What is “Real Beauty”, Anyway?

My social media network has been alive, these past few days, with two things:  the Boston Marathon Explosions, and Dove’s latest advertising campaign.

There’s not much I can say about Boston that hasn’t already been said.  It horrifies me that people can plan & commit such acts of violence.  It scares me that we still, a couple of days later, have no idea who did it, or where and when they might strike again.  I’m afraid of the what the political fallout will be, since if it truly was a terror attack on American soil … well, we have Afghanistan and Iraq and the past 12 years to tell us what can happen as a result of that.

So instead, I’ll talk about the other thing that’s been bugging the hell out of me for the past few days:  Dove’ “real beauty sketches” campaign.

real-beauty

For those unfamiliar with the campaign (although seriously, have you been living under a rock all week?  This thing is showing up everywhere right now), Dove marketing people hired a police sketch artist to do a series of drawings.  In the sketch on the left, you see a woman as described by herself.  On the right you see the same woman as described by a random stranger.  The point of the exercise (besides selling Dove products — I’ll get into that later) is ostensibly to show women that we are our own harshest critics & that other people see more beauty in us than we do in ourselves.

Most of my issues with the campaign have been covered quite eloquently by tumblr user Jazz in her post on the subject.  Jazz’s post, too, has been making the rounds on social media, so this may not be the first you’re seeing of it (I shared it via my Facebook page yesterday).  I agree with the points that she has made, and definitely suggest that you go and read what she has to say.  I’ll reiterate a few of the main points, and add some new ones of my own.

While the idea that we need to focus less on our flaws and think more positively of ourselves is a good one, the overall message of the campaign falls far short of the mark from a feminist perspective.

As Jazz points out in her post, the majority of the participants are white women, with light hair & eyes.  They are young (probably all under 40), slim, and conform to a very conventional standard of beauty.  There are women of colour in the campaign, but in the video they see very little face time, and none of them are featured in the extra interviews available on the website.  This is the standard of beauty that we are always shown by the cosmetics industry:  young, white, and slim.  For a campaign that claims to break boundaries, it’s very much inside the box.

Why not feature some people who are NOT conventionally beautiful?  Someone significantly overweight, or in their 80s, or with very obvious scars/birthmarks/other “deformities” on their face, or with very “ethnic” features (even the women of colour shown in the video are people with relatively neutral features).  Why not show a man, or a transgendered person?  Why is beauty something only for cisgendered women?

Just as important are the descriptive words being used in the video.  The “negative” terms that women are using to describe their own features are things like “fat, rounder face”, “freckles”, “40 and starting to get crow’s feet”, “thin lips”, “tired looking”, “big jaw”.  While the sketches revealed that the majority of the participants were overly focused on these “negative” aspects, the video did nothing to destroy the perception that these are “bad” traits … and this is incredibly sad, because for the most part these are not “bad” things.  A rounder face or thinner lips or a wider jawline may not be what’s popular in the media right now,  but if it’s the shape you were born with then there’s nothing you can do about it, and you should feel beautiful even if you’re not like what you see in make-up ads, because beauty comes in all shapes.  Freckles and crows’ feet and tiredness: that’s all just life.  None of us look airbrushed; the life we’ve lived is going to show on our faces, and we should LOVE that, not feel pressured to cover it up.

While the video tries to be uplifting, it’s still delivering a hurtful message to women who don’t fit that conventional standard of beauty.  Someone who honestly looks more like the sketches on the left might come away actually feeling worse about themselves, because they’ve been reminded yet again that they’re not thin and white and young.

Perhaps the most troubling thing said in the whole video is this, though:

[Beauty] impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.

Because if you’re female, the most important thing is to be beautiful.  It doesn’t matter how skilled you are; how intelligent; how kind; how loving and giving and wonderful.  If you’re not beautiful, you’re a second-class woman.  There’s something “critical” missing from your life, and you cannot be happy without it.  You can’t even be a good person and treat others (your children, even!) right if you’re not beautiful and don’t believe that you are beautiful.

That’s right.  If you’re ugly, you’re a bad person.  If you doubt yourself, you’re going to treat other people wrong and your life will suck because of it.  Thanx, Dove.  Thanx for reminding us all that the most important part of being female is being aesthetically pleasing.

And of course, when it comes right down to it, that *is* what Dove is trying to sell you.  They want you to buy their beauty products and their moisturizers.  They want you to buy their “pro*age” lotion to get rid of those crow’s feet, and their “colour care” shampoo to keep your dye-job shiny and “natural” looking.  They want you to shave off all your body hair, smell like a flower garden, and cover up your “flaws”, just like any other cosmetics company.  So they need you to believe that you ARE flawed, and that you need products to make you better.  It is, in the end, marketing.  And advertisers discovered long ago that the way to make you buy a product, is to make you feel as though you’re not as good without it.

If I were to redo this campaign, I’d rather see them focus on things that aren’t traditionally beautiful. I want to see someone’s scars being complimented as a sign of strength, or their round “overweight” belly being loved for its soft warmth, or their adorable freckles being complimented rather than showing this constant quest for “clear” skin. I want beauty to be about more than just cisgendered women.  I want to love people for their bald patches and their places where there’s too much hair and for their stretch marks and their crooked teeth and their beautiful asymmetry.  I want people to meet up in darkened rooms where they can’t see each other at all, and can only use talk & touch without sight to tell them what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. I want to be truly colourblind, and blind to gender, and blind to sexual orientation, and blind to traditional ideas of “beauty”. I’m kind of an idealist that way.

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