At first glance, Dove’s ‘Real Women’ campaign seems like it has found a solution to what has thus far proved to be a cast iron contradiction in terms: ethical advertising. But my purpose with this post is to suggest that in fact this campaign might have hidden dangers in the form of even more deeply and therefore less easily detected assumptions about women and their relationship with social standards of beauty.
If we take a look at Dove’s ‘social experiment’, we see that it appears to be quite touching, enlightening even. And it draws upon discourses of science – psychology and forensics, no less.
What’s not to trust? By the time you reach the end, to the strains of inspiring music, you realise that you were wrong all along: you ARE beautiful after all! You ARE! And there you were thinking you were some sort of troll. Forsooth! Tears fill your eyes and you resolve never to fall for media messages that play on your guilt and insecurity ever again.
But hang on. Dove has certainly done its best to take you away from feeling guilty about not meeting unattainable standards. Kudos to them. What they have done instead is to make you feel guilty about feeling guilty. And this guilt-ception takes place within the same framework of external standards of beauty. Only now the standard is not set by an airbrushed model on a glossy magazine, but by an ordinary person – no more famous than you. This person’s fleeting contact with you makes her more of an expert on you than you, with all your years of living with yourself. In case you haven’t noticed, YOU still don’t get to decide how you look. No matter what Dove says, the ‘real beauty’ is still not something you get to decide.
When someone first sees me, they may notice that my eyes light up when I speak, or that I have dimples. But if you ask me to describe myself I may point out the age-wrinkles on my neck or the fact that my teeth protrude a little. These are as much a part of me as my dimples. What gives Dove the right to deny that the way I see myself IS real beauty? Why is my own perception less valid than someone else’s when we are both susceptible to cultural stereotypes and their arbitrary application? My worries, my insecurities, my experiences, my hopes – they all go into the way I see myself. Just because some new acquaintance sees only the surface, and just because that surface view irons out the nuances to make me closer to some social standard of beauty, I don’t agree that that is more real than my own perception. If anything, it is less real.
That is why I believe that Dove is manipulating our concept of reality, and falsifying us as women. This is more insidious than setting an unattainable standard that we know we can never reach. This is taking the sort of people we come into contact with everyday and turning them into potential judges of our beauty, with the possibility ever present in our mind that they may find us wanting. How does that make us love ourselves more? The concept of beauty comes with the baggage of judgment and external appraisal.
But you know what? At the end of the day, Dove is a corporation. Tapping into our insecurities is what they DO. Otherwise how can they sell anything? Even if you do accept that someone else’s idea of you is more valid than your own, you are still stuck with not being smooth-skinned enough, floppy-haired enough or clean-smelling enough. Luckily, those are problems Dove DOES have solutions for. Did you see what they did there?
Do what Katie Makkai does in this poetry slam. Reject the idea of physical beauty as a frame of judgment altogether:
“This, this is about my own some-day daughter. When you approach me, already stung-stayed with insecurity, begging, “Mom, will I be pretty? Will I be pretty?” I will wipe that question from your mouth like cheap lipstick and answer, “No! The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine will be contained in five letters. You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing. But you, will never be merely ‘pretty’.”