Pascal Dangin, the photo artist who worked on the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaign posters (see below) admitted in the New Yorker in May 2008 that those pictures were edited “to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.” And Unilever, the company selling Dove to Western women with messages about natural beauty also sells skin-lightening products with a disturbingly racialised narrative in India, including an actual Dove product sold using, at best, racial overtones: a “whitening” deodorant.

dove real beauty.jpg

It’s easy to tell conventionally beautiful women that most people think they’re conventionally beautiful. What do you tell someone who asks: “But what if it’s simply true; that in lots of people’s eyes, I really am ugly?” I feel like whoever wrote the Dove beauty advert was avoiding the eyes of my teenage self, and hundreds of others, as we asked that. They could have answered: it doesn’t matter. Instead, they made a whole advert telling us how much it matters.

There’s something very unhealthy about the narrative of ‘women are our harshest critics.’ I’m not mine. And it’s insulting to be told, however kindly, that the problem is in my own head. You can’t tell a person who simply is being told that they’re ugly in the eyes of heaps and heaps of people – whether its TV shows, comedians, their classmates, ‘lads’ and their nonsense banter – that they’re just, bless them, incapable of interpreting other people’s actions .

I don’t know about you, but I think I’d rather be told, yeah, that’s true; lots of people think you’ve got a silly chin. Who cares? You’re awesome. I think men with insecurities about their looks would be more likely to be told that who they are is valuable, and how they look is just one part of that, and what another person thinks of how they look is only one part of that. Like this brilliant post-bullying video. That video made me feel good about myself, and not just because it told me I was beautiful or that any flaws I have aren’t really a big deal. It speaks to both women and men, and it talks about you as a person, not whether your chin is a funny shape or not. I guess the problem is that it doesn’t make me want to buy things.

Photo of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty poster by flairinthecityph, shared under a Creative Commons licence. It shows six smiling women posing together in plain white bras and pants. Their skin colour varies from pale white to fairly dark brown. They all have mid-length to long hair and appear to have removed all their body hair. They vary in height and body size slightly and have no visible physical disabilities. They appear to be aged from (at a guess!) early twenties to early forties.

Comments From You

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 24 April 2013 at 1:29 pm

Yeah I wrote about this ages ago when the campaign started (2007).

Artemis2012 // Posted 24 April 2013 at 1:29 pm

No one seems aware of the fact that ingredients in dove products are linked to skin aging, repro disorders, and other ill health effects? So they might have great adverts but their products still are bad news for women…is anyone asking if their products are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) free? From toxic fragrance carries to potentially harmful preservatives, you will find them all in these so called skin indulging products. Why aren’t we demanding ED free products given their specific impact on women that use them? When dove removes harmful EDCs and other potentially harmful ingredients from their products then we might be able to believe in their hype a little bit more, believe they actually care about women and not just selling their products.

Lucy // Posted 24 April 2013 at 4:29 pm

I think this piece highlights quite nicely what is wrong with this campaign. I find it rather disturbing that, instead of focusing on what really matters – that we are unique human beings with merits beyond our looks – it actually strangely ends up reinforcing the notion that physical beauty is important, albeit disguising it as a message of female empowerment. Like the author, I was bullied as a child and told on a daily basis that I’m ugly. Even worse, my own parents told me I was too fat and ugly to ever be worthy of another person’s love and affection, and I probably don’t need to mention the host of problems this has caused me later on in life.

Fortunately, as an adult working through these issues, I have reached the conclusion that if ever I want a shot at having a life worth living, it’s not going to be spent chasing some ridiculous ideal of physical perfection. Which is why I don’t need a Dove campaign telling me that I’m beautiful. And instead of perpetuating the stereotype that women spend all day and all night worrying about their own physical appearance and judging that of others, maybe we could start talking about what really bothers most of us…equal pay anyone?

LauraB // Posted 25 April 2013 at 8:35 am

“The point is that those people think they are entitled to define our worth that way – and that’s the dangerous part we internalise.” – Yes yes yes, well put.

Most decent human beings forget what you look like as soon as they’ve got to know you, so even if you are ‘ugly’ by some shallow main-stream media standard, you’re still beautiful to your friends and the people that love you, cos they see you as a whole person, not just as a physical shell.

If we could believe that beauty was more to do with who we are and what we’re like than the shape of our noses or chins then that would actually be empowering, but companies like Dove aren’t about empowering us, they’re about taking our money.

Tam // Posted 25 April 2013 at 1:22 pm

Can’t believe Dove are still insulting our intelligence with this crap :-(

I remember when they started on their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign way back in 2004:

I was much more active back then and I definitely recall a fair bit of hopeful optimism knocking about in response to the campaign as well as skepticism. Some of us wanted to keep an open mind but we soon realised it stunk to high heaven… And, of course, retouching was revealed later on. Also, let’s not forget this is a product owned by Unilever Lever Faberge, whose product range includes Lynx!



Then there was their ‘campaign for real beauty’ a few years later (/blog/2007/10/new_dove_film).

Anyway, great post and thanks for continuing to pick this issue up on the site. Hopefully one day, we’ll be able to acknowledge what our bodies really look like without it being seen as “putting ourselves down”. One day. No thanks to Dove.

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