A slim definition of beauty

Critical Musings

Rejoice! Dove thinks you’re more beautiful than you believe.

Or at least that’s ostensibly the message of the soap company’s recently released “Real Beauty Sketches” commercial.

The three-minute clip is part of the company’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which claims to have “started a global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty,” according to the campaign website. The marketers want to “make beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety.”

The ad has taken the Internet by storm, with The Huffington Post calling it “The Most Powerful Ad Campaign We’ve Ever Seen.” It has also taken my Facebook feed by storm, and that makes sense. Here’s why:

The commercial depicts a series of women being invited into an airy room, where they are hidden behind a curtain as a male forensic sketch artist draws their faces based only on information they provide him about their features.

The women are entirely self-deprecatory. They comment on deepening wrinkles, unwanted freckles.

“I would say I have a pretty big forehead,” one says. “I kind of have a fat, rounder face,” says another.

And then a second set of women is introduced, and we are told that they have casually interacted with the first set. Each of these second set then describes one of the original women while the sketch artist draws new pictures. These women provide entirely positive descriptions.

“It was a nice, thin chin,” one says.

And then the grand reveal: The original women are shown the sketches, based on their self-descriptions, alongside the ones from the other women’s descriptions. Based on conventional standards, the first set is much less attractive than the second set. We are too harsh on ourselves, that juxtaposition says.

Theoretically, that’s a really nice idea; my Facebook friends have certainly thought so.

But let’s be real: For all of the commercial’s attempts at appealing to women through soft lighting, beautiful spaces and a refreshing “you’re probably better than you think!” mantra, what they’re selling is not a “wider definition of beauty.”

Because the commercial doesn’t say that having looks that do not align with conventional standards of beauty — like wrinkles and a “fat face” — is okay. What it says is that your flaws probably aren’t as bad as you think, that your chin is probably thinner than you think.

And that “wider definition of beauty”? It apparently doesn’t involve overweight women or women above the age of 40, none of whom are shown. It also only hesitantly includes women of color, who get no speaking time in the “after” reflections portion at all.

What the commercial does say is that in order to see their own beauty, women need a rational man to show it to them, to put the truth there before them with the careful precision of the male forensic artist’s drawings.

In one of the “after” scenes, the male sketch artist physically leads one of the women to this truth with his hand on her arm before standing beside her as she looks at the sketch.

“Do you think you’re more beautiful than you say?” he coaxes, getting her to the truth mentally as well.

“Yeah,” she demurs, enlightened now. “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.”

Forget every other damn commercial telling us the opposite — if we’re not convinced we’re beautiful, if we’re insecure about our looks, it’s our own damn fault, and we need improvement.

The commercial then cuts to a scene with one of the other women holding onto a man with a close-up on her face vulnerably pushed up against his chest.

“We spend a lot of time, as women, analyzing and trying to fix the things that aren’t quite right,” she narrates. “We should spend more time appreciating the things we do like.”

That’s right: We women are always overanalyzing. But no fear! With a good strong man holding us up, we can be coaxed out of this silliness: We can live the “after image” they allow.

Fuck that. I don’t need Dove to tell me that my flaws aren’t as bad as I think they are. That’s no “wider definition of beauty.” 

And I definitely don’t need men to lead me out of my insecurities. And I don’t need other women’s approval to feel OK either.

Because the reality is that if I based my judgment of myself on other people’s opinions, the majority of them would be negative. For every positive Dove ad, there are 1,000 others that prey on my insecurities — that’s why this one is appealing at all; it’s the counterargument.

I just need to be enough for me, not the best, not “beautiful” on anyone’s scale, not humbly schooled by a soap company, not “natural” or made-up,  not perfect or enlightened — just enough. That’s enough for me.

Contact Sarah Burns at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @_SBurns.