I came across Dove’s “Real Beauty” Sketches a little while ago. A friend of mine had posted it on her Facebook wall. I saw it and was immediately ambivalent. To be sure, Dove has had a pseudo-inclusive message about women and beauty – but they draw a really fine line in terms of what they qualify as beautiful. It’s true that Dove has been more inclusive with respect to age and body shape in other commercials, yet they have been known to retouch their photos in the past; then again, their message about beauty as a more inclusive concept seems “honest”. Then again, what does it mean if beauty is still something that women, especially, are taught to value above everything else? Feministing author Julie Mastrine offers reasons as to “Why Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign Can Do Better”. And in her piece, and in my own ambivalence, there was that feeling of hoping-against-hope. In this first part, I explicate my concerns with Dove’s latest project. In the second part, I hope to broaden the dialogue around beauty, femininity, and what it might mean to reshape our understanding of how beauty functions in our world. In the third part, I discuss how beauty projects can function in empowering ways, while still being sometimes problematically linked to commodified, racist, and ableist notions of beauty. Part 4* is a simple list of my own beauty projects, and specifies the ways in which I personally negotiate beauty: which parts I reclaim, which parts I reject, etc etc.
Dove’s “Real Beauty” Sketches. A documentary-style short advertisement that ostensibly supports women in our ‘quest to be/feel beautiful’. There was a lot going on in those 6 minutes and 36 seconds. In it, various people, mostly white women, describe their physical features to Gil Zamora, a forensic composite artist who worked with the San Jose Police Department as their police artist from 1995-2011. Next, they are asked to meet one other person participating in the project, for a simple chat. They are then asked to describe the physical features of the person they’d met to Zamora in a ‘second description’. Zamora thus ends up drawing two different pictures of the people in the project: one is a description based on how the women viewed themselves. The second is a description based on how other people viewed the women. Finally, the women are told to compare the sketches, and are all amazed at how much more beautiful others found them as compared to how they see themselves. And I suppose the goal was to make the audience feel a warm, happy glow; clearly the superficial message was: “You are beautiful! Yes you are! And you are lovely! More than you think!” And clearly, the underlying message was, in the eerie, Darth-Vader-meets-Voldemort voice I use for corporations: “BUT ONLY IF YOU USE DOVE AND HAPPEN TO MEET CERTAIN CRITERIA”.
I didn’t feel a warm, happy glow. I did not feel kitten-on-youtube levels of “aww! How sweet!” Maybe I was too busy seeing Dove’s creepy little hands crawling into my soul, like something out of a bad Salad Fingers/Gollum/The Ring slashfic. I was unnerved. Watching it, I felt everything from annoyance, to solidarity, to feeling excluded. I felt angry, reassured, and uncomfortable. There was something about the way this corporate hand was reaching into me that made me really annoyed – kind of like when you’re petting a cat and you hit that one spot on their stomach that makes them lash out at you, claws and teeth. That one spot that reminds them suddenly: they are a pet, that spot is on their body, how dare you touch it, evil human?! You may own their ass and they may depend on you, but that spot? It’s theirs. I felt like a cat that was being softly petted, lulled into some kind of complacency, until Dove hit some funny spots that just made me bare my teeth a little. The reason I’m focusing on (the many contradictory) feelings here is because of the way the advertisement was designed to work: it was supposed to hit me in all the ~feels~. And it did. Gave me a good kick (thanks Dove!)– but not in a way, I don’t think, that the ad-makers expected. I’ll say it again: I didn’t feel warm, happy “I am beautiful, no matter what they say” glow. I felt, “oh. I am beautiful, I guess, precisely because that’s what “they” – someone, anyone, DOVE – tells me I am. Except I’m not since there are literally no brown women in there, and markers of beauty by all these women, like rosy cheeks and blue eyes are things I can never have (and don’t really want!) anyways.” More on all this later.
The point is, in the contradictory mess of feelings I was experiencing, there was sharp dissonance. I was feeling multiple contradictory things all at once! People would argue that this is why emotions are flawed or an unclear, ambiguous method to understanding our world. I’d argue that this dissonance was profoundly generative because it led me to critically think about what I was seeing and feeling. Acknowledging my feelings in their complexity as valid responses to the advertisement let me search through them, think about them, and figure out how these contradictory feelings were interrelated. In other words: how I felt initially about the advertisement was critical to me taking the time to process the advertisement in other, perhaps more critically relevant ways.
The “Real Beauty” sketches are part of Dove’s latest installment as part of Unilever’s Campaign for “Real Beauty”. I’ll say that again: it’s a part of Unilever’s Campaign for Real Beauty. The copyright for the information about this campaign that I found and stated below stated below mark it as Unilever’s. And I’m making this link explicitly clear for anyone who wants to tell me “What Dove does isn’t necessarily what Unilever does.” Unilever is the overarching British-Dutch corporation that Dove is a part of; what Dove does, they approve. Anyway, Unilever launched the Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004. Why?
