Op Ed

Friday Night Discussion: Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches”

Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” video went viral this week, but what does it really say about how we perceive ourselves versus how we perceive others?

The basic premise was that women were brought to a warehouse and paired up with a partner without being told why. One was then sent to describe herself to a former police sketch artist, and her partner then went in to describe her for a second drawing. The sketch artist was separated from the women by a curtain and did not see them during this phase. The women who were drawn were then brought back to see the sketches side by side to compare how they pictured themselves versus how a stranger saw them.

Many women have been deeply moved by the video. Seeing the women’s reactions to the different sketches had me tearing up a tiny bit. The pairs that were shown looked drastically different from each other, and the self-described portraits were much less flattering than the pictures described by the strangers. We tend to be harder on ourselves than we are on others, and this definitely showed that.

Or did it? The video is edited to only show the negative things the women said about themselves and the positive things others said about them, but we have no way of knowing if self-complimentary statements or derogatory descriptions by others were left on the cutting room floor. We also don’t know if the artist deliberately skewed the images to exaggerate the differences. As Erin Keane at Salon points out,

When he reveals both sketches to each woman, everyone has feelings, because Sketches A, based on self-description, look like outtakes from the Napoleon Dynamite Book of Cryptozoology. Sketches B, of course, look like actual human beings.

And besides, isn’t this all just reinforcing beauty as the ultimate attainable goal? Let’s not forget that, while this isn’t an ad for a specific line, Dove wants to sell us products to make us look “better.” The women highlighted in the video are all fairly young, conventionally attractive, and, for the most part, white. JazxyLittleDrops on Tumblr sums it up better than I can:

So… I don’t know if anyone else is picking up on this, but it kinda seems to be enforcing our very narrow cultural perception of “beauty”: young, light-skinned, thin. No real diversity celebrated in race, age, or body shape. So you’re beautiful… if you’re thin, don’t have noticeable wrinkles or scars, and have blue eyes. If you’re fat or old… uh, maybe other people don’t think you look as fat and old as you do yourself? Great? Oh, and by the way, there are real women who look like the women on the left. What are you saying about them, exactly?

Of course, the inevitable parody video has already emerged as well. I can’t quite decide if it’s a hilarious sendup, or is kind of shitty for stereotyping all men as egotistical maniacs and women as really harsh critics (and I really could have lived without one of the women describing a man as having “rapey eyes”). Obviously it’s taking the premise to its most extreme level and is totally scripted rather than based on how the men actually perceive themselves/are perceived by women, so I may just be a bit of a killjoy for not applauding it wholeheartedly.

What do you think about the Dove video? Does it make you feel better about your looks or worse, or do you see it as pure emotional manipulation?

By [E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

5 replies on “Friday Night Discussion: Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches””

The other thing that really bothers me is that the spot is pretty much framed by men in agentic roles–the sketch artist “capturing” the images of the women and the noticeably larger boyfriend “protecting” a childlike girlfriend. Still completely caught in the male gaze–but the ad is pretending to not be participating in this. I’m completely annoyed.

I’m also annoyed that women are only portrayed as victimizing themselves–and that Dove is going to swoop in and save them from their flawed perceptions. So dishonest. There are so many things wrong with this, I can’t even. So not only is this particular advertising campaign part of a long line of publicity that creates the desire for a narrow and unattainable beauty, it’s now cornering the market on creating a desire in women to attain a narrow and rather flat idea of confidence and “acceptance” of themselves. I’m reminded of that true and terrifying quote from John Berger: “The publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.”

Yeah, no. Being considered beautiful shouldn’t be the highest achievable. They tried with ‘You see yourself different than others’ but made it a fail with BE BEAUTIFUL WITH OUR PRODUCT. Which makes sense, of course. Stuff needs to be sold. But people acting like Dove is seeing the light and single handedly conquering body image issues ..ha no.

I could rant on for a while here, but I’d just be repeating the criticisms already laid out. Dove’s idea of diversity and real beauty is utter bullshit.

Every time I’m tempted to think Dove is even halfway decent I remind myself Unilever also owns Axe. That sets me straight in a hurry.

I get what they’re trying to do. Actually, I get what they’re trying to make us THINK they’re trying to do. But the bottom line is that they’re still trying to sell us something. But, yes, we tend to be our own worst critics. I didn’t need an all-white room and some plinky-plunky piano music to remind me that I’m not happy with my appearance. But, like the author of that Tumblr post pointed out, all of these women are conventionally pretty and most of them were thin, white, and young. So while that’s great for them that they had their beauty affirmed for them by a total stranger, what about the women who really do look like the self-described sketches? And how do we know the strangers weren’t just being polite? I notice things like under-eye circles, zits, and crooked teeth on other people but if I were asked to describe that person to an artist, I’d probably leave those parts out. It just felt to me the same way it does when people point out that even supermodels are Photoshopped. I know it’s supposed to make me feel better about my own looks but it doesn’t.

The video was sweet, but I just can’t get excited about Dove’s Real Beauty ads. First because everyone in them is ALWAYS conventionally attractive. Remember the ads of naked women they ran a few years ago, where the woman all had real bodies? And yet, they were all still so thin. Sure, a little bit of belly here or there, the breasts of the sixty year old woman sagged a little, but there was no real diversity.
Second reason is that this, no matter how sweet it is, is still an advertising campaign. Dove is trying to sell you something. Namely, themselves. It feels sneaky.

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