Above: A still from the Dove Forensics ad.
Note: This is a piece I’d written, but not published, in the Spring of 2013.
This week, many women connected with an ad that Dove put out on YouTube. When I saw the link I clicked it and well, honestly, I could not get beyond about the 20 or 30 second mark. The sad music, the young blonde woman in a miniskirt complaining about how unattractive she was just lost me. Was this another startling exposé that even models feel insecure about their appearance? So I tweeted about it to my small number of followers, asking if anyone else found the video unwatchable. No response.
Sometime later I came across this post which pretty much summed up where I thought the video was going, and why I couldn’t get through the full 6 minutes.
Later that night, I met with the women in my mother’s group. We all met about 5 years ago when our first born were babies. Recently we started getting together for cocktails once a month without kids just to catch up. This is an inspiring group of women for me— all passionate feminists, environmentalists and artists of one sort or another. I brought up the ad, as well as the tumblr response and was talking about what enraged me so much about the beginning. I said, “I hate it when women complain about their appearance.” Expecting a chorus of agreement, there was kind of a shock wave. One of my friends asked, “What do you mean, you hate it when women complain about their appearance? Do you not complain about your appearance?” I looked around the table, everyone staring at me. “Not really.” I said. A long silence, and finally my friend Yvette said something to the effect of, “No I’ve never heard you complain about your appearance, I think it’s nice that you don’t.” Yvette talked about her mother never berating her appearance either. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation continued but I explained that we just didn’t complain about our appearance in our family. There was only praise for one another. Somehow, with a table full of feminists, I thought this would be the norm. Apparently not.
So, let me digress and explain that I am currently reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Having had leadership aspirations whilst being entrenched in male dominated fields most of my life, it’s been a really refreshing and enlightening read so far. A number of things Sandberg has said in the book have spoken to me. One of those things being something along the lines of ambitious/powerful women are not likeable. What is seen as the norm or positive attributes in males, such as ego and boldness, are seen as negatives in women. What this boils down to is often confidence, or what some might call over-confidence. I love that the male parody of the Dove commercial has all the men describing themselves as Brad Pitt and George Clooney. What makes it funniest, really, is that it is so true.
So I am drawing a connection here between the confidence in appearance and confidence in abilities. It’s all part of the package, isn’t it? Confidence when one looks in the mirror and when one walks into the boardroom.
Speaking of which ave you read that amazing article by Yasar Ali from 2011, A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not “Crazy” ? Phenomenal. Really. Even as a feminist I found it mind-blowing. This idea that, even today, there are certain cultural norms which are designed to undermine and dismiss women’s opinion’s on a regular basis. Not allowing women to use their voice because they are “hormonal” or emotional. Dismissing something because it’s feminist “rant.” Yasar Ali calls it “gaslighting”.
As I see it, those little comments women say aloud is another form of what Yasar Ali identifies as a connection to “the slow and steady drumbeat of women being undermined and dismissed, on a daily basis”. Women, we are dismissing ourselves with by berating our appearance. Let’s be blunt, if you are born a female you are judged on your appearance first and then your intellect and abilities. Even this year, President Obama, who many see as possibly the most enlightened US president in terms of women’s issues described California State Attorney General Kamala Harris as “the best looking attorney general in the country.” The message is again abundantly clear, no matter how far we come as women, we are still evaluated on our looks first.
When we see a little girl we say, “Oh you look so pretty in that dress.” We meet a little boy we say, “Oh that is a nice truck.” When was the last time you said to a little boy (perhaps outside of your family) , “Oh you look so handsome in that jacket” ?
From the time a woman is born her beauty is her currency. The more attractive she is, the more she is valued.
Perhaps it’s part of accepted societal norms, but I feel that when a woman points out the perceived “flaws” in her appearance she is devaluing herself, and making it acceptable for others to devalue her. When she speaks postively about her appearance she is telling the world that she respects herself and she is worthy of respect. Like going to a job interview and listing your accomplishments instead of your failures you are telling the world that well, to quote another beauty campaign from the past “Your’e worth it.”
In some ways, the Dove ad’s message felt straight out of Mad Men era advertising, something akin a woman’s beauty as defined by another’s gaze. To quote the commercial’s participants, “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.” The connection here seems to be that a woman’s beauty is reflected back at her not by her own mirror, but by the beholder.
The Dove forensics ad is actually a fascinating study, but what could Dove have done differently with this campaign? For starters, let’s try really showing women who don’t fit our culture’s and ideals or standards of beauty. Because beauty comes in all ages, colors, shapes and sizes. Let’s also try not using the sad piano music. The music, and the message should be uplifting throughout. The takeaway could be read in two ways, but Dove chose to highlight the one which our society continues to perpetuate: that beauty is confined to a set number of characteristics, and is determined in the eyes of another’s gaze.
The message I would choose to embrace is that beauty comes from within. If one wants to be beautiful, one only has to truly believe and embrace one’s own unique beauty. What the women in the commercial appear to be lacking is not beauty, but confidence. Ask another pool of women who feel good about their appearance and watch the forensic sketch results. Better yet, let’s start the discussion on why it is more acceptable to have women in ads talking about how they hate their thin lips rather than those who love them.
If Dove really is attempting to shake things up in the beauty industry, how about not going by the beauty industry standard “tear them down and build them back up” playbook. Let’s also start by making women who berate their own appearance no more acceptable than a man berating her abilities.