If you’re a human being with a social media account, you’ve seen the new Dove commercial already. Entitled “Choose Beautiful,” the latest addition to Dove’s ten-year-old “Real Beauty” campaign features footage from several locations around the world, where side-by-side doors were labeled “Beautiful” and “Average” and women choose which door to walk through. For many of them, the decision appears fraught and requires serious consideration. Later, women who chose the “Average” door are interviewed; they express regret and self-consciousness about their decisions, and some of them resolve to “choose beautiful” next time. These women’s initial selection of “Average” is portrayed in the commercial as a sign of deep insecurity and is clearly intended to provoke concern. Likewise, the viewer is meant to see the transition from “Average” to “Beautiful” as evidence of these women’s newfound self-confidence and empowerment.
This is not the first time Dove has gotten attention for a commercial that subtly chastises women for not having higher self-esteem. In their “Real Beauty Sketches” ad, a police sketch artist created two drawings each of various women, one based on the woman’s own description of herself and another based on how a stranger described her. Comparing the two drawings supposedly proved that “you are more beautiful than you think.” Concepts of inner beauty, body positivity, and empowerment are becoming increasingly prevalent in advertising directed at women, with brands like Pantene and Lane Bryant running commercials and social media campaigns that purport to encourage confidence and self-worth in their target audience.
A Pantene ad points out sexist double standards, then encourages women to "shine strong" with their shampoo.
But all this advertising has the same central flaw, which frustrates me when I see people praising these companies to the skies. These ads each depend on the assumption that in order to be happy, empowered, or confident, women need to feel beautiful. Dove wants us to talk about why women don’t feel beautiful. I want to talk about why that’s the only question they think is worth asking.
These ads are not about a global revolution in beauty standards. It’s about creating an association between a brand name and a form of surface-level faux-empowerment so that women will feel like buying Dove soap is a triumph for their self-esteem instead of simply a triumph for capitalism. I’m not particularly angry at these corporations for doing what corporations have always done, but it irritates me to see this kind of rhetoric elevated to the level of an important cultural conversation. Especially since, at the end of the day, all these commercials reify the sexist notion that women must be beautiful or be worthless.
It’s noteworthy that men were not filmed walking through the “Beautiful” and “Average” doors. The idea wouldn’t work as an ad, because it's not presumed that men's self-esteem is primarily dictated by their physical appearance. Funny or Die has already made a parody video spoofing the idea of a "real beauty" campaign for men that focuses on dick size.
I consider myself average-looking. This is not because I am insecure. I promise you, my self-esteem is through the roof. But I would still walk through the door marked “Average” (or, more likely, whichever door was most directly in my path, because I am lazy and I need to get home and watch Game of Thrones). On the other hand, if there were doors marked “Funny” or “Smart” or “Terrifyingly Comprehensive Mastery of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Trivia,” I would cruise through them without thinking twice. I don’t measure my worth by my physical appearance. In fact, I don’t measure it by any single criterion. I value being a well-rounded person with many virtues and some flaws (which I like to think make me interesting). It would be nice to be beautiful, just like it would be nice to be wealthy or to be able to solve complicated math problems in my head, but those are not the cards I have been dealt. I would rather embrace being average-looking and get on with celebrating all the other great things I am than spend my time and energy trying to align myself more closely with a beauty standard that is simply not relevant to my life.
Dove’s Senior Global Director Victoria Sjardin was quoted on The Huffington Post saying, "Dove wanted to inspire women to seize the opportunity to choose what makes us feel beautiful every day, because when we do, it unlocks confidence and happiness." But confidence and happiness are available lots of different ways. I feel confident and happy when I work out, when I tell a good joke, when I do something nice for someone I care about, when I sell a piece of writing, when I finish a complicated knitting project. Being average-looking doesn’t mean that I’m worthless, or miserable, or unloved. I have wonderful friends, a supportive family, and a great marriage. You don’t need to be beautiful for people to like you and love you and want to spend time around you and even want to see you naked.
If beauty is something that matters to you, I want you to be able to claim it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be able to redefine beauty and use it in whatever way suits your life. But I can’t help resenting that so much of today’s surge of body-positive rhetoric focuses on beauty. I can like my body and have a positive self-image without thinking I’m pretty.
Dove’s ad actually does an impressive job of undermining its own point. The “Beautiful” and “Average” doors, despite being emotionally loaded, ultimately lead to the same place. There’s no real reason to go through the “Beautiful” door unless you want to. There are a lot of other ways to get where you want to be.
Related Reading: Is Girl-Power Advertising Doing Any Good?