The Problem With Dove's Real Beauty Sketches Campaign

Feeling better about the way we look depends not only on the positive opinion of strangers but on our being able to own our own beauty, in all its complexity.
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Don't get me wrong, I am a sucker for the message "seriously, though, you're beautiful." And I agree with the viral Dove Real Beauty Sketches clip, so many of us get distracted by all of our perceived flaws. We get caught up in criticizing our appearances and miss out on our own beauty. We are often more generous toward strangers than we are toward ourselves.

I like that the Dove campaign is pointing all of this out. I hope it starts a bunch of conversations. And I hope that my reaction is interpreted as a continuation of the conversation, rather than nitpicking criticism. Because I really don't want to nitpick, I just want to point out some things I noticed as I was watching.

In the clip, some lovely, thin, mostly white women who are all pretty young describe their appearances to a forensic artist, who sketches them without looking at them. And then other people describe these women, and the artist starts all over again, based on the new description. At the end, the women are shown the two portraits of themselves, and they can see how differently the sketched faces turned out, based on the descriptions. They realize that they've been unnecessarily critical of their appearances.

Something felt a little off. And I couldn't put my finger on it at first. I was getting slightly teary over the women getting slightly teary on camera as they realized that they had been too harsh, describing themselves.

Interestingly, even the sketches based on the self-descriptions weren't actually particularly unattractive, and I was faintly annoyed with the idea that one sketch was supposed to represent unattractiveness and the other beauty, when the distinctions between the two seemed to lie in characteristics like a mole, shadows under the eyes, slight roundness in facial shape, or a few wrinkles.

Looking at the two portraits of herself, one woman described the one meant to be prettier as looking "much younger," which seemed to be true of all of them. The more "beautiful" facial representations seemed to all be thinner and younger-looking. If that is the crux of beauty, then I guess we're all pretty screwed by that obnoxiously inexorable bastard called time.

And there was the slight issue of the artist being a man. He got to be the one to gently suggest to the women, "Maybe you're more beautiful than you thought." He got to present their "true" beauty to them. That felt like it might be open to some discussion in an earnest gender studies class at a liberal arts college somewhere.

But leaving this aside, because, you know, there are always details, and we can always analyze them until everything falls apart in ruins, I think what made me uncomfortable watching the clip was that all of the blame was on the women.

In the tiny world that Dove created for the sake of this campaign, we women all feel somewhat inexplicably bad about the way we look. We're kind of crazy that way. We focus obsessively on the one mole on our cheek and ignore our stunning eyes and upswept cheekbones. We look in the mirror and get everything wrong. And if we can just be shown the truth, the reality, we can start to hopefully move on with our lives.

It's true, many (though definitely not all!) of us obsess over small details or feel perhaps disproportionately frustrated with aspects of our appearances other people barely notice (if they notice at all). It's true that this is distracting and impedes our ability to see ourselves for how we look to other people. It's true that it interferes with our lives. But we don't do this for no reason. We don't do this because this is just how women are. We do it because we have learned that doing this is a part of being a woman. We've learned that beauty is really relevant and also it's strict and specific and cannot reside in a face with a pronounced mole, so we agonize over the mole.

And Dove implicitly agrees with us. The mole would be a problem if it were larger and darker. There it is, making the portrait on the left look ugly! But luckily it's only larger and darker in our minds, and so what other people perceive doesn't have much to do with a mole at all, and therefore, we are actually prettier than we thought we were.

In Dove's world, as in the real world of beauty standards, there is definitely a better and a worse way to look, it's just that, according to Dove, women are often mistaken about which side they're really on.

We are not mistaken, though, in believing that we should be anxious about the way we look, if we live in a context where beauty is important enough to constantly occupy our minds and specific enough to result in some shadowy eyes equaling a loss of attractiveness. In this context, we're totally right to worry.

And here's the thing about beauty in the real world that Dove seems to be forgetting: we are not actually supposed to think we're beautiful. That would be weird and vain and arrogant. It would be wrong and presumptuous. People are charmed when gorgeous movie stars reassure us that, actually, they feel unattractive and weird, too! They also hate that mole on their face. They also think their boobs are a strange shape. People are not charmed when a movie star seems to think too highly of herself, by being into her appearance, and they are certainly not impressed when a regular, normal-looking woman has the gall to think the same of her ordinary looks.

I don't think that Dove is ethically obligated to lead an in-depth examination concerning potential causes for the modern woman's body dysmorphia. I don't think the Real Beauty Sketches campaign needs to include an hour of commentary from gender studies professors after the clip concludes. The clip serves a purpose. It points out how wrong our negative impressions of ourselves can be. It points out that it's common for women to feel bad about the way they look, and it makes it clear that that is a sad situation.

But I want to point out, while we're pointing out things about beauty, that feeling better about the way we look depends not only on the positive opinion of strangers (which is definitely powerful and important, as I recently wrote about here), but on our being able to own our own beauty, in all its complexity. Including aging. Including moles. Including everything that we already are. And, unfortunately, we really can't get there completely on our own, by changing our thinking and our attitudes. The world has to meet us halfway, by letting us stop putting ourselves down and by celebrating our diversity, rather than beating us over the head with the same tired depictions of taut, slinky, lithe, teenaged beauty.

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.

And if we happen to think we actually look good, we have to be able to say, "I am beautiful," the way we can say "Oh god, I look terrible!" without it being a big deal.

Why is it still such a big deal? Because, annoyingly, people really, really care about beauty, and there are still a lot of rules about it, and that's why women are thinking about it at all and feeling like we have to put ourselves down, even when we look like the kind of pretty, thin, white women that Dove would choose for a polite, non-threatening campaign about how, seriously, we should all feel better about ourselves.

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