Monday, April 30, 2012

Dove takes over "reality:" we are all above average now.

[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 beauty quiz Body Confidence Census of 2012, and concluded that women don't feel as beautiful as they "should." Coco & Crème explains:

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.

Older (early nineties?) Dove print ad. [image: top half is a blonde blue-eyed white model's face who looks a little like Kathy Ireland smiling slyly, wearing makeup and lit softly. Lines are super-imposed over her face breaking it up into sections that are numbered. Below, text reads, "Touch these 4 spots. If even one is dry, it's time for Dove." Smaller text underneath is unreadable, then there's a picture of Dove soap.]

[image: 1960s print ad featuring a sequence of four pictures of a white blond-ish model in makeup with a towel on her head in a bright pink bathroom smiling as she lathers half her face with Dove and the other half with ordinary soap, then pouting as she touches the rinsed ordinary side and exclaiming with delight as she touches the Dove side, then a picture of Dove soap. Text reads, "Lend us half your face and we will prove Dove doesn't dry your skin the way soap can."

A 1960s print ad featuring a smiling white model with brown hair and full makeup, manicure and up-do lathering up her naked shoulders, neck, face and hands with Dove suds and gazing lustily at the bar of Dove she holds, as if about to deliver a kiss. Text underneath reads, "Soap dries your skin but / Dove creams your skin while you wash" followed by smaller text and a picture of Dove soap]

[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 1960s Dove print ad featuring a classic white model with brown hair and full make-up "washing" her face with Dove. Below a sequence of photos shows her rinsing off the soap and being shocked and delighted to reveal smoother skin, then pictures of Dove soap.]
Here are some more recent Dove ads that promote an impossible beauty standard, even as Dove claims to champion "real beauty:"

[image: over a solid baby-blue background, text reads, "Dove hair therapy: Dove Hair Rehab, [illegible] with Marie Claire." Pictures of Dove shampoos next to a thin young white model with thick shiny straight brown hair blowing in a magical wind, smiling with surprise at her own gorgeousness.]

[image: black & white photo of a naked thin young tan white brunette model throwing her head back, smiling contentedly and clutching her hands to her heart. She's covered in suds in the shape of an off-the-shoulder fur coat that mimics an old-time Hollywood diva in her bed-chamber. Illegible text and pictures of Dove bodywash across the bottom.]
Dove is doing a "real beauty" ad campaign now, having scrubbed themselves of their dirty beauty industry past and leaving a softer more touchable corporation, hence the "Body Confidence Census of 2012." Dove has done various "Look, I'm a model but I'll give you the straight-talk, girlfriend" and "Women across America-- such as these middle-class white women-- love Dove: here they are in their natural habitats using their words" ad campaigns since the 1950s in addition to the campaigns featured above. But their most recent campaign is a send-up of stupid beauty industry messages that they previously participated in, much like the 7-Up (or Sprite?) commercials in the 1990s that mocked typical soft-drink ads. But beauty cannot be funny. Ever. Because beauty is equal to self-esteem. It is our very being. It is very very important. (For women, anyway.) Here's a sample of the new campaign:
[image: a grinning young white woman in a black tube top who is maybe a size 16 is pictured striking an exaggeratedly glam confident pose. Next to her text reads, "What do you think?" then underneath, next to empty check-mark boxes, "oversized?" and "outstanding?"]

[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: bottom half of image features 6 women of different races in white underwear standing in a line on a white background lit with studio lighting. They are grinning the slightly embarrassed grins of girls caught being silly and imitating models. They range from about size 6 to size 14. Large text reads, "Real women have real curves" followed by smaller illegible text]

[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: in front of a cappuccino-grey background a chubby black woman in her 60s sits with her shoulder to the camera and her knees pulled into her chest, turning to smile shyly at the camera. She is completely naked, revealing stomach rolls. She's lit with soft studio lighting and her hair blowing. Text is overlayed reading, "beauty has no age limit / pro-age: Dove."]

[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."]
These are great ads. And I hate them. With the exceptions of the ads featuring the kids, which are excellent aside from the inescapable problem that they are plugging Dove, these ads are patronizing and insidious. But this post is long enough already, so if you want to know why I think that just hit me up in the comments. Back to the "Census."

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.


Laura Shull said...

Just wanted to say, I enjoy your writing. And this kind of thing is what scares me away from doing more portraits... I don't want to let anyone down.

Ciana Pullen said...


"I don't want to let anyone down."
You know, I felt exactly the same way when I "went pro." I offered portraits for $10 because I was afraid I'd screw up and do a terrible job. Turns out, I did screw up and do a terrible job, over and over. As it turns out, 99% of people don't really know or care (with the notable exception of blunt German tourists)! It is shocking fact which led me to raise my prices dramatically. I also got way better at portraits, thank God.

By the way, I clicked over to your blog, and thought this was gorgeous: http://laurashull.blogspot.com/2012/04/weekly-sketch.html

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful piece. I couldn't help laughing out loud at your parody of the pearl-clutchers so worried about unibrow boy. Your point is a really important one, though, and your writing is as piercing as it is humorous.

Ciana Pullen said...

Thanks, warpedsexuality!