The controversial Dove Real Beauty sketch artist ads

I am nervous this morning as I write this post; my stomach’s all fluttery, and not really in a good way. After last week’s kerfuffle over sexism, HLS, and internet trolls, I am a little hesitant to dip my toe into the waters of internet controversy yet again, especially on a topic related to feminism, but I’ve been thinking hard about something and I want to use my blog to help me process it, because, you know, it’s my blog. So, buckle up, trolls and non-trolls! Here we go, again.

This week, several of my friends posted on social media this ad by Dove:

I watched this video at eight o’clock in the morning the other day and cried. I’m not ashamed to admit it! This ad got to me in a way that advertising rarely does; the last commercial I cried at was a Folger’s commercial and that was years ago. Okay, maybe that one Google ad made me mist up a little bit but seriously, if you don’t mist up at that Google ad, you might be a robot.

Anyway! I thought that the Dove ad was moving and beautifully shot and, well, important. If you haven’t watched it, in a nutshell: Dove brought several women to this artsy abandoned warehouse, sat them each down behind a curtain and asked each one to describe herself to a forensic artist, who then produced sketches based on the women’s self-descriptions. The organizers of the “experiment” (and I get that it’s not a scientific experiment, but I’m going to refer to it that way, anyway — everyone just relax) had asked each woman ahead of time to become friendly with a stranger. The strangers were then brought in front of the sketch artist to describe the women, et voila!, at the end, the sketch artist had two sketches for each woman: one that she had described of herself, and one that a stranger had described of her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sketches as described by the women themselves were harsh and unflattering, whereas the sketches as described by strangers were much “gentler” and more flattering.

So, I watched this thing, I shed some tears, and here was my takeaway from it: we women need to go easier on ourselves. The way we view ourselves might not be — in fact, probably is not — accurate. We should give ourselves the same consideration as we would a stranger. We should look at ourselves gently and appreciate our own beauty, in whatever shape or form it may take. That’s all. And for me, that message is powerful, because I’ve struggled with my own self-image for as long as I can remember. I was the type of little kid who always thought I was fat, or ugly, and those insecurities have waxed and waned over the years, but they’re always there, even now. Seeing this ad was a good reminder of how distorted my own self-image can be, and how unproductive it is to view my own physical being negatively. So, for me, this ad was positive and uplifting and moving.

Then, I started seeing some of my other friends on Facebook posting articles criticizing the ad for being anti-woman. Say what? This article on the blog jazzylittledrops, for example, argues that while the Dove ad has some positive features, it is mostly negative, because:

“it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are (if you look like the featured women, I guess).” 

The author of the blog post, Jazz, goes on to criticize the ad for not featuring enough women of color, and for emphasizing the positivity of physical features such as thinness and youngness. Hmm. My first reaction to this is that a single ad cannot be all things to all people. Would it have been better if Dove was able to round up a rainbow of women of every shape, size, and age? Sure. To be fair, there were several black and Asian women featured in the ad, but Jazz notes that the black women in the ad were “lighter skinned,” so I guess they don’t count? I’m not sure what the ideal mix of races and ages would have been for Jazz, but apparently, Dove missed the mark. I find this particular criticism a tad disingenuous, because if you look at other Dove campaigns, they have made a real effort to use women of different sizes, shapes, ages, and skin tones in their advertising. For example, check out these images:

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In her post, Jazz harps on the fact that some of the strangers in the ad, while describing the women they had met, emphasized features such as a “thin face” or “blue eyes,” and argues that this “kinda seems to be enforcing our very narrow cultural perception of ‘beauty’: young, light-skinned, thin.” I suppose the strangers’ comments can perhaps be put down to the fact that our society values thinness and whiteness. Or it could be that the particular woman being described was thin and white. Or it could be that those were the features that stuck out to this particular stranger, for any number of reasons. So I guess it’s fair for Jazz to criticize the ad for focusing on those features rather than others, but the fact that the end results — the sketches as described by strangers — were not a parade of thin, white, blonde women is telling. Dove wasn’t trying to convince all of these women that they are, in fact, beautiful Barbie dolls with blonde hair and perfect smiles; Dove was simply presenting an alternate vision of their looks, as perceived by strangers, presumably with no particular agenda to promote.

