“Dove Real Beauty,” self-esteem, and One Direction

Over the weekend, Dove released a new video promoting its carefully constructed brand of “real beauty” self-esteem boosting. The concept is clever. A series of women describe themselves to a forensic sketch artist behind a curtain. Afterward, new friends describe these same women to the same guy and he draws a new picture. Inevitably, the sketches based on the women’s descriptions of themselves are far less traditionally attractive than those based on their friends’ description. The message is clear: we’re prettier than we think.

I feel about this Dove video what I feel about pretty much all of their “real beauty” advertising. It makes me feel better about myself today, but doesn’t help create a better world where women don’t need to be told not to trust the image in the mirror.

Look, it’s great to automatically get a couple extra self-confidence points. If I fit the Dove hypothesis, then I can adjust the picture of myself I carry in my head to be a little more beautiful, as though someone else were describing me to my mental sketch artist–a couple fewer inches here, a little more roundness there, a blurring of asymmetry. For my self-image, that feels like the equivalent of having a good hair day, everyday. Great. We can wish that difference weren’t significant–that how I carry myself only has to do with my wits and kindness–but wishing away societal pressure doesn’t make it so.

At the same time, though, Dove is cementing a whole slew of beauty standards even as it pumps up self-esteem. Sure, maybe we’re prettier than we think, but the metric hasn’t changed. In part I’m talking about the obvious, physical scale of feminine beauty. For one heavy-handed example: one of the women central to the film thinks she has a large jaw; her new friend, however, says “she was thin so you could see her cheekbones, and her jaw was a nice thin jaw.” This version of the message–that you’re thinner than you think you are–reinforces the assumption that thinness is valuable. The take-away might be immediately gratifying. But by accepting the worship of slenderness within a supposed challenge to mainstream standards, the video entrenches fat-shaming further. 

Dove’s version of beauty, however, is more than skin-deep…but not necessarily in a good way. In addition to confirming that ladies should want certain physical traits like “nice thin jaws,” the video also promotes what I’ll call the One Direction Theory of Unknown Beauty (ODTUB). As those little boys sing, “You don’t know you’re beautiful, oh oh, that’s what makes you beautiful.” Part of the allure of the Dove women, similarly, is that they’re unaware of their loveliness: dressed to attract little attention, they don’t tell the artist about their beautiful eyes. As he sketches them, they are the very picture of feminine humility and thus, according to the ODTUB, feminine beauty.

There is no room in Doveland for women who know they’re hot. There’s no room to admire how your hair curls or enjoy the shape of your lips or like how your ass looks in your jeans. There’s no room to tell the artist about your thin jaw even if you see and love it. The only confidence that’s acceptable is halfhearted: “Don’t worry, I don’t think I’m pretty, but I’ve been told I’m wrong, so maybe I am a little.” Our access to our beauty, then, requires us to sign away our power, including the very confidence Dove ostensibly wants us to claim. And we are still objects–delusional objects for whom reality is out of grasp–only able to see ourselves truly through the eyes of others.

I believe that feeling a little prettier today, at the cost of a more feminist tomorrow, will buoy some who cannot wait for this needed boost: I don’t think that Dove is doing bad work for this world. I just want us to build another, better one.

New Haven, CT

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing.com, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national legal education campaign against campus gender-based violence. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NPR. Through Know Your IX, she has organized with students across the country to build campuses free from discrimination and violence, developed federal policy on Title IX enforcement, and has testified at the Senate. At Yale Law, Alexandra focuses on antidiscrimination law and is a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Alexandra is committed to developing and strengthening responses to gender-based violence outside the criminal justice system through writing, organizing, and the law. Keep an eye out for The Feminist Utopia Project, co-edited by Alexandra and forthcoming from the Feminist Press (2015).

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing.com, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/kristenf/ Kristen

    Not to mention, they are reinforcing the idea that physical beauty matters and is the one thing that gives us power.

  • http://feministing.com/members/deirdreannb/ Deirdre

    Can we also please talk about how Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign is run by the same folks (Unilever) who produce the vile and objectifying advertisements for Axe? So, they’re telling us to love ourselves for our naturalness and to build our low self-esteems with their magic products while simultaneously projecting the sexist standards that make us feel that way in the first place? Ha.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tardis/ Annie

    I absolutely felt this way! I am very confident about how I look (personality, not so much), so I think if I had been part of this, I would have described myself as more attractive than others described me.

