Earlier this week, I shared Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches campaign on my facebook wall. I shared it because the video left me with tears in my eyes, an impressive feat for what ultimately amounts to an extended commercial for body moisturizer. It told a story that made me pause for a moment to think about the way I perceive myself. It conveyed something fundamentally true that made me feel for the women in the video. To me, it achieved everything that I would normally expect from a well-made documentary or short film.
If you haven’t seen it, the campaign features several women who describe their own appearance to a forensic artist. The artist sits with his back to the women and renders a sketch based only on their description. Then, the forensic artist interviews random strangers who have recently been introduced to these same women. The artist draws a second sketch, based on third party impressions. Interestingly the second set of sketches are, across the board, “happier”, “softer” and overall more forgiving than the first set of sketches.
The intended message of the campaign is simple. Women are more beautiful than they think. We’re socialized to spend so much time obsessing over our appearance that every little flaw is magnified in our own eyes. But these flaws are not what other people see when they look at us. Our inner beauty shines through when we interact with others and forget to worry about our perceived imperfections.
Unfortunately, the campaign also delivers some very problematic, unintended messages that have caused an online backlash against Dove. Several blog posts have gone into great detail about all of these unintended messages, but, for me, there were two main problems that stuck out immediately after I watched the video:
1) Most of the women featured in the campaign are basically carbon copies of each other at various stages in life – the blonde 20-something, the blonde 30-something, the blonde 40-something. Strange that Dove chooses to represent the diversity of beauty in such a homogeneous fashion. More troubling yet, each of these women is relieved to discover through the course of the video that she is perceived by others to have fuller lips, a smaller chin, a narrower face, or fewer wrinkles than she perceives of herself. The unintended implication is that to truly have thin lips, a big chin, a round face, and wrinkles would be objectively unattractive. Needless to say, this implication reinforces unrealistic, unhealthy, and undesirable standards of beauty.
2) The campaign seems to unintentionally conclude that women should be looking outward for validation. This is all well and good in the universe of the video, since others saw the women as more attractive than they saw themselves. But what if the reverse had been true? According to this campaign, women are incapable of accurately assessing their own appearance; we have to trust the perception of those who view us. And if others view us as less attractive than we view ourselves? Well, logically, they must be right.
You may have picked up on my repetition of a key word: “unintended.”
Now, look, I’m a literature major with a law degree. I positively delight in dissecting and critiquing unintended messages – in books, movies, ads, court opinions. You name it. But, at some point, it becomes necessary to take a deep breath and a step back. At some point, we risk – dare I say it? – taking fiction too seriously.
To truly enjoy a story, you have to take it on its own terms and appreciate it for what it is. You have to choose to love something that resonates with you on its own merits.
You have to decide that Fight Club has some really messed up ideas about violence and relationships, but the psychological complexities fascinate you and so you love it anyway. Beauty and the Beast has some troubling implications about abuse, but some beautiful ideas about redemption and so you love it anyway. Gone with the Wind is an incredibly racist piece of confederate propaganda on one level, but an amazingly progressive feminist manifesto on another level and so you love it anyway.
Or not. Maybe you choose to reject any work with problems. Maybe your bookshelves and movie queues are pretty sparse. That’s a perfectly valid choice.
But, speaking for myself, I’d rather critically analyze the bad and then take the good. I’d rather appreciate the intended message of a story than get so lost in the unintended that I can’t enjoy any of it at all.
You may be thinking that this is all well and good when it comes to fiction, but this is an advertisement we’re talking about here. True. But an effective advertising campaign is still a fictionalized story. And, while Dove’s campaign may feature an overemphasis on physical appearance and a concerning endorsement of social constructions of beauty, I love it anyway. I chose to post it on my facebook wall anyway.
Because the Dove story was not intended to address every infinitely complex aspect of femininity. It was created to address a very specific subset of this vast discourse and its message is worth hearing: People are kinder than you think; in general, they see you for more than the sum of your flaws. You will be happier if you can stop worrying so much about your appearance and feel beautiful in your own body.
To take the Dove campaign on its own merits means also to remember that it exists to sell beauty products. Is it more important to be smart and strong and compassionate than beautiful? Of course. But it would be silly to expect Dove to tell you this. They don’t make public service announcements. They make skin care products and advertisements. Their advertisements are light years ahead of the rest of the industry when it comes to perceptions of beauty. But they’re still advertisements.
Analyzing the bad, then taking the good.
Do the unintended problems in Dove’s campaign bother me? Yes. A resounding yes.
Do they prevent me from appreciating a creative, thought provoking, moving video? No. A world of no.