Dove is famous for making two things: soap, and long-winded advertisements aiming to “redefine beauty” in the name of selling soap.
Their latest ad, titled “Selfie,” debuted Monday at Sundance, like a real-live movie. It’s a heartwarming tale of a bunch of normal-looking girls who have absolutely no discernable interests in anything except how they look. They all thought they were ugly until Dove told them they were beautiful, and then the world was illuminated with their beaming smilies, because they are beautiful, and feeling beautiful makes you happy, according to Dove. Also, smelling good!
Here’s Dove’s “groundbreaking” indie film:
Dove’s not the only culprit. Pantene had an ad late last year that equated shiny hair with respect at work, they even provided a hashtag, #shinestrong. And American Eagle’s Aerie brand recently debuted a lingerie campaign featuring “real unphotoshopped girls” to encourage customers to “embrace their own beauty,” as a brand representative described it on Good Morning America. After years of marketing outer beauty, it looks like inner beauty is the hot new thing.
But I’m sending back the soup on this “redefining beauty” stuff, especially when it’s used by cosmetics companies. Whether they’re selling shampoos or bras or search engines (Bing also came out with a feminist-inspired ad recently,) the companies who think they can sell their product by tricking feminist writers into promoting their ads for them are pretty crafty, I have to admit. They’ve got our number. They know that there are a bunch of lady-writers out there, just like me, who tend to write about things that have to do with women. There are whole blogs devoted to lady issues, and many online magazines have women’s-issues sections, and all of those writers need to write about something besides ##### #####, and a statement about “redefining beauty” is basically internet catnip. An anti-beauty ad can launch a thousand think pieces (just like this.)
And even non-writers love to share these feel-good ads among their friends, so these videos usually end up going viral– the Dove “Sketches” ad was the most watched viral ad of all time a month after it debuted in 2013. Advertising dressed as a PSA literally sells itself. Bravo, corporate masterminds, that mustache-twirl is well-deserved.
But marketing conspiracy aside, I just think the conversation about “redefining beauty” is a misguided one at best. Because “redefining beauty” is still talking about beauty, and we need our girls to be thinking and talking about things other than the way they look. Making girls suddenly feel beautiful is all well and good for the purposes of selling soap and moisturizers, but it’s not real progress. Real progress would be if that conversation in the gym were about climate change, not hair.
Forgive the personal anecdote, but now is when I’ll tell you about my own awkward phase. Fairly or not, I considered myself a “super-ugly” girl. I had braces until I was 18, and my high school yearbook picture has that tight-lipped Mona Lisa smile hiding a mouth full of wires instead of the secret of the Renaissance. My braces had gaps and pulleys and bunched-up rubber bands stuck in random places that looked like permanent blobs of food. I had a tooth growing in the middle of the roof of my mouth that had to be anchored and pulled to shore like the Costa Concordia. Even if I could get control of my frizzy hair or get my hands on an Abercrombie shirt, being beautiful was out of the question. I felt like the Man in the Iron Mask.
Seeing a picture of another girl with braces in a sentimental ad wasn’t going to make me feel beautiful, because nothing could make me feel beautiful. But that doesn’t mean I spent all day taking selfies and crying about it. Granted, I was very fortunate that I wasn’t regularly bullied over my looks, so I had it easier than some. So I wasn’t beautiful. I got over it.
There is a difference between feeling beautiful and feeling good. And that is the central conflation here, the reason these ads are so awful. The Dove ad says that our self esteem problem exists only in the realm of beauty, that if we make everyone feel beautiful, then everyone will be happy. The message is that if you can get to a place where you feel beautiful, you will be stronger, more confident, more powerful. But anyone who’s ever seen a picture of Lindsay Lohan knows that’s a load of bull.
The thing that helped me through my awkward phase wasn’t the idea that I was beautiful even with my braces, which I knew was a blatant lie (nice try, mom). What helped was doing other things, evaluating myself on other criteria. I discovered that even if I was not beautiful, I could still do well in class. I could play an old lady in the school musical. I could do a good impression of my Chemistry teacher. ( I still could not play volleyball, though. Ever).
“Redefining beauty” is just another way to keep talking about beauty, which is what companies want but is the last thing girls need. Let’s put a lid on it. Maybe if we focus on teaching girls about viral marketing instead of “ways to think you’re beautiful,” some of them might grow up to be the kind of shrewd marketing execs that started all this in the first place.