  • http://feministing.com/members/emdawgb/ Emily Blackburn

    Well thank you, you have put into words many of the thoughts I was having about the Dove campaign (and, for that matter, the One Direction song). Why are women not allowed to appreciate their own appearance? I sometimes feel as though there is a narrative in society in which women are meant to be crippled with self-loathing over the way they look, until a knight in shining armour comes along to tell them that they’re not so disgusting after all.

    To pretend that the Dove campaign is a huge feminist boost would be to entirely miss the point that physical beauty should not equate to self worth. Feeling beautiful is awesome, and more people should be able to do so (and not only with the help of Dove or One Direction) but it is not the be-all and end-all.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sabine/ sabine faustin

    Great article. I have to echo the sentiment that Dove’s campaign for beauty ultimately promotes the lie that a woman’s beauty is her most important asset, along with the false ideology that there is one silent standard of beauty for all — a standard of beauty that we should all be measuring ourselves against, aspiring to and trying to embrace.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ell1/ Alexis DiSanza

    This is a great article.

    Not only does it reinforce the idea that beauty is the main thing from which women derive value, but it reinforces the myth that there is one type of beauty that should be valued.
    “Oh thank God I am not actually that fat and puffy, I only thought I was!”
    “Oh, my chin is actually really small, what a relief.”
    These things imply that fat and big chins are ugly.

    Unfortunately I have had several friends who have posted this on social media sites, hailing it as a breakthrough for women’s beauty. I think that seeing a commercial for women’s beauty products as a breakthrough for women’s beauty is also problematic. It has commodified an idea about beauty in order to sell a product. We are supposed to think this and say “Wow! Dove is doing great things for women. What a wonderful company.”

  • http://feministing.com/members/roren/ Christine E Ivy

    This article first criticizes perceptions of beauty, and then goes on to criticize Dove for not focusing on women who already have high-self esteem and consider themselves “hot.” I’m torn. Are our bodies important? Or aren’t they? What I think Dove gets right is draw attention to the fact that what we think about ourselves isn’t irrelevant. Whatever our definition of beauty is, to view ourselves as less than that, is damaging to our self worth.

    If we criticize the fact that beauty is a standard of value we demean the very physicality of our existence. We are minds and bodies and how we view our WHOLE self is important.

  • http://feministing.com/members/novemberreader/ November Reader

    Excellent discussion. I hated the first Dove campaign, which boiled down to:

    “You’re perfect as you are even though we’ve photographed you to look somewhat ridiculous in your undies, go use your cellulite cream.”

    And let’s not forget that Dove’s parent company, Lever Bros. sells skin whitening cream in other parts of the world.

  • http://feministing.com/members/namurray/ nicole

    >There is no room in Doveland for women who know they’re hot. There’s no room to admire how your hair curls or enjoy the shape of your lips or like how your ass looks in your jeans. There’s no room to tell the artist about your thin jaw even if you see and love it.

    I disagree with this. This commercial targets a specific segment of women who put themselves down. A lot of their other ads have women celebrating their “flaws” (seen here http://www.adverbox.com/ads/dove/) so just because this particular ad does not include this celebratory group of women doesn’t mean there isn’t room for them in Doveland. I for one really enjoyed this commercial because I know if I were in the chair I would be talking about my big nose and forehead etc etc.

    But don’t get me started on the Axe commercials.

  • http://feministing.com/members/rollerderbyqueen/ Melissa

    I would say that the most significant difference between the Dove ad and the One Direction song is that of the angle of vision. Dove’s ad is most concerned with how these women view themselves. The One Direction song is most concerned with how the young men (boys) view the woman. I don’t think it’s as direct a comparison as you’d like to think. I will say for a fact that I have experienced situations in my life from which I withdrew because doing “x” is not for people like me who look like “y”. And that perception was based on my individual perception of myself. Regardless of the fact that that perception might have been culturally influenced, it was still my own internalized and individually reinforced perception of who I was and what I could do based on how I perceived myself in the mirror. I am working on revising how I see myself in the mirror. And I am trying to do so completely independent of how I know men tend to see me, which is what the One Direction mentality relies upon.