[Video: a black & white Dove soap commercial from the 1950s. A young blond-ish white model with an updo, full makeup and bare shoulders demonstrates in a velvety voice why Dove is better than ordinary soap as the camera lingers on her flawless complexion.]
According to Coco & Crème, Dove-- the moisturizer and knockoff salon shampoo juggernaut-- has conducted a groundbreaking
When most women were asked to describe their looks and their body, the most common answer was simply 'average.' “Only 2 percent of women are saying, ‘I’m beautiful’ and only 1 in 10 are saying, ‘I feel attractive,’ a Dove spokesperson said. “That’s just not where we want to be.”Ok, am I going crazy? Because the majority of women identifying as "average," seems like the only logical possibility here. Because that's how averages work. Most people are average. Average means "most people." When you offer people the choice of, "average" along with "beautiful," the clear implication is that "beautiful" means you think you're objectively above average in the looks department. And 1 in 10 women being above average-- "attractive"-- and 2 out of 100 being way above average-- "beautiful"-- seems about right to me. How many of us look anything like Megan Fox or Halle Berry? 2% actually sounds generous to me, considering the vast number of women who are older, fatter, zittier, lumpier, stockier, ganglier, and/or wrinklier than those two. And who set the bar for beauty so high in the first place? Dove, and other companies like them.
[Video: a 1993 Dove bodywash ad. It's lit in blue, giving it a sexy night-time Boyz II Men music video look. "Moonlight Sonata"-sounding piano music plays while a purring female voice describes the product. A tall, thin, young, conventionally hot white naked model demonstrates the product in her slow-motion shower.]
In fact, those sorts of companies intentionally endorse body types that are extremely rare as the only beautiful people. And then they are shocked, shocked! to find-- in their own manipulative study-- that the vast majority of women who don't have that rare type don't identify as "beautiful." I guess we'll just have to buy a bunch of Dove beauty products to catch up. "That's just not where we want to be," says Dove. I call bullshit: that is exactly where they want to be.
|[image: a still from a black & white 1950s TV ad showing a smiling blonde white model with full make-up, manicure and polished hair caressing her face with the words, "Dove Creams" superimposed.]|
|[image: a gigantic cropped close-up of a little girl who is a red-head with freckles, staring into the camera with a level gaze. Overlayed text reads, "Hates her freckles."]|
|[image: a redheaded young white woman covered in freckles with bare shoulders stares slightly down at the camera with a smirking yet vulnerable expression. Next to her face are two empty check-boxes with the options, "flawed?" and "flawless?"|
|[image: same deal as above, but features a flat-chested young thin black woman with a short afro and the options read, "half empty?" "half full?"]|
|[image: a little girl of South-East Asian ethnicity is shown in cropped close-up like the red-headed kid above, with level gaze. Overlayed text reads, "wishes she were blonde."]|
Why does it follow that being average in the looks department is devastating to a woman's self esteem? I mean, I'm not stupid, I know why-- Patriarchy, our society, our consumer culture-- but this assumption is continuously unquestioned. Why do we constantly link self esteem in women with feeling beautiful, in the sense of being objectively attractive? Why is it not okay to state the truth about one's looks? Why is it unfathomable that a woman could feel unattractive (or average) and also feel perfectly fine about herself? After all, plenty of women who do feel attractive have terrible self esteem. What if it were ok for a woman to simply be average in appearance (as most, in fact, are)? What if it were normal to portray unattractive or average looking women living it up? What if unattractive or average looking women were considered viable movie stars at the same rate that beautiful women are currently? What if the "real women" frolicking in their panties in the new Dove ads weren't advertising beauty products but instead advertising a fun new water-park, or a social club for exhibitionists, or an athletic event, something where "real women" can live it up and feel great that is unrelated to improving their looks?
Lots of women are objectively un-pretty. Period. I didn't say they are worthless or unloved or helpless or involuntarily celibate or grappling with their own emotional agony. I said they are not pretty. So if self esteem is linked to feeling pretty, and those women know perfectly well they aren't pretty, what then? Could it be that being average looking, or even ugly, is not the end of the world? If women weren't taught in a million little way that they are synonymous with their looks, would it be so devastating to feel unattractive? Is it possible that our positions on the beauty-versus-self-esteem continuum is not the problem, that the problem is, in fact, the constant conflation of self-worth and beauty for women? In other words, the problem isn't that we're playing the game and failing to win, it's that we're playing the game at all.
To be clear, I don't fault women who play the game self-beautification (including myself). It has simply never occurred to many women that there's any other option, for one. And if they have considered the other option, it looks so bleak: fuzzy legs, hair that isn't flowing or exhibiting "multi-dimensional color," un-sexyness, surrendering to the same old body you were born with, practical shoes, less attention from men, less attention from other women, constantly getting judged as a clueless woman who simply doesn't understand beauty, a walking "before" picture with no after, giving up the intoxicating fantasy that there's a wonderful new life awaiting the prettier version of you. That's no fun. Our entire culture portrays the un-winnable game of beauty as a worthwhile past-time-- the only worthwhile past-time. In the sense of being un-winnable, you may win some "battles," i.e. feel good sometimes through self-beautification, but you are guaranteed to lose the "war." But when self-esteem through self-beautification is portrayed as the only game in town, I certainly see why women try to play it, and I admit that for lots of people that's the best decision to make about how to live in our reality. I also have no problem with the original article I linked to, which takes the "census" at face value. My beef is with the game itself and the industry behind it.
And where is the concern that men don't feel attractive enough? If it's so damn important to feel beautiful, why is there no ad featuring a little boy staring plaintively into the camera with the words, "hates his unibrow," and the understated logo of TweezerMan in the bottom corner? No one would look at such an ad and think, "That little boy is in for a world of heartbreak!" or "Wow, TweezerMan really understands mens' struggles." They'd probably say, "so what?" and laugh, because the boy in the picture will grow into a man who is valued by society as more than the sum of his facial hairs. His beauty just isn't that big a deal. People are concerned about men, though. The media has been overflowing with concern that men aren't getting paid enough, that they're getting left behind in the "man-cession," that they're suffering high rates of heart disease, that they're not graduating from college at the same rate as women, that they are plagued by violence. No one has clutched their pearls and cried out, "Most men say they feel "average looking!" Oh, no! Only 2% identify as 'hawt!' That is not where we want to be! Think of the children!"
I promise this is related to portraiture but I don't know how to tie it in in any pithy, or even logical, way. But this is something I really do think about every time a woman sits for a portrait. I know what she's expecting-- an understated homage to her beauty that may, as an afterthought, reflect her personality-- and these issues are something I grapple with. The farther I get down this rabbit hole of resenting the beauty industry, the more difficult it is to depict, let alone identify, what the woman probably values as her pretty assets, because I'm getting more out of touch with the commonly agreed upon standards of beauty. I want to depict character, what makes the person interesting, and that usually conflicts with a pretty, feminine portrait that the customer very likely wants. The customer is always right, she's the one who has to live with the portrait, and I don't want to make her feel bad. I'm feeling a little stuck. What do you think about all this?
ETA: I originally included notes about Dove chocolate in this post, but it's actually a different company. Unilever owns Dove soap; Mars owns Dove chocolate. Even though the logos are virtually identical and feature pitchers of cream pouring themselves into a finished product. My bad.