Real Beauty campaign needs better than skin-deep look

Posted April 25, 2013

Written by Beth Lyons



(This post originally appeared in the Times & Transcript on April 25th, 2013, and is shared with permission.)

Last week, “Dove Real Beauty Sketches,” a short video investigating the women’s perceptions of beauty, was in heavy circulation on social media, spreading like wildfire amongst women on Facebook and Twitter.

The video features a forensic sketch artist drawing portraits of a series of women based on verbal descriptions. The twist? For every portrait-subject he produces two sketches: one based on how the woman describes herself and one based on a description from someone who just met her.

The clip shows the artist working away and we hear voice-overs of the portrait subjects being described by themselves and by near-strangers. Self-descriptions focus on perceived flaws; descriptions from strangers are generous, emphasizing prominent cheekbones and eyes that light up.

Once both portraits are completed, they’re lined up for comparison and we see that sketches based on self-descriptions are harsher than those based on descriptions from strangers. The portrait subjects comment on what they’ve realized through this ‘social experiment’ and the phrase “You are more beautiful thank you think” flashes onto the screen as the clip comes to an end.

The Real Beauty Sketches video is part of Dove’s larger Campaign for Real Beauty. The Campaign was launched in 2004 as part of the company’s ‘social mission,’ which is focused on the self-esteem of women and girls and asks us to “Imagine a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.”

The campaign famously uses photo spreads of groups of underwear-clad women who range from petite to plus in a variety of shapes and skin colours. It also released a video clip showing the behind-the-scenes process of creating a photo suitable for use in a magazine ad, showing the extent to which models are made up and images are manipulated.

From its launch, people were feeling this campaign. Dove was leveling with us about the raw deal we were getting as women, they were speaking to our ‘beauty ideal angst.’ They even went so far as to brand their product line for maturing skin as Dove Pro-Age. Pro-age; a.k.a. in favour of aging! This was revolutionary for a beauty company.

Except it wasn’t. We really wanted it to be; but it wasn’t.

While Dove’s messaging may seem strikingly fresh and honest, it’s all marketing in the end. Dove’s end goal is to move product, not to liberate women and girls from restrictive beauty ideals. They’re making a killing by giving us enough empowering-sounding rhetoric to hook us as brand-loyal customers, but stop short of doing anything that would seriously challenge the societal obsession with beauty that keeps them in business.

What makes me so sure of this? Two things: the kind of work Dove’s parent company engages in outside of the campaign and a closer reading of the campaign’s message.

Dove is owned by Unilever, the same company that owns Axe. The Axe brand consistently produces promotional materials that aggressively uphold stereotypical gender roles and objectifies women. In one Axe commercial, a female character is actually depicted as a pair of walking breasts until the last 10 seconds of the clip.

In addition to being responsible for Axe’s misogynist advertising, Unilever also has a serious stake in the skin-lightening game in India’s beauty industry. In many societies, beauty ideals don’t just uphold youth and thinness as paramount; they also fixate on whiteness. Unilever isn’t above cashing in on the intersection of sexism and racism, so they produce and market creams to women of colour with the promise of lighter skin as a gateway to a better life.

Do those sounds like brands that are concerned with increasing women’s self-esteem?

You might think that I should cut Dove some slack; after all, they can’t control what Unilever’s other brands do. Fair enough, but while Dove doesn’t control Unilever, Unilever does control Dove. Given how much Unilever benefits from women’s continued insecurity and investment in beauty, the fact that they’re on board with the Real Beauty Campaign should give us pause. Would Unilever give the OK to a campaign that was going to dismantle the cultural beauty-obsession they rely on for profits? Unlikely.

If Unilever benefits from our obsession with problematic beauty standards, why was the Real Beauty campaign ever rolled out? This is where the closer reading of the campaign’s message comes in.

In their campaign, Dove is telling women that they are beautiful and that self-esteem is important, not questioning the importance we place on beauty. At one point during the Real Beauty Sketches video, a portrait subject reflects on how she needs to be more appreciative of her natural beauty, because “It impacts everything . . . couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.” As far as the video is concerned, the problem women face is that they don’t think they’re beautiful, not that beauty determines the quality of their lives. According to Dove, women need to learn how to ease up on themselves, not dismantle the beauty-industrial complex.

In addition to affirming the importance of beauty, the video also upholds existing standards of beauty. Women describe themselves critically, talking about having fat faces and protruding chins; as strangers describe positive attributes, the word thin is used repeatedly. When the portraits are revealed, we know which ones Dove wants us to think are more beautiful: the ones depicting a younger, smoother, slimmer face. One woman, while looking at the portrait based on her self-description, comments that she looks “Fatter; sadder, too.” The message is clear: thin is beautiful, and beauty is happiness.

We need to recognize that Dove — and companies that use marketing tactics with a similar veneer of empowerment and awareness — aren’t going to liberate us from our societal obsession with beauty. It’s not their ultimate goal; selling product to women who buy into beauty is.

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