When I watched Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” video, I cried. I cried because I knew I could have just as easily been one of those women, criticizing myself unfairly and underestimating my own beauty. I cried because it came right on the heels of Boston and I would have cried at anything. I cried because it’s a well-made video that evokes the emotion it’s meant to evoke.
But when I wiped the tears away, I realized there was another voice in the back of my mind, begging to be heard. This voice was telling me the video wasn’t as “good” as it seemed at first. The voice was hard for me to hear. Given how many people have praised this video, I’m guessing many haven’t heard that voice at all. So I want to say it out loud.
The video seems empowering because it seems to be saying: you’re more beautiful than you think, don’t be so hard on yourself, other people see your beauty even if you don’t.
But listen a little closer and what it’s really saying is: look ladies, there’s a societal definition of beautiful and you’ll be much happier if you fit within that definition. The good news is, you’re much closer to fitting within it than you give yourself credit for. Yay for you: you almost live up to the impossible standards that our society sets for you!
Based on the video, the definition of beauty includes: being wrinkle-free, not having crows feet, having a thin face, a small nose, and bright eyes. (And, based on the majority of women featured, being white, blond and blue-eyed.)
Now, there do seem to be some universal ideas about beauty, based, probably, on reproductive appeal. Things like a 7:10 waist to hip ratio, which studies have shown is attractive in almost all cultures. But whether that ratio is 24:36 or 30:42 is set by societal norms in a given society. What’s beautiful is influenced by whether a woman is considered in reproductive health when she has layers of fat that show she’s well-fed, or when she’s thin which shows she has the leisure to work out. When a woman is considered healthy if she’s pale because she doesn’t have to work in the fields, or when she’s tan because she has the leisure to lay out in the sun all day.
The way that we form our ideas about beauty is set by evolution. But our specific ideas about what is beautiful at any point in time are heavily influenced by culture. And Dove’s add does more to reinforce current normative ideas about beauty than it does to break any new ground.
(To be fair, men also face unrealistic images of physical attractiveness. Remember the Calvin Klein Superbowl ad? But the double standard between what’s expected of men versus women is often striking. Women face much more persistent and unrealistic expectations.)
There’s another problem with the ad, though, that’s much deeper and bigger. The video makes very clear that the most important thing for a woman is to be beautiful. Beautiful in a limited sense: to be physically attractive. This is true, of course, of Dove’s entire Real Beauty campaign.
While it’s laudable to expand our definition of beautiful, it’s more important to expand our definition of women’s value. A better campaign would focus on all of the things that make women beautiful inside and out: their personalities, goals, ambitions, opinions, ideas, and strengths. “Real Beauty” is bigger than thin or heavy, blond or brunette, curvy or boyish. Real beauty is about the whole person.
Until women believe that who they are is more important than how they look, no amount of inspirational videos from Dove will make any difference. Until women believe that their physical appearance is just one aspect of themselves, and that their wants, desires, strengths and values are much more important, this discussion of “Real Beauty” will never end.