In response to the Dove Real Beauty video

27 Apr

Like the rest of the internet this last week, I saw the Dove Real Beauty video/ad that went viral recently. For the uninitiated, here is a link.

The basic set-up is that, without seeing the subject, a forensic artist draws two sketches: one based on a woman’s description of herself, and a second based on a stranger’s description. Then, along with each woman, we get to look at the two sketches side by side. The differences between the first and second sketch are stark – and the implication is clear: that the second sketch, when the subject was described by someone they just met, is the more desirable image. Other people have already written about the problems with the approach: almost all the featured women are white and conventionally attractive, and the differences we see between the two sketches shouldn’t be seen as implicitly better/worse. Furthermore, the video is essentially an advertisement coming from a company that is part of an industry that is actively trying to convince us on a daily basis that we are not good enough, that we need improvement, that we need their help. But it’s an interesting experiment regardless – and for me whether the differences are good/bad is beside the point – the more important point for me is that there are differences in the first place, and that the differences are so stark as to produce two sketches of the same person that look like two sketches of two different people.

After all, we would expect differences, wouldn’t we? We all have different aesthetic senses, different tastes and values – we’re all going to notice and, so, emphasize different features when describing someone to another person. An extension of the experiment that I would like to see would be to have a third person, another stranger to the subject, describe the subject for the sketch artist. That way we could compare not only what the subject’s self-image is to someone else’s perception of them – but we could also add in another perspective to gain even more insight. Would the two strangers’ sketches look more like one another than the self-described sketch? Would all three look totally different? What if you then had someone close to the subject – a parent or partner – describe them? What would those sketches look like, and how would they compare to the rest?

I think, regardless of some of the problems, the video is effective – the overall message is simply this: we don’t always see ourselves clearly. Whether you think the first sketches looked “bad” or not, it’s clear that when it comes to ourselves, we all seem to be standing in front of fun house mirrors – seeing and perceiving our own features differently than those around us.

One of the comments that I found most revealing was when a subject said of the second sketch, the one where a stranger described her to the artist, “(she) looks more open, friendly, and happy”. The subject is being forced to describe herself with words she might never have used on her own.

It’s also notable that, hey, if these conventionally attractive women can find fault in themselves, doesn’t that just show how affected we all are – regardless of how the world around us might generally perceive us? Every woman knows this to be true, because every woman has more than one gorgeous friend who can never see herself that way, who maybe doesn’t take compliments well, or always complains about some feature or body part where we can see no flaw. We’re much tougher on ourselves than we are on each other – and in that I actually find a silver lining: that our friends who know us best see us as the sum of who we are. Our features are made brighter, our bodies made more beautiful by our kindness or vivacity, or any number of other traits we embody. If we could learn to see ourselves through a similar lens, as not just a collection of body parts, but as a whole person – maybe we would start to see our own beauty, too.


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