I (reluctantly) admit it: I am one of the many women who teared up watching the Dove Real Beauty campaign’s “Beauty Sketches” video. As a 20-year-old college student who, like many (most? All?) other women my age, has struggled with body image for years, the prevailing message of the video — you are more beautiful than you think and other people think so, too — was too enticing to resist. Under the influence of this video, I immediately began calculating how many minutes of time spent putting on make up I could reappropriate for sleeping now that I am apparently more beautiful than I think I am. Because, yes, as a college student that’s where my mind went first.
But more than that, watching that video I just felt … relieved. Women are constantly bombarded with images of impossible beauty. By 17, the average woman has received over 250,000 commercial messages through the media. Three out of four American teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine — a magazine that probably features fashion models who, on average, weigh 23% less than the average American woman. These effects are visceral: 65% of women and girls report disordered eating behaviors, 53% of 13- year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies (a number that increases to 78% by age 17). But this isn’t just a teenage phenomenon: 42% of first to third-grade girls want to be thinner and 81% of ten year-olds are afraid of getting fat.
This is not an issue of vanity: this is a pervasive problem that is paralyzing a generation (if not generations) of women from reaching our individual potential and from advancing as a gender. The concept of feeling beautiful is emotional for women because it consumes our lives: it impacts the way we exist in the world, the way we spend our time, how we interact with others, how (and if) we lead, how we conduct our relationships and chose our partners. This is not a casual matter, an inevitable inconvenience: it’s a defining issue of our generation, of our gender. Which is why the concept of being more beautiful than we think we are is akin to a feeling a burden being lifted from our shoulder — even if just for a few minutes. It’s why a video that postures that our tireless pursuit for that beauty standard, the standard that is the source of every single one of the above statistics, may be achievable after all induces tears.
And feeling void of that inescapable burden is a wonderful feeling. It’s the type of feeling that I hope all women feel one day, preferably for more than 6 minutes. But while the feeling the Dove video induces is commendable, the message behind it isn’t quite. My goal as a feminist, as a human, who sees those statistics wage battle on the bodies of women I love, not to mention on my own body, who has seen and continues to see the destruction it wages, is not to feel like I’m closer to reaching that ideal: it’s to feel like there is no standard — that it might be possible for me to concern myself with living up to my intellectual potential the way I aspire to fit into a certain dress size. And that is where this video, despite the warmth it radiates, despite the relief it inspires, falls short.
But there’s a pretty salient reason why this video does not quite reach my standards for inspirational positive body image videos: it’s a marketing campaign. And, admittedly, it’s a really smart, well-executed marketing campaign. Dove is paying attention to female consumers in a way that reaches beyond the stereotypes and caricatures to which other campaigns have resorted. Dove clearly realizes that women don’t want to feel like crap about our bodies and that many of us are actively rebelling against those depictions. This campaign is a leader an emerging category of ads created by people who apparently have met and interacted with real live women: ads that address the stupid sexism of other campaigns. We’re one of you these ads tell us. We get it — other advertisements are demeaning and ridiculous! Now buy our product! (U by Kotex is another notable example that comes to mind).
And yet, just because the people behind these ads adeptly employ a veneer of authenticity doesn’t make their ultimate intentions any purer. Dove is a company (owned by none other than Unilever, the same company that owns Axe, a product which has produced horrendously sexist ads) that realizes women hold 86% of consumer purchasing power in America and that to speak to us on an intimate level, to generate positive associations with their brand, means dollars in the bank. And they have succeeded: Dove’s global sales rose to above $2 billion in the last decade, roughly the same amount of time the Campaign for Real Beauty has existed.
This raises another salient issue, beyond Dove’s ultimately superficial pandering to women’s desire for positive body image: the Campaign for Real Beauty starkly calls into question the anti-advertisement rhetoric of the positive body image movement. I’ve read countless articles that (and am personally guilty of), pinning women’s negative body image on advertisements, of posturing that eliminating these ads is an integral step towards eliminating such negative views.
I’m not saying that this is necessarily false: as the statistics above explicate, the depictions of women in these advertisements play an integral role in the way women view their bodies. But what happens when companies listen — when they do move past stereotypical, destructive images of beauty. What happens when they feature authentic (or at least more authentic — the women in the Dove ad are still arguably conventionally attractive) women as Dove has to sell us products that still ultimately function to help us “improve” the way we look? The packaging may have changed, yet corporations still fundamentally rely on their consumers’ need to improve her appearance by buying their products.
The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty should serve as a clear message to body image activists: rhetoric about negative ads isn’t enough. We have to focus on the deeper economic sources that perpetuate (and profit from) negative body image. Women-friendly ads don’t eliminate our body hate: our body hate is predicated on a deep structural system of misogyny, based on the economic interests of companies still mired in a patriarchal society. A benevolent sketch artist does little to ameliorate that.
And yet, despite this criticism, I have to admit: at the end of the day, I would still rather watch this video than the normal horrendous objectification of women that is usually paraded in magazines and on TV. I would rather watch women who look more like people I might actually know than an idealized, glossy image that probably looked like an actual human being six rounds of photoshop ago. I would rather hear real women speak and actually appear to feel good about themselves than witness plastic-looking, dead-eyed models or worst of all, straight up violent misogyny. So thanks Dove, for at least not being those ads. But this feminist is in it for the long haul, and this new video, while nice, just doesn’t quite cut it.