Dove Has A Beauty Problem

In April, I posted Dove’s Real Beauty campaign video on my Facebook with the caption, “You’re more beautiful than you think.” At first glance, this video seemed comforting, almost therapeutic as an antidote against our airbrushed versions of beauty typified by Hollywood and glossy magazine covers. Instead of telling women to lose weight, apply makeup correctly and  dress for our body shapes, Dove (which sells skin and hair-care products) reassured us that we are beautiful despite our self-confessed flaws. But there was something deeply distressing about the message behind this Dove ad:

With soothing music playing in the background, the ad traces various women as they describe themselves to a former forensic artist. From behind the curtain, he sketches, following their lead while also completing a second portrait—one based on how a stranger describes the woman. At the end, the artist unveils the two portraits side-by-side. On the one hand, it is quite moving to see the women tear up as they see that others find them more attractive than they see themselves. What woman doesn’t want to feel empowered and confident in her own skin?

But among many other problematic aspects of this ad, Dove wants us to know that being beautiful is still what matters most. And by beautiful, they mean society’s narrowly defined cultural perception of beauty — i.e., white, thin, young, blonde.

This is a problem.

The blaring flaw of Dove’s rationale is the company’s expectation that it is a woman’s responsibility to feel better about herself. Society doesn’t need to change; we do.

Really, Dove?

In response to the ad, Kate Fridkis, a body-image blogger, wrote:

The world has to meet us halfway by convincing us that there’s a lot more to us than the way we look, and that those things are, believe it or not, even more important than the way we look.

Dove is well known for their “real beauty” feel good ad campaigns. Inspired by a company report in 2004 and again in 2011 that found only 2-4% of women consider themselves beautiful, Dove launched a series of ads to spark dialogue and challenge definitions of beauty as part of their greater “social mission.”

After the success of the viral video “Real Beauty Sketches” (shown above), Dove released another ad earlier this month. While “Camera Shy,” a short montage style video, still reminds women that being beautiful matters, they add a follow-up question:

“When did you stop thinking you were beautiful?”

The ad attempts to contrast grown women running from cameras to attention-seeking girls giggling, dancing and hamming it up for the lens. At the end of the video, a little girl smiles into a hand mirror before the ad flashes back to the Dove logo, accompanied by the company’s official motto: “Be your beautiful self.”

Not just be yourself, but your “beautiful self.”

By pinpointing the problem as being one of women avoiding cameras, Dove is supposed to be encouraging us to love ourselves more (and assuming that not wanting our picture taken means we hate our appearance). And while Dove’s intention is noble — to inspire confidence in women and girls — it sends mixed messages that pair a sense of identity with the necessary burden to worry about our looks (after all, Dove does market products to make us look “better”).

This message is reiterated in the caption under the ad that reads,

We created Camera Shy to ask women why they hide from the camera as an adult but loved the camera as a little girl. What happened along the way? We’re inviting women to reflect on the point in their lives when they became their own worst beauty critics and encouraging them to be their own beautiful self.

But if we dance around and rediscover our playful, camera-seeking girl-child, maybe we won’t need to buy Dove! Maybe we won’t need to purchase any product simply to achieve body-image-boosting confidence.

Here’s my last word, Dove: If you sincerely want women to feel more confident, stop telling us that being beautiful is the be-all, end-all. Let women be more than our “beautiful selves.” Let us be intelligent, smart, passionate, adventurous, artistic, politically active. Let us just be ourselves.

Photo from Flickr user flairinthecityph under Creative Commons 2.0