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Dove: Real Beauty or Just Real Troublesome? July 31, 2005

Posted by Winter in beauty myths, body politics, feminist history.
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Doesn’t it seem like feminists in the western world are always harping on about what Naomi Woolf calls the “beauty myth,” the oppressive weight of cultural expectation that women should spend their lives endlessly and vainly struggling to meet an always-unachievable ideal of female beauty? Women, like me, complain a lot about the unrealistic and unnatural representations of women in the media and the bombardment with images of anorexic and/or surgically and/or digitally enhanced female bodies to which we are constantly being subjected. Nor do we like the sexist exploitation and objectification of women in advertising and the media generally, and we have a lot of concerns about the effect all this is having on the self-esteem of girls and women. No, we are not at all happy.Then came along the Dove Love your body campaign for “real beauty.” Suddenly we are encountering posters and advertisements featuring a wide range of real-looking women in lots of different shapes, sizes, ages and appearances, as part of a campaign that promotes female physical confidence and self esteem. So, are we happy now?

Well, unsurprisingly, the campaign has caused a lot of debate, not least in the feminist blogsphere. You can find links to a good range of views on the FWord blog. Scroll down to the Dove entry to read views on London Third Wave and MsMusings.

Yes, some feminists are pleased. A commentator at MsMusings writes, “the images are kind of refreshing. Not only do they reject the supermodel ethos of the advertising industry but they show ordinary women who are confident and happy with themselves.” Another says “I think they’re fantastic…I find it very exhilarating to see a woman with proper curves zoom past me in the street [but, she continues] That I feel like that shows how far there is to go.” Indeed. Others have offered more cautious support, pleased to see small steps being made in the right direction, but ambivalent about the fact that the campaign is all about selling… ahem yes… beauty products. Most of the women I have spoken to about the campaign go for the cautiously ambivalent supporting position and that’s how I felt too, at least initially. Then there’s the old feminist vanguard refusing to compromise, rejecting consumer culture as a whole and pointing out that this campaign still exploits women: “Dove products are mass produced full of chemicals and mineral oil that only clog your skin, adding toxins to already intoxicated bodies…they are using us once more.” MsMusings also recounts the alarmingly sexist attitude of some guy called Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sunday Times who objected “chunky women in their underwear have surrounded my house,” expressed his preference for fantasy thin women and told women who object to his shallowness to “lighten up.” This provoked one respondent to suggest we should “get a crowd of bulemics to “surround his house” and vomit their last binge, so he can learn all about the glamour of thin women. Then lock him in a women’s locker room with a bunch of laxative junkies. Turn off the ventilation fan…. Make him stay on the phone for six hours with a woman on diet pills. In 24 hours, he’d be praying for a chunky woman whose life doesn’t revolve around food.”

There are some things I do like about the campaign, insofar as I can “like” anything about the use of feminist rhetoric to market beauty products. I do appreciate the representation of different women and I’m very pleased to see Dove are supporting self-esteem building programs for girls in schools. I’ve read a few arguments claiming the pictures of women in their underwear are the “same” as all other sexist adverts. Rubbish! I don’t think we should get into the paranoid state of seeing every image of female flesh as sexist oppression. There is nothing inherently wrong or sexist or bad about female nudity or underwear. Everything depends upon the context. The women in the Dove adverts are healthy looking and relatively confidant in their bodies and I do not have problems with their near-nakedness at all.

But at the risk of sounding like a humourless, spoil sport, never satisfied feminist I’m now going to come out and say “I’m not happy.” What’s not to like? Well I don’t like the fact that the empowerment is very little, very late, and I don’t like the questions about my own feminist thinking which this campaign raises. What really bothers me is not the fact that the Dove campaign is not radical, it is the frightening probability that, in the context of our current culture, this campaign is extremely radical. As feminists, this is what we should be worried about.

Despite the basically feminist marketing strategy, a quick read of the website makes it clear that these products are not marketed to feminist customers. Rather, the campaign seems to be directed at women with serious self-esteem problems and takes it as given that women have big issues in this area. In the section entitled Inspirational Articles there is one called “A day without make up”. Follow the writer as she takes her first trembling steps into the scary world of facial liberation (N.B she does NOT forget to moisturise). It’s all rather traumatic for her, but when she meets her husband at lunchtime he tells her that she “looks pretty.” Awww. Later, she goes out with her female friends and almost crumbles:

“Surrounded by dozens of expertly (many overly) made-up women,
I feel naked. I start to panic, like some sort of strung-out makeup
junkie, desperate for her fix of mascara. I find myself fussing with
my hair and feeling—and undoubtedly looking—uncomfortable.
Then I remember my husband’s look at lunch, and hear his words
again: “You look pretty.” I stand a little straighter and toss my hair
back. I look at my friends, smiling and laughing, all gorgeous in
their own way. It occurs to me that their allure has nothing to do
with foundation or lip gloss or eyeliner. They are beautiful because
they are confident, happy and real. Just like me.”

Ok. It bothers me a bit that I can’t relate to this article. I wear make-up sometimes, for the purposes of self-expression or fun, but the thought of wasting my time putting it on every day is as abhorrent to me as not wearing it was for the writer of this article. I would certainly never need affirmation from my partner! This worries me because companies like Dove do an awful lot of research before they start an expensive advertising campaign. Is it true then, that so many women are still terrified to go out without putting some slap on? Have we not progressed any further than this? And, am I, as a feminist, now so divorced and distanced from the lives of most non-feminist women that I can’t appreciate their concerns? It gets worse. I found another article called “Tips for handling tricky situations”, including what to do if your hair falls flat, if you get a run in your stockings or if you have “racoon eyes” from running mascara. My hair is never flat because it’s usually curling and sticking up a bit, I have not worn “stockings” for years (nylon is not good for your woman parts) and, if I’ve ever had racoon eyes, I’ve never noticed, an omission caused by not looking in the mirror enough and not wearing enough mascara. Call me vain, but I think I look pretty damn good most of the time, with or without make-up. I seem to have little common ground with the average Dove customer who, if the material is accurately judged, is indeed in dire need of the mild feminism to be found on the website. Perhaps Dove have got it right? I gave up in despair when I came across the ‘7 pick me ups’ which include an excuse to “play hoky from housework.” Did the Dove researchers take a timeship back to 1954 or are things worse than we realise? I don’t know what to make of it, but it freaks me out. Are Dove’s customers actually the Stepford wives? Feminism should have come further than this by now.

Tell you what else I don’t like, those adverts which ask you to judge whether a woman looks good or not, whether she is ‘oversized or outstanding’ or ‘grey or gorgeous’? Yes, it’s attention grabbing and perhaps it makes some people rethink their attitudes, but it’s still rooted in the assumption that people have the right to pass judgement of a woman’s appearance. This I strongly resist. And another thing, I notice they’ve started selling “firming lotion.” Oh, so it’s ok to be any shape as long as you are “firm”? We all know that firming lotion is a load of old nasty chemical cobblers anyway.

Finally, Dominic Milton has pointed out in the Telegraph (see F word blog for link), that Dove is owned by Lever Farberge, who also happen to own Lynx: “Could you imagine a Dove woman in a Lynx ad? Hypocrisy might be too strong a word, but despite what Lever Faberge might have you believe, market pragmatism, not principle, is the driving force here.”The Dove campaign? It may not be all about real beauty, but it does present lots of real questions for us as feminists to think about seriously.

Yours in grumpy, never satisfied, feminist thinking, Winter.