From the horse’s mouth:
For too long, beauty has been defined by narrow, stifling stereotypes. Women have told us it’s time to change all that. Dove agrees. We believe real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages. That is why Dove is launching the Campaign for Real Beauty. Dove’s global Campaign for Real Beauty aims to change the status quo and offer in its place a broader, healthier, more democratic view of beauty. A view of beauty that all women can own and enjoy everyday.
Wow. I mean. Wow. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? That sounds like a kind of world I basically want to live in! Hell, I can probably sit back, relax, not have to critique anything anymore if Dove – hell, UNILEVER, the parent company – is taking over the job of critical thinking around beauty. Even their stated objectives seem awesome at first glance: “Creation of a forum for women to participate in a dialogue…around the standards of beauty”, workshops with young girls to improve self-esteem, and of course, “advertisements which inspire women and society to think differently about what is defined as beautiful.” Where’s my lemonade Dove? That’s all I’m missing here. Let me sit back, relax, and revel in my own “natural” beauty!
Hah. Just kidding. You see, Unilever also owns Fair and Lovely, which is the lovely* skin whitening cream sold in South Asia and in other parts of the world where brown people – brown women, just like me – are told that being whiter is more beautiful. More specifically, in India, Fair and Lovely is owned by Hindustan Lever Limited which in turn is owned by Unilever.
In this example, a young girl in India is told that she is worthless because she a) is not a son** and b) cannot get a job. She uses Fair and Lovely, gets whiter, gets a job as a flight attendant due to her fair skin (and presumably, no other skills), and pleases her parents by making money for them. ** (of course ALL Indians want a male-child, right? I mean, except my parents, and my mom’s parents, and countless others but we don’t count since we don’t fit in that neatly into white narratives of Indian life.)
In a second, particularly corrupt example, Fair and Lovely claims to use Ayurvedic ingredients to lighten the skin tone of a woman who wants to work at a high-end modeling company. She is dressed in a more traditional sari and is denied the opportunity to work in the firm because she is not beautiful enough, and is told she is “too dark” by the resident mean girl. This mean girl is obviously Indian, but juuuust white enough. Ayurveda is considered an ancient art of holistic medicine in India, and is linked to Hinduism. Hindu chants blare in the background as the father strides toward, I kid you not, a tube of Fair and Lovely (made with Ayurvedic ingredients!) for his daughter. (As an aside to anyone interested, do take note: this is poor parenting.) She then goes back, startles the initial mean girl, and of course, catches the eye of the handsome business-man (who presumably uses Fair and Handsome on his face). But the notion of linking Ayurvedic principles to white skin is particularly hilarious considering the practice of Ayurveda grew in a country of brown people.
woot! Fist-bump, colonization! Thanks for leaving my country – and potentially others! -with scars so deep that they left a map for Unilever (a Britsh-Dutch company – I mean. Beauty really doesn’t get whiter, does it now!) to come along, trace them with a scalpel, and dig deep into our insecurities! After bleeding my country, jacking the Kohinoor which is STILL, to this day, sitting in the Queen’s crown, this British-Dutch company wants to tell brown women they are less beautiful unless they are fair, but feels no contradiction in telling white women here, in Canada, that they are beautiful just the way they are. How is Unilever, and by extension, Dove, redefining beauty if all they’re doing is telling us whiteness is beautiful in Canada and whiteness is beautiful in India? If Unilever is truly interested in “advertisements which inspire women and society to think differently about what is defined as beautiful,” where lies their conscience in promoting, funding racist commercials in India? We have these advertisements playing during nearly every single commercial break in India, cramming the notion that whiteness is the same thing as beautiful – so much so that the word has bled into Hindi. Instead of saying “sundar” for handsome/lovely/beautiful, we often say “gora/gori” – which literally is the word for white, or “white person”. It’s arguable that this notion has existed for quite some time now, and isn’t a direct reflection of Unilever starting that trend. But they’ve certainly continued it. Is it ethical for Unilever to exploit the notion of “fairness is better” in India, telling brown women just like me that my skin is not beautiful enough while they market their bullshitty “Real Beauty” campaign here?
