“Real Beauty” is a Real Insult

Many friends have sent me the Dove “Real Beauty Sketches” video and I’m supposed to feel better understood and inspired.

I don’t. The somber, contemplative piano chords that plaintively accompany the women’s tears feel very manipulative to me. I’ve taken issue with Dove’s campaigns ever since we were supposed to be validated when their creative directors realized what real women in their underwear actually look like.

As a professional communications expert, I admit the campaign succeeds. It has gone viral, and they’ve received lots of free brand attention from their target consumer audience of insecure women aged 18 to 40-something. And you know it’s a success because it has a hilarious parody of men who have no idea how much less attractive they are than they think.

That women are their own harshest critics is hardly revelatory. I see this consistently in my work when I media train advocates and leaders to be effective spokespeople. The purpose is to give them advocacy tools to advance social change issues to which they are deeply committed, from improving education to eradicating poverty to protecting the climate. Women struggle to listen to themselves, to appreciate the efficacy of their message, and to rise above the painful and irresolvable conflict of not being sufficiently “pretty.” Men do not do this. They do not tear themselves apart. They want to know how they can appear authoritative, confident, and sufficiently smart.

Back to Dove and its “message” that women are actually more beautiful than we think we are. With its estimable resources, can’t the Dove creative group challenge the standards of Western beauty, which are narrow, inherently sexist, and shaped by generations of racism? For a great take on the legacy of beauty, check out model Cameron Russell’s TED talk.

Dove wants us to “imagine a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.” But this premise makes me anxious. I don’t want to be told that my insecurity over my beauty is what’s shaping the choices I make in my life and limiting my happiness.

We hear from Florence, a thin blonde who is learning to be “more grateful” for her beauty: “It impacts the choices in the friends we make, the jobs we apply for, and how we treat our children. It impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

Sorry Florence, but that’s just insulting. My friends, my career, my partner, my children, my health, and my family’s well-bring are critical to my happiness. Not to forget comfort, safety, community, and a hundred other things. I practice gratitude for these gifts every day—not the reality that my physical features are objectively more aligned to subjective commercial standards of beauty that I thought they were.

Women deserve everything REGARDLESS of what they look like. We deserve love, health, respect, fulfillment, and joy, not to mention equal pay, representation, and the right to physical safety and autonomy. We deserve it because we are women, we are human, and we are here. Ensuring that would make me, and scores of women like me, truly confident.