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Why Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry

So this video started going around my facebook today, with about a dozen of my female friends sharing the link with comments like, “Everyone needs to see this”, and “All girls should watch this,” and “This made me cry.” And I’m not trying to shame those girls! I definitely understand why they would do so. And I don’t want to be a killjoy. But as I clicked the link and started watching the video, I started to feel a slight sense of discomfort. I couldn’t put my finger on why that was, exactly, but it continued throughout the whole thing. After watching the video several more times, I have some thoughts… 

[For those who didn’t or cannot watch it, the basic idea of the video is this: Dove conducted what they call a “social experiment”. They focused on several “featured participants” who evidently did not know what exactly they had signed up for. Over lightly melancholy music, they each briefly talked about their appearance, and how they wished they looked different. One by one, they arrived to a building they had never been to, where they were told to get friendly with a person they’d never met. Then, they were called back into a space where a professional forensic artist was waiting with his back to them, and separated by a curtain. Each woman described herself to the artist, and he drew them. Then, the stranger they had spent a little time with came in and described the participants from their perspective, and the forensic artist drew a second sketch. At the end, each woman came back to see the two sketches, and to notice the difference between how they describe themselves and how others describe them. Almost all agree they look more beautiful when described by strangers, and that they are more beautiful than they think. They talk about how important it is for us to realize that our self-perceptions are harsh, and say that we should spend more time appreciating the things that we do like. Dove then flashes the words, “You are more beautiful than you think.” across the screen, and the video concludes.]

"Well that sounds nice! Right?" Well… 

First off, I will acknowledge the positives in the video. The team at Dove makes a valid point: most of us are our own harshest critics. Most women probably are more beautiful than they think. This serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t be as hard on ourselves as most of us often are, and it’s uplifting to remember that others are more prone to look past the “flaws” that we perceive in ourselves and to see beauty. The fact that it’s reminding young women to see the beauty in themselves is a good thing, and I want to celebrate that. 

Now, let’s get down to real talk. 

Good question, Dove. I'm so glad that you asked...

Good question, Dove. I’m so glad that you asked… 

When it comes to the diversity of the main participants: all four are Caucasian, three are blonde with blue eyes, all are thin, and all are young (the oldest appears to be 40). The majority of the non-featured participants are thin, young white women as well. Hmm… probably a little limiting, wouldn’t you say? We see in the video that at least three black women were in fact drawn for the project. Two are briefly shown describing themselves in a negative light (one says she has a fat, round face, and one says she’s getting freckles as she ages). Both women are lighter skinned. A black man is shown as one of the people describing someone else, and he comments that she has “pretty blue eyes”. One Asian woman is briefly shown looking at the completed drawings of herself and you see the back of a black woman’s head; neither are shown speaking. Out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds. 

Cool. Except not so much. 


Let’s look at which descriptors the editors chose to include. When the participants described themselves, these were some of the things that were implied as negativesfat, rounder face, freckles, fatter, 40— starting to get crows feet, moles, scars…  Whereas some of the implied positive descriptors used by others were: thin face, nice thin chin, nice eyes that lit up when she spoke and were very expressive (my actual favorite),  short and cute nose, her face was fairly thin (this was said twice), and very nice blue eyes. 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? 

This reminds me of Winnie the Pooh… 


No seriously, it does. Have you ever heard that quote, “Always remember: you’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think”? Well that quote is from Winnie the Pooh. It upsets me that lots of people share the quote without sourcing it, like they’re ashamed of Pooh Bear or something. But anyway, I digress. There’s something else that I’ve noticed: a popular version of the quote is making its way around tumblr, pinterest, and facebook. It’s the same at the start, but then add, “and twice as beautiful as you ever imagined”. That last part is usually written in the biggest text, or italicized for emphasis. It’s sort of like what this Dove video is saying, right? So… why is this so important? Why did girls feel like something was missing from that quote it its original form? Why are so many females I know having such a strong reaction to the sketches video, being moved to the point of tears? 

Because the message that we constantly receive is that girls are not valuable without beauty. 

Brave, strong, smart? Not enough. You have to be beautiful. And “beautiful” means something very specific, and very physical. Essentially every movie and tv show and commercial shows us that, right? It doesn’t matter what other merits a woman posses, if she is not conventionally attractive, she is essentially worthless (go watch Miss Representation for more thoughts on this). And my primary problem with this Dove ad is that it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are (if you look like the featured women, I guess). 

And actually, it almost seems to remind us how vital it is to know that we fit society’s standard of attractiveness . At the end of the experiment, one of the featured participants shares what I find to be the most disturbing quote in the video and what Dove seems to think is the moral of the story as she reflects upon what she’s learned, and how problematic it is that she hasn’t been acknowledging her physical beauty: It’s troubling,” she says as uplifting music swells in the background. “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.  It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

Did you hear that, ladies? How beautiful you are affects everything—from your personal relationships to your career. It could not be more critical to your happiness! And while it could be argued that the woman was actually talking about how you feel about yourself or something, it is clearly edited to suggest that the “it” is beauty. I know we’ve been told it thousands upon thousands of times before, but I hope you heard that, girls: your physical, superficial beauty is the most significant part of who you are, and the most important determining factor in your life. And now I want you to hear this: that is a lie

What you look like should not affect the choices that you make. It should certainly not affect the friends you make—the friends that wouldn’t want to be in relationship with you if you did not meet a certain physical standard are not the friends that you want to have. Go out for jobs that you want, that you’re passionate about. Don’t let how good looking you feel like you are affect the way way that you treat your children. And certainly do not make how well you feel you align with the strict and narrow “standard” that the beauty industry and media push be critical to your happiness, because you will always be miserable. You will always feel like you fall short, because those standards are designed to keep you constantly pressured into buying things like make up and diet food and moisturizer to reach an unattainable goal. Don’t let your happiness be dependent on something so fickle and cruel and trivial. You should feel beautiful, and Dove was right about one thing: you are more beautiful than you know. But please, please hear me: you are so, so much more than beautiful. 

Ps: Dove Marketing team is brilliant and talented, I will give them that, but they have also made some stopovers in Sketchsville… while they have done some cool things, like reminding us about how Photoshop distorts our image of beauty, they have also been accused of using photoshop themselves. They are also a little bit manipulative in their pleas to others to stop manipulating. Sometimes, they seem like they might be more than a little bit racist… and more than a lot bit racist (Skin bleaching? Really?!) And for all of their talk of “real beauty” and empowering women to be their best selves, Dove is owned by Unilever, which also own AXE, which is widely known for having some of the most blatantly sexist and objectifying commercials out there. See Hank Green’s video on the hypocrisy of major corporations here

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