At least their narrative is internally coherent – after all, it’s not as though any brown women made an appearance in their latest Dove’s “Real Beauty” Sketches. The few people of colour who did make an appearance were onscreen for less than 10 seconds out of the full 6:36 minutes. But that makes sense right? You can’t clutter up a space where beauty is defined by whiteness with… well, non-white people! Here is the summary of people of colour in their documentary: one (1) black man describing someone else with “pretty blue eyes”. How handsome someone else finds him….? We shall never know. Two (2) light skinned black women describing themselves in the initial interview, finding themselves ‘fat’ or ‘aging with freckles. How they feel about themselves afterwards is never shown. One (1) Asian woman staring at her photos, not speaking. One (1) black woman: only the back of her head is visible. Good job, Unilever. Good job Dove! I can literally count them on one hand. So if we want to start a dialogue about the standards of beauty, Dove, Unilever, parents and friends, how do you plan to propose doing that if your notion of diversity involves people of colour occupying 2.5% of screen time?
Speaking of “advertisements which inspire women and society to think differently about what is defined as beautiful”, let’s talk a little bit about what exactly these women find beautiful and what they find ugly and really ask ourselves here if Unilever’s “Real Beauty” sketches lives up to this oh-so-very high standard. First see various women first describing what features they find beautiful. A young, blonde woman named Olivia says she has always found rosy cheeks beautiful but finds her own plain. She adds that if she could change one thing about her face, she would want fuller lips. We are then introduced to Melinda, another young white woman who says “I’m definitely a person who looks tired when I’m tired and when people say that, I’m immediately like “oh man!” I’m already getting crows’ feet and stuff which my mum has… so yeah.” Florence, slightly older than the other women we’d met describes her experience with meeting Zamora. None of the women knew what the purpose of the project was, she explains. They didn’t even know they were being drawn. (Points for controlled study? Maybe.) Florence describes her jaw as being big – the tone insinuates that she is not particularly pleased with it. Olivia feels her chin protrudes when she smiles; she feels her most prominent features are her “fat, rounder” face. A black woman who is nameless speaks a little self consciously about the freckles she has earned with age. Kela, white, describes herself as 40, and nervously laughs about her crows’ feet. We then see Chloe describing Florence in positive ways. Zamora notes that women are “really critical about moles or scars or things like that and yet, they were describing just a normal, beautiful person”. More white people describe other white people until about 3:07, where a black man speaks about someone else’s very nice blue eyes. The women then are brought in to see their self-described images and images of themselves as they are seen by others.
And I will admit, at this point, that my Grinch-heart…sort of blurped out maybe some extra blood in some attempt at solidarity. At wanting to tell other women “you are beautiful”, or ~feeling~ beautiful. It was reassuring in some way to know that others may not view me as I sometimes view me. But of course, that’s the point right: others view me. And, to paraphrase the Good Book, it is through them alone that I shall find salvation (in my quest to find beauty). It was this disconnect that made my Grinch-heart pause in its swelling and – ok I don’t actually have a Grinch-heart? And if it grew three times its size, the Grinch would have died. So. It’s all’s well that ends well that my Grinch-heart didn’t explode. Thanks. But it paused! And it wondered. I thought about past relationships with people, how I came to understand and love parts of my body through men – some of whom remain good friends, good companions. I thought about how unsacred, vile, gaudy it seems to be for women to describe themselves as beautiful – as one of the women later on says in a different video clip, “I think there’s a stigma around the word beautiful. Feeling confident and really like using that word about yourself…”. Yes, there is indeed a stigma. But it’s not one women have created – it’s one that is supported by companies like Dove who offer us commercials where beauty is not something you call yourself: it is offered to you like a mantle by others. Yes, I’ve thought really hard about how beauty in me can only be appreciated, or so I’ve been taught, when others present it, validate it, legitimate it for me.
In the video, they look happy, thrilled even. Also relieved. Melinda says “I have this thing about dark circles and crows’ feet around my eyes – and that was not part of the sketch at all, that the stranger did. The stranger’s was a little more, like gentle(?). Kela finds it strange that the pictures are so different – “She looks closed off and fatter…sadder too. The second one is more beautiful! She looks more open and friendly and happy.” Florence echoes these sentiments: “Her picture looks like someone I’d want to talk to, like a happy, light, much younger, much brighter person.” Kela says, referring to the sketch based on her self-description. She adds “I’ve come a long way in how I think about myself… but I still have a long way to go.” Florence adds “I have some work to do on myself.” I empathise with this latter sentiment. But how do we do that if the world we’re living in tells us we cannot claim beauty on our own – that it must be handed to us? Is it fair to put this onus of “feeling and looking” beautiful onto women who honestly have to also meet weird standards of Western modesty? (Yes, you heard it here, first folks. You actually surprisingly *don’t* need to go to South Asia or the Middle East for the express purpose of wrinkling your nose at notions of modesty: you can find plenty of bullshit in your own backyard, so why don’t you start there, first?) And is it really fair that we must both feel beautiful, be beautiful, be modest, and that beauty be something we must strive towards in order to be successful?
