“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.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

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