I wear makeup, I enjoy wearing makeup, and I probably spend too much money acquiring makeup. I’ll easily admit that there are days where I wouldn’t want to go to uni without wearing some concealer and eyeliner, a pencil to which I have a possibly addictive relationship. It is undeniable that makeup and beauty products respond to insecurities about, mainly women’s, appearance. I have no problem with women wearing makeup out of insecurity, out of enjoyment, or out of a belief it will acquire them Ryan Gosling (or Emma Stone, whatever takes your fancy). What I do have a problem with is when companies use, and actively feed, that insecurity in order to sell me something. And that’s a pretty fucking big problem.
About a week ago the ‘Dove Real Beauty Sketches’ YouTube video started appearing on my newsfeed, and at last count it was at over 46 800 000 views. The first time I watched it I had the intended, melancholy-yet-uplifting-music engineered reaction; ‘this is an amazing message’ and ‘of course I am more beautiful than I think,’ were statements running through my head. But then the final swell of soaring emotional notes ended the video, and I started to actually think through what I had just watched. And it made my angry.
The campaign sends a highly problematic message to women and society as a whole. The basic idea of the video is that when you describe yourself to a forensic artist you are much more negative than when someone else describes you. The resulting sketches are touching and remind you that you are beautiful. Inspirational right? Not so much. Let’s consider the descriptive words that Dove chose to include when cutting this together. The ‘negatives’ the women use to describe themselves are things like “fat, rounder face”, “moles”, “scars”, “fatter” – this one was a common occurrence. Contrasted to the implied positives used by others: “nice thin chin”, “thin face, you can see her cheek-bones”, “short, cute nose”, “fairly thin” – can you see a pattern? What I get from this isn’t that you’re beautiful no matter what you look like, and therefore more beautiful than you think, but that you’re closer to society’s ideal than you think. To be beautiful is to have a short, cute nose and a thin face. To be beautiful is to not have noticeable freckles or crows feet. Here’s where I have the problem with this campaign – instead of rejecting the societal constructs of beauty, it reinforces them. The message is that you are more like what you should look like than you think, closer to that narrow definition of beauty. There are women who do look like the sketches on the left, who have a ‘rounder face’ or crow’s feet. What is this campaign saying about them?
Beyond this pervasive definition of beauty, the campaign presses just how important it is that we fit that definition. The end of the video shows a participant saying ‘I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, the way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.” Hear that? Your beauty is everything, it governs every area of your life, it is the key determinant of what opportunities you have and what you can do. Now that is a damaging message to be sending to women. Happiness should not be determined by beauty, especially when that beauty is defined by such a narrow and arbitrary social standard. According to this campaign you will be happy if you see that you are beautiful, and you are beautiful if you look a certain way. The only disjunct the video shows between your view of how you look and the reality is how close you are to a set of positive characteristics, to a certain standard of beauty. I say fuck the standard.
Let’s not forget that this is an ad. It’s not an altruistically well-meaning campaign for the benefit of the self-esteem of the world’s women. Dove, like every other beauty brand, relies on the insecurity of its customers in order to turn a profit. But Dove is a step ahead of most companies in terms of reacting to the attitudes and frustrations of its customers, but don’t mistake that for being well intentioned. Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also owns AXE, a male brand renowned for grossly sexist advertising featuring highly sexualised, often degraded, and consistently stick thin female models. The ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ which started in 2004 is estimated to have increased Dove’s sales by about $500 000 000. There’s your profit motive. Add to that the fact that Dove was caught photo-shopping its ‘Real Beauty’ ads in 2008 to make the models look attractive, but still have some flaws, and I’m not getting a good vibe. There used to be Dove body wash in my shower, and I only stopped using it because it ran out and I had to go and steal the other one in my sister’s bathroom. Dove isn’t necessarily worse than other beauty and makeup brands, and I probably won’t be boycotting their soap, in the same way that I’ll keep feeding my need for Maybelline’s eyeliner. Just remember that their motive in this campaign is the same as in any other advertisement, making money. They’re just cleverer at it than most.
Dove tells us that we are so much more beautiful than we think, but I would amend that: yes, you are more beautiful than you think, but you are so so much more than just beautiful.