Jazz concludes that the ad sends the disturbing message to women that beauty, rather than courage or smarts, is what we should value in ourselves. She writes:

What you look like should not affect the choices that you make. It should certainly not affect the friends you make—the friends that wouldn’t want to be in relationship with you if you did not meet a certain physical standard are not the friends that you want to have. Go out for jobs that you want, that you’re passionate about. Don’t let how good looking you feel like you are affect the way way that you treat your children. And certainly do not make how well you feel you align with the strict and narrow “standard” that the beauty industry and media push be critical to your happiness, because you will always be miserable. You will always feel like you fall short, because those standards are designed to keep you constantly pressured into buying things like make up and diet food and moisturizer to reach an unattainable goal. Don’t let your happiness be dependent on something so fickle and cruel and trivial. You should feel beautiful, and Dove was right about one thing: you are more beautiful than you know. But please, please hear me: you are so, so much more than beautiful. 

Okay, so let’s hold the phone right there. First of all, I agree that “what you look like should not affect the choices that you make.” However, the way you feel about your looks very well could impact the choices you make. I know this for a fact, from my own life: if you feel like you’re gross, or ugly, or fat, or whatever, it absolutely does impact the way you interact with the world. It affects everything. Really. The message of the Dove ad, as I perceived it, was not: “You must be good looking in order to make positive choices,” but rather, “Change the way you see yourself and it will impact your choices positively.” There’s a huge difference between those two messages. As a person with a whole bunch of interests and skills and thoughts and feelings that add up to make me me, I certainly don’t believe that my external beauty is the most important thing about me, and I wouldn’t support an ad that sent that message. But that’s not what the Dove ad was trying to say. And I think it’s insulting to women like me who were moved by this ad to suggest that we’re being brainwashed by some sort of patriarchal, capitalist, ethnocentric (etc., etc., insert your favorite negative “ism” here) cultural narrative about beauty because it struck a chord with us. I’m a savvy enough consumer of media to be able to tell when a company’s selling me a bill of goods. While I appreciate Jazz’s reminder that I am “so, so much more than beautiful,” I already know that, logically. But to pretend that women’s self-perception of our looks is not important to the way we move through the world is unrealistic at best, and disingenuous and even cynical at worst.

Finally, Jazz points out that because Dove is owned by Unilever, a company that also owns brands such as the odious AXE body spray, which is infamous for their sexist approach to advertising, we should discount Dove’s marketing campaigns as so much patriarchal smoke and mirrors. While I think it is important to be a critical media consumer and to consider carefully a company’s agenda in promoting a certain product, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the genuine emotional reactions that Dove’s ads inspire in women because Dove’s parent company has promoted anti-woman messages to promote other products. In fact, I think it’s entirely possible to appreciate the Dove ad’s message without buying Dove products or otherwise supporting Unilever, which, by the way, also owns such socially conscious brands as Ben & Jerry’s, so if you’re gonna boycott Unilever, say buh-bye to Chubby Hubby. While I think it’s important not to support brands that promote a message you actively disagree with or are offended by, I also think that Dove should get some recognition as one of the few women’s beauty brands that has made an effort to disseminate a broader, more diverse conception of beauty.

Maybe Jazz and I are just coming at this from two fundamentally different perspectives. Perhaps she has a much stronger self-image than I do, and so the ad didn’t resonate with her in the same way it did with me. That’s fine. We’re allowed to have different reactions to media without accusing one another of being duped or brainwashed or suckers. What do you all think? Did Dove’s ad hit the mark or miss it entirely?

(By the way, I hope we can all agree that this is hilarious.)

8 thoughts on “The controversial Dove Real Beauty sketch artist ads

    1. Stephanie Post author

      Thanks Abbey! I’m glad you feel the same way. BTW, I posted a link to that parody on the blog (the last embedded link) and I thought it was absolutely hysterical. And so true!

      Reply
  1. Abbie

    Thank you for your thoughts and I completely agree with you! I love this ad for pointing out how as women we tend to be our own harshest critics and thought that it was an eyeopening way to point this out. When I heard Jazz’s post it bothered me how out of context she took Dove’s message and your response to it is beautiful!

    Reply
  2. Pamlady

    You make an amazing rebuttal. I saw Jazz’s post before yours, and I can see where both of you are coming from. This whole debate screams pessimist vs optimist to me. Jazz saw the negative in it, while you saw the positive in it. Neither are expressly wrong, but she seemed to take away that this will do more damage than good, and you perceived the exact opposite.

    Thanks for writing this up, I consider it incredibly helpful in the perception of the message. Once everyone reads both of these views, they’ll be fully informed on how vastly different your own perception of the video can change the meaning. I especially appreciate that you added in Dove’s other ads, featuring all the women Jazz thinks were purposely left out, which kind of disproves a few of her points. . .but more so, you’re also implying the lesson that you should never post something about a subject/company/etc that you know little about.

    Reply
  3. Bruce

    I thought the original ad made a very important point and I recently defended it on Facebook using many of the same arguments you use here. I generally have a very good sense of humor, even laughing at myself, but, as a man who has struggled for 50 years with body dismorphic disorder and very poor self esteem, I do NOT find the parody to be hilarious. After reading your blog post, I’m surprised and disappointed that you do. Why are men automatically assumed to think so much more of themselves than they actually are? Why are men presumed to be ridiculously oblivious to the superficial appearance based judgements that women make about them. I’ll admit that I’m a gay man and we are FAR too aware that looks count! However, I happen to know that many (if not most) straight men are too. The difference is that it’s not socially acceptable for a straight man to even admit that he cares. While women are burdened by the torturous measures they “should” take to attempt to make themselves beautiful, men are burdened by the fact that they are pretty much denied any opportunity to improve what nature gave them. They can suffer in the gym of course (an option women “should” take as well) but if the genetic dice don’t roll your way, tough cookies, and washboard abs will only get you so far anyway. If a woman lets herself get over weight in middle age, she should be admired for her much more significant “inner beauty” but an over weight man is a self deluded slob who needs a reality check. It is bitterly ironic that you are defending one video against charges of political incorrectness and promoting superficial values and stereotypes while lightening the mood with a video that is absolutely egregious, insensitive and demeaning in it’s own blatant exploitation of stereotypes for a cheap laugh. I was going to post your link to my Facebook page until that last line. Sorry.

    Reply
  4. Moira

    Thanks for this rebuttal. Jazz’s commentary bothered me as well. It seemed like she was reaching for some of her points. I agree that you can never cover everyone and include all participants within a reasonable timeframe. Perhaps they were chosen because they were really well spoken and insightful and not chosen because they are white. Also, as a very very fair, freckled, fair-haired and blue eyed person, it honestly hurts my self esteem to have comments like “pretty blue eyed” being labelled as negative. The number of times that I’ve been ridiculed for being “pale” could not be counted. I don’t mind being so fair but for people to constantly point it out as a negative feature really sucks (for lack of a better description.) Then for Jazz’s article to cite fair skin and blue eyes being featured as positive in the video as evidence of racism strikes me as very hypocritical. I also agree that to even be critical of the skin colour of the darker skinned women was horribly hypocritical.
    I also completely agree with you about the focus on beauty as a major factor in positive self esteem. I think that it is naive of Jazz to say that physical appearance is irrelevant to the way we perceive and present ourselves in the world.
    I could go on. But thanks for putting into words my feelings towards the kind of criticism that emerged over this beautiful advert much more clearly than I could.

    Reply
  5. RJ

    One flaw; where are the girls with acne? Does my acne make me look disgusting? The message I’m getting is yes. My family makes me feel that way, the media makes me feel that way. My friend even photoshopped one of our vacation pictures b/c I wasn’t wearing makeup to brush away those acne scars and bumps. So, that’s my question –where’s the acne? Because that’s what makes me feel ugly. Otherwise, I feel gorgeous.

    Reply

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