Last month, Mbird mentioned in passing the “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” ad, but now that the video has become the most watched ad ever, with over 114 million views, perhaps we should take a closer look at the implications of the ad’s overwhelming popularity. (Apparently Dove superseded the Evian Roller Babies for the number one spot, which is a step in a good direction.) If you haven’t seen the ad yet it’s definitely worth watching. The take away is summed up in a line of text at the end: “You are more beautiful than you think.”
The clip is moving, and it’s no wonder that it went viral and elicited such a strongly emotional response online, as it shows what most of us have probably hoped was true—that we are our own harshest judges. This realization is incredibly relieving, and many of the women, moved to tears, resolve to better appreciate themselves physically.
The message strikes an emotional chord, and encouraging women to feel beautiful is a great thing. However, I was glad to read an excellent post by blogger Jazz Brice, who describes why the ad left her feeling not beautiful and empowered, but uneasy and even angry. Brice describes how the ad furthers a very narrow definition of beauty, a definition that excludes aging, blemishes, and any body type or face shape that cannot be described as “thin.” She writes, “So you’re beautiful… if you’re thin, don’t have noticeable wrinkles or scars, and have blue eyes. If you’re fat or old… uh, maybe other people don’t think you look as fat and old as you do yourself? Great?”
Criticism along these lines, while valid, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Dove is a cosmetics company after all—outward beauty is their line of work. While a Dove commercial promoting inner beauty or soul power would be great, it probably wouldn’t help them sell wrinkle cream. But Brice takes her criticism a step more meta (and a step more betta?…that was bad, I’m sorry…), by asking, “Why are so many females I know having such a strong reaction to the sketches video, being moved to the point of tears? Because the message that we constantly receive is that girls are not valuable without beauty. ”
And my primary problem with this Dove ad is that 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 participants’ own takeaways at the end of the video testify to this more than anything. Brice quotes one of the women, who tells the camera that her perception of her own beauty affects her choices, the friends she makes, the jobs she applies for, and even the lives of her children. “It impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness,” she says. Isn’t that a little scary? And the scarier part is that she’s probably more right than we’d like to admit. (It probably goes without saying, but this problem is not unique to women. Men struggle in real ways with body image too. That said, to see a hilarious gender-reversed parody of the Dove ad- watch this!)
A different quote, however, stuck out to me. After seeing her sketches, a teary-eyed woman confesses, “I’ve come a long way in how I see myself, but I think I still have some way to go.” Many of the women feel that it is up to them to progress farther along the path of self-image, in an effort to reach some ideal of perfect self-perception. The compliments of others (in this case the other women’s more flattering descriptions) then become a tool for us to improve how we see ourselves. Not only are we obviously physical imperfect, but we are also imperfect in the way that we perceive ourselves as imperfect. I imagine that many of these women engage in the kind of self-talk that we all use to try and make ourselves feel better, something along the lines of, “Wow, I look so tired and old today. And I really have the worst jaw-line. No, wait, stop! I’ve gotta stop thinking like that!” This law of perfect self-perception can be an even bigger headache than the plain old self-directed physical criticism.
What might come as a deeper relief to the Dove ladies (and all of us) would be a message that allows for the freedom not only to stop looking at ourselves so critically, but also to stop thinking about how we look at ourselves. At its brightest, the Christian message doesn’t ask that we try harder to ignore ourselves, but rather it gives us permission to forget ourselves. All of us who feel stuck between inner voices of relentless criticism and positive self-talk can take real comfort because it’s not all about us and what we can achieve—physically, mentally, or even spiritually. Whether or not we believe it when we look in the mirror, our worth lies far past any measurements of beauty, and because of that, we have the freedom to look at Christ with gratitude and, who knows, maybe even start looking at others, without giving them a drawing of what we see that they can analyze.