On April 15, 2015

Choosing beauty

For more than a decade, the soap company Dove has sought to subvert unrealistic mainstream beauty standards by encouraging women of all shapes, sizes, and colors to love their bodies. The latest ad in the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty revolves around a “social experiment” filmed in San Francisco, Shanghai, Delhi, London and São Paulo, where the entryways to public spaces were altered so that women faced a choice between walking through a door that said “Beautiful” and another that said “Average.”

In the video, the majority of women (who, rather than disregarding the signs as random text on a morning commute, apparently intuited that the doors represented their own self-perceptions) choose the “Average” door, which supports a factoid Dove has dispensed since 2004: according to the company’s research, 96 percent of women don’t consider themselves “beautiful.” We have no idea which door the men who entered these buildings chose—no men appear in the ad, probably because men don’t spend enough time thinking about which soap to purchase for their body-image issues to matter.

In a different context, choosing a door marked “Average” over one marked “Beautiful” might signal a laudable humility—a willingness to cast one’s lot with the common people rather than proclaim superiority. The ladies of this ad, however, admit that they chose “Average” as a consequence of the usual neurotic self-hatred that, within the Campaign for Real Beauty, defines the female pathology. In Dove’s universe, the sexist fantasies of popular culture have shattered women beyond self-recognition, leaving behind jittery shells of human beings, obsessed with their own perceived inadequacies. Fortunately, with the help of Dove’s lotions and shampoos, they’ll be on their way to self-acceptance in no time.

The implication of the video is that the women who selected the “Average” door made the wrong decision. As Dove puts it, feeling beautiful is a choice “that women should feel empowered to make for themselves, every day.” The only reason they would fail to make this choice, presumably, is the negative influence of the media and the fantastical images with which it “bombards” them. One self-proclaimed average woman explains: “For me, being beautiful is like someone looking like a star or a celebrity. It’s too far away, out of reach.”

Dove encourages women to expand their definition of beauty to encompass physical features that are not traditionally celebrated in Hollywood movies or glamor magazines, as well as internal qualities such as kindness and empathy (although Dove’s products will not actually help you with these). Many women in the campaign associate beauty with “health” and “happiness.” If beauty can mean whatever we want it to mean, are all women beautiful? Yes, they are, but doesn’t that mean that “Beautiful” and “Average” are in fact synonymous?

Maybe beauty as a concept can exist only as defined against something lesser. The antithesis of the prototypical Dove woman—whose look is “natural,” whose demeanor is thoughtful (though initially erring on the side of self-doubt)—is the artificial Barbie-doll of Hollywood’s ideation, or rather the real-life self-starving woman who unthinkingly seeks to replicate her, sacrificing any possibility of leading a meaningful life on her all-consuming quest to Botox and tummy-tuck her way to someone else’s notion of perfection. This woman ostensibly fails to be “beautiful” not so much on account of her inevitably botched plastic surgