You’ve probably seen the Dove Real Beauty campaign ads on your television or Facebook timeline.
The latest ad features women from around the world who are faced with two choices to enter a building: through the “Beautiful” door or through the “Average” door. The message becomes apparent as, one by one, each woman walks through the door marked “Average.”
As we watch, we’re supposed to empathize with the women who don’t pick “Beautiful.” We’re supposed to consider what choice we would make if we were faced with those doors, and then we’re supposed to buy Dove shampoo. From an advertising perspective, it does exactly what it is intended to do - make the viewer pay attention to the message, consider how that message compares to other messages we’ve received, and then associate that message with the brand.
While critics may exclaim that Dove is exploiting the shame that women feel about their bodies to sell beauty products - and I acknowledge that on some level, they are - I choose to believe that these advertisements are created with a socially responsible message in mind. Advertising reflects our culture while simultaneously creating it, wielding significant impact over what we consider “normal.”
I respect what Dove is doing by acknowledging the narrow definition of beauty that is perpetuated in the media and showing us women who are beautiful and are not all perfectly symmetrical, thin, and white. But this little social experiment also reminds me of the secondary issue - that even if we DO overcome the bombardment of social and media influences telling us what is considered beautiful in our society with our self-esteem intact, we aren’t supposed to show it.
I would not have walked through the door marked “Beautiful.” Even on a day where I really and truly believed that I am. Because not only have I been conditioned by a society that consistently reminds me that I don’t measure up to some concept of beauty, but I’ve also been conditioned to believe that saying I’m beautiful is vain.
As the short film plays on, we see that there are a few women who choose the “Beautiful” door. There are also several who are pushed and pulled through by their mothers, sisters, and friends. Heartwarming as that is, it shows us how out of the ordinary it is for women to publicly describe themselves as beautiful. One woman even hesitates as she says “Maybe someday, I guess I could choose the Beautiful door…?,” looking to her friend for validation.
Earlier this year, college student Claire Boniface conducted her own social experiment that she called “agreeing with boys when they compliment you.” When she received comments from strangers on social media telling her that she was beautiful or amazing, she politely agreed instead of thanking them. Many of the men responded by quickly retracting their comment, as if she was only allowed to believe she was beautiful if they told her so.
Not only do women face this contradiction of perceiving ourselves as beautiful without being allowed to state that we are, but we enforce it ourselves by policing other women as well. We judge friends and acquaintances who post “too many” selfies. We roll our eyes at women who take a few minutes too long in the mirror, and we’re taken aback when a quick compliment is met with “Thanks! I really DO look great today.”
British columnist, Samantha Brick faced significant backlash for her article that posed the question “Why do women hate me for being beautiful?” In her original article, she pointed out that while her appearance often garners gifts and special treatment from men, “other women hate [her] for no other reason than [her] lovely looks.” Her story quickly went viral, prompting thousands of angry readers, most of them women, to attack Brick for her inflated perception of her own appearance.
As she pointed out in a follow-up article written a day later, the violent response proves her point. Some of the commenters criticized her for being self-absorbed, while others lashed out to inform her that she wasn’t attractive at all.
To avoid situations like these, many of us compensate by putting ourselves down publicly. We qualify Instagram selfies with goofy captions, as if we have to balance our self-esteem with self-deprecation, lest it be construed as self-absorption. We’re taught to brush off compliments under the guise of humility. My immediate reaction to being told this morning that I looked nice was to respond with, “Oh, thanks! My hair decided to behave itself today, for once!”
We have to be confident and see ourselves as beautiful, but be so humble that we’ll never actually say so. Add this to the long list of contrasting ideals that we’re supposed to fulfill. Women should wear whatever they want, but nothing too prudish, and oh no - that’s too revealing, cover up! Women are beautiful just the way they are, but here is an article on how to tone your trouble areas. Women should love and celebrate their bodies, but please don’t subject other beachgoers to your not-bikini-ready body.
So thank you, Dove, for telling me I’m beautiful. Your next job? Working towards a world where I can say it out loud.