Why Dove is still just trying to sell us soap

By Lauren Vaughn

Flickr/Milad Mosapoor

In Dove’s latest “Real Beauty” campaign video a forensic artist renders two sketches of women: one based on how the women described themselves and one based on the way a stranger describes them. The end result is designed to show women that you are “more beautiful than you think,” so that the sketch described by the stranger depicts a more accurate and flattering rendering.

My problem with this is that Dove not only over-simplifies complex issues of body image and distortion while placing responsibility on women who don’t see themselves “clearly” – instead of a media environment that bombards women with unattainable and often contradictory images of how we should be and look – but also that this tells women that being beautiful and thin is still very important. As one woman says, “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

One participant when describing herself tells the forensic sketcher that she has a “big forehead” and another that she has a round face. When looking at the end results, one woman says her first sketch looks “fatter” and less friendly. In comparison, the “pretty” sketch depicts a more oval rather than circle-shaped face and is described as “friendly” and welcoming. Another participant describes the first woman as “thin” with “thin” features.

The subtext of these comments, although subtly embedded in Dove’s overall “you are beautiful” message, is that we are only beautiful if we are thin, white and blonde.

What is perhaps the most unsettling part of the video for me is the way the sketches are compared at the end. Viewers and participants are clearly supposed to know, based on constructed ideas of beauty and femininity, which sketch is the “prettier” one and which one we should rather be. Dove’s tag line here could very well read, “be glad you’re not the woman on the left!”

But what about women who do happen to look like the sketch on the left? What is Dove saying about them? Are all those women ugly, unemployed and meant not to have children? Unlikely.

The video’s focus on thinness and its direct connection with friendliness and success is one of the more troubling messages in the video, not only because it is so perfectly subtle that a first watch might not reveal it, but also because of the mindset viewers are in when watching. By Dove carving out a supposedly “safe” space for women in media advertisements to reflect on their own beauty, there is a kind of deliberate deception going on where Dove is telling females that they are to be trusted while feeding us the same bad information repackaged as empowerment. Despite a small variation of age between participants, all other diversity, including race, is left unaddressed. In fact, “out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds,” according to ‘Tumblr’ blogger Little Drops.

But this is not the first time Dove has used unrealistic media depictions of women and our bodies to turn a profit. Many of us remember Dove’s first big Real Beauty Campaign, “The Evolution of Beauty” video released in 2006. In this video viewers are shown the extent retouched photographs go through before they reach our everyday consumer eyes. Necks are elongated, eyes enlarged, lips shaped, bodies trimmed, skin smoothed and in some cases even lightened (Dove has been accused of racist advertising on more than one occasion).

And let us not forget the accusations against Dove who reportedly retouched images of full and plus-sized women for their “Real Beauty” campaign—a campaign supposedly designed to show the beauty of “all” body types (but apparently not ones with scars, stretch marks, or belly rolls.)

Similar complaints rebounded about the legitimacy of Dove’s Photoshop hack that offered a free downloadable Photoshop action that supposedly added a pleasant glow to a model’s skin. Instead, when the action was downloaded it reverted to the original photo with this message: “Don’t manipulate our perceptions of real beauty.”

Although this might seem effective, this campaign like the others follow Dove’s trend of intentional deception in that the action was not really downloaded by retouchers everywhere, or anywhere, for that matter. The action barely got any up-votes on Reddit, a site that wouldn’t normally be frequented by retouchers looking for Photoshop actions in the first place. Dove claimed about the campaign, “

Dove in fact didn’t speak to any graphic designers, retouchers, or downloaders of the action directly or indirectly but went on to deceptively market the campaign as such anyways, while continuing to retouch their own images and make no significant changes to beauty industry expectations of women or their advertisements. And finally, let us of course not forget that Dove is in fact owned by Unilever, the same company which owns, produces, and distributes Axe and their commercials – which are some of the most offensive and sexist content to ever reach our television screens.

According to ‘Tumblr’ blogger Jazz, Dove is “not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is … It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition [of beauty] as you might think that you are.”

This leads me to think that if Dove really is trying to make a change, then maybe they should start trying a little harder.

Dove isn’t alone in their deceptive practices, but when a company gains accolades for industry transparency and making positive change that they are not really and sincerely making, I take issue with that. Because Dove doesn’t care about us, our self-esteem or how constructions of unattainable beauty are created, perpetuated and forced onto women. They just want us to buy their soap.

Lauren Vaughn is a Collegian contributor and she can be reached at [email protected]