In this respect, Dove/Unilever is no different. Speaking through Florence, the company gives us a very clear message: “It’s troubling. I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children. It impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness” Wait, wait, wait. Hold up, Dove. Hold up, Unilever. I thought you just said that all these women “looked happy” according to other people, meaning, feeling ugly didn’t exactly make them appear any less happier – if anything, they looked happy and open and bright according to other people. Or is it that feeling happy makes you look even “brighter”? What is with this notion of “being friendly” as a marker of beauty? What if you’re like me or friends of mine who have Chronic Bitchface either from dealing with all the bullshit in the world, or just because that’s how our face looks? Is the onus on us to “look more cheerful”? Are you equating beauty with happiness? If so, why aren’t there women with acne in this sketch?
Also, I readily accept that beauty – racialised and cisgendered and hierarchized in awful ways does impact various parts of our life. I know it has affected my dating life – and probably negatively because I generally have to screen for racism, and then, out of the pool of people remaining, find someone attracted to me. I know it’s affected, along racialised lines, how I’m seen when I wear certain clothing that I consider beautiful, but that others consider too modest. Or, on the flip side, if I wear something more revealing, and it’s considered too immodest for someone like me. But Dove, baby. Unilever, honey. Are you seriously telling me these rules of beauty are something that ought to be followed? That the onus is on us to feel and be beautiful, particularly as women, because it affects our fucking jobs? How about we tell people that it shouldn’t affect which jobs you apply for because the criteria for applying or hiring someone shouldn’t be based on their looks? How is any of this redefining what it means to be beautiful, or the power that notions of beauty hold in our every day world? Conveniently, Melinda says “Our self perceptions are harsh… and it’s really not how the world sees us.” Aha. So really Dove/Unilever – you’re saying how we think about ourselves affects which jobs we apply for, but not if we get hired or not. Which is crap. If you can say that and, moreover, sell that with a straight face, then you have an abysmal understanding of white privilege, racialised notions of beauty and/or competency, and thin privilege. How we look has so much to do with how we are hired. Everything from gender to race matters! How can beauty not matter?
Dove and Unilever have not told us that we are more beautiful than we think. They have not changed the narrow definition of beauty that they claim to want to change. They have merely told us that those who are lucky enough to be white, young, and thin fit the narrow definition of beauty better than they thought they did. And. I will say this and mean it: To white, young, thin women: if this video made you feel better about yourselves, then. Honestly? Good. Because women get told too much bullshit, and I’m not here to tell you not to find happiness and comfort where you can, and I’m not here to start drawing lines of conflict where lines of solidarity can be built but please understand this: Unilever isn’t making room for people like me. They aren’t redefining standards of beauty. They are reifying it. As Melinda says in the video: “A lot of time as women, analyzing and trying to fix the things that aren’t quite right…we should spend time appreciating the things that we do like.” Who defines “what’s right”, Dove? What does “fixing” it mean? If you feel good, white women, probe why that is. I shouldn’t have to beg and I won’t as to why it’s shameful if you feel good and refuse to “analyse further”.
To brown women: I can only ask you quietly and sincerely: why. Why do some of you like this commercial? What do you get out of it? Is it the same sense of desperate “we must find solidarity and peace wherever we can” that I feel, sometimes? Is it that you’ve gotten so used to seeing our faces erased that a few token examples of black faces and yellow faces are enough? Are you that comfortable with a fiction of inclusion that, as my white “friend” pointed out, “shows they’re at least trying.” Trying to do what? I can only ask. When I pressed her, she told me “well they don’t want to seem like they’re trying too hard to be inclusive.” Because that’s a thing. Is that what it is? Does seeing faces that look like ours onscreen for longer than 10 seconds somehow feel “unreal” to even us?
And to Dove and Unilever, I’ll borrow – and maybe, shift the meaning of – lyrics from Ana Tijoux’s song “Shock”: “Veneno tus monólogos/tus discursos incoloros”. Yes, your monologues are poison, Unilever. And yes, your speeches lack colour – in so many ways, and on so many levels. They lack colour and so much more.
Here’s my question to you, Unilever/Dove. With your list of things like “crows’ feet”, “fat” and the overwhelmingly white demographic of your latest video installment, tell me this:
How do fat people get to be beautiful? Or do they not count as beautiful?
How do old people get to be beautiful, Dove? Do they have natural beauty or don’t they?
How do trans women get to be beautiful, Unilever? Do they have to “pass” well enough for “cis” to matter?
What about a series of installments with 97.5% people of colour? Are we not beautiful in all our fucking diversity?
And what about, Unilever, ugly people? Hrmm? Let’s talk about people who fall outside the narrow definition of beauty you acknowledge but do nothing to dismantle. Let’s talk about what you so conveniently avoid in all your videos. Let’s talk ugly, as defined as anything falling outside the normative “beauty” discourse you perpetuate in this video and in your campaign.
(To be continued… in part 2.)