The Dove natural beauty campaign has been going on for awhile with a number of entries in their supposed support for natural beauty. At its heart, this campaign is still a marketing endeavor, intended to convince people to purchase their products. But it claims to be about empowering women and girls, giving them confidence and recognizing the beauty within. Here’s the problem though: that’s not what they’re doing.
I don’t doubt the good intentions of the people behind this campaign. On paper, it sounds great. Get “real” pictures of women and girls, exemplifying true and natural beauty. In fact, they call it “real beauty.” Real and natural beauty as opposed to plastic, stylized beauty sounds like a great idea, particularly given to all the alteration that goes on for women in the media to fit the supposed beauty standards.
The problem comes down to the people that they show and what they’re trying to do. Back a few years ago, Dove actually made the mistake of requesting women who fit within certain categories. One of the ways that you could be excluded? Not having flawless skin. You see this reflected in a recent video on Selfies as all of the featured women and girls seem to be devoid of scars or skin imperfections.
The Dove team goes in with Michael Crook to teach girls and their mothers to take selfies in an attempt to redefine beauty. At first, it seems like a normal enough group of teens. But something felt off. I replayed the video a couple times, and then I realized something quite amazing. All of the girls and women featured in the video look really good. There are remarkably few individuals who are overweight, let alone obese. Only a couple have braces. There’s no blotchy or red acne covered skin. The hair looks great and clean. And everyone seems to fall fairly close within societally accepted standards for beauty. Even the girls who supposedly have no make up on have incredibly smooth skin without scarring or blemish. Now perhaps I live in a “less attractive” part of the world. Maybe the high school and junior high school here is home to students who don’t all look like they could appear in a skin care commercial. But I don’t think so.
I’ve gotten to travel a fair bit, and I’ve met a lot of incredible students. The one thing I’ve noticed is that generally there’s a lot of variety in what people look like and even in what individuals find to be beautiful. While certain areas are more homogeneous, those areas do tend to differ from one another. So what is it saying when a video purporting to represent real beauty doesn’t actually represent the beauty found in real individuals? Can a girl not be beautiful is she is obese? Or what if she is skeleton thin? Of course, many would probably say “well, we don’t want to promote unhealthy body images on either side,” and I would say “yes, but…” See, not everyone who is obese is obese because all she does is sit on the couch and eat potato chips and Oreos just as not everyone who is skeleton thin is anorexic or bulimic. Health issues of all kinds wreak havoc with the body. Does that mean that the girl who suffers from a glandular disease must accept that she cannot be a “real beauty” until after she loses all the weight? Or the girl who just survived cancer and chemo and is now as thin as a rail must accept that she will not be a “natural beauty” until she gains enough weight to be seen as healthy and not a risk for encouraging other girls toward a life of anorexia. And what about those with disabilities? Can someone with Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy not be recognized as natural or real beauties?
One of the girls on the video states that what some people see as making them less attractive actually makes them unique and that is what makes them beautiful. But that is not necessarily the case. For many years, I’ve struggled with severe and weeping eczema. The lesions covered my body, and sometimes they became infected, leaving me in agony. Just recently I suffered another setback, and the eczema sores spread to my face. It looked like someone had beat me up. The skin on my face had tightened, and the areas around my eyes were deep red, blotchy, bloody, crusted, and horrible looking. I looked like I was turning into Red Skull very slowly. That certainly did make me unique. No question about it. But did it make me more beautiful? No. Not at all. The beauty that I have was in spite of the physical imperfections. But does the presence of that imperfection mean that I can’t be beautiful? No, but that’s another topic.
Instead, think of how much more powerful Dove’s real beauty campaigns would be if they did take real women and real girls from all walks of life and showed them the “real” beauty that they possessed instead of taking those who are already, by and large, quite beautiful. Perhaps they could search for the beauty that might not be seen as easily at first, not through a makeover but through just that careful search. Beauty is often based on culture as much as personal preferences, and so some arbitrariness will always intrude. But it would be so much more effective if the girls and women they chose had beautiful aspects but were not entirely gorgeous. Can you be beautiful with flawed skin? Can you be beautiful with thinning hair? Can you be beautiful with anything more or less than a healthy BMI? Can you be beautiful with non symmetrical features?
Yet at the same time, I wonder if perhaps the wrong message is being focused on all together. At the end of this ad just as the Dove Real Beauty Sketches, the girls put up their pictures and receive compliments on how beautiful they are. People recognize how these girls and women fit within the societally accepted standards of beauty. Often times, they point out that aspects that the girls thought made them less than beautiful fall within what others consider beautiful. One girl talks about how her hair just looks so ugly on her, when it’s really a beautiful and everyone comments on it. At the end of the day, these girls are getting acceptance and compliments for being what others consider to be beautiful. It’s true that this is telling this select group of girls and women that they fall within a category that could be considered beautiful, but it’s still telling them that what others think of their appearance and how others evaluate their beauty is an important component in their self worth and identity.
Not being physically beautiful is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. It isn’t easy to redefine what is beautiful in the cultural sense. And even if it is redefined, there will always be those who don’t match up to those standards. A large segment of the population doesn’t measure up to the standards that Dove puts forth in its “real beauty” ads. Not everything that is unusual or unique is going to be considered beautiful. And that’s okay. It really is. While you may feel relieved to realize that you meet up to a societal standard or that you fall within the “beautiful category,” don’t let that define your worth. Beauty does not make you strong. Strength may be something that makes you beautiful, but beauty does not create it.
Back to Dove, at the end of their day, this campaign is all about sales. They are targeting a particular demographic. This is about creating a brand and making women think that Dove supports natural beauty and real beauty. But they don’t. In fact, some of their other products such as the skin lightening crème to make you look fairer skinned even directly contradict what they’re claiming to do here. But even if they support their own perspective of beauty that may be more attainable than Victoria’s Secret, it still isn’t accessible to everyone. And once more, as long as you aren’t placing your value in how others rank your beauty, that may be all right. You don’t have to be a natural beauty or a real beauty to matter any more than you have to be a stylized beauty or a model beauty to have value.