Dove’s Real Beauty Isn’t

Screenshot 4-11-15 8-02 PM
Screenshot from Dove ad: the woman who walked away

Dove released its latest video last Thursday in their now-decade-old Campaign for Real Beauty. But Dove’s ideas about Real Beauty are making me Real Tired and Real Crabby. Viewers are treated to yet another series of earnest, young-to-middle-aged, multicultural women confiding to the camera how they really need to work harder at feeling beautiful, for Dove has caught them slacking on the job. They’re just not trying hard enough.

In this year’s edition, shot in Shanghai, San Francisco, London, Sao Paulo and Delhi, women are faced with a choice between two adjacent entryways into a modern building of glass and steel: One is labeled “Beautiful” and the other is labeled “Average,” in geographically appropriate languages. “Beautiful, to me, it’s too far out of reach,” say the subtitles under a lovely young woman speaking Chinese, as she walks through the Average door. Many women hesitate, but most choose Average and are later seen telling the camera why they regret their choice. The woman in Sao Paulo says she regretted her choice of the Average door because “it was different from what I live.”

I’m tired because this is at least the third consecutive year Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty has produced a video meant to be inspiring to women that instead features an elaborate scenario calculated to induce real shame. Last year, it was a clinical set-up in which young women were supplied with stick-on “beauty patches” to improve their appearance; when they learned two weeks later they’d been duped with placebos, they cried. (As I told my Gender and Media students, that’s how you can tell they’re actors; unpaid participants would have started flipping over tables and setting stuff on fire.) In 2013, Dove had a police sketch artist draw women as others described them and as they described themselves. The women were startled to see that strangers didn’t notice their perceived flaws, and scolded themselves for their own lack of self-confidence, promising to try harder to feel beautiful.

I’m crabby because these ads are so manipulative and deceitful. Traditional cosmetic ads simply say, “Hey, want to be pretty? Use our slap!” In the guise of empowerment, Dove tells us we’re already beautiful, but we’re too emotionally messed up to know it. There’s nothing wrong with your face, fix your psyche!

I’m even crabbier because I’m tired of both kinds of ads telling us that being beautiful is what is most important for women. Maybe those women hesitated choosing a path because there aren’t any doorways labeled “Smart,” “Witty,” “Compassionate,” “Strong” or “Clever.” There’s nothing wrong with being beautiful, of course, but it’s OK not to be beautiful, too. We don’t owe the world the work of being beautiful.

The very best part of the whole 3:40 is the five seconds between 1:45-1:50, about when one woman stops, slowly looks at the two choices, turns around and walks away. She doesn’t say a word and there are no subtitles, but I’m pretty sure she’s thinking, “Nope! Not playing your beauty-shaming games, Dove.”

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About

Elizabeth Kissling is a professor of women’s studies and of communication at Eastern Washington University, with interests in women’s health, sexuality, embodiment, and feminism. She is especially interested in how these issues are represented in entertainment media. She is the author of Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation and scholarly articles about communication and menstruation; body image and dieting; sexual harassment; and folklore surrounding menstruation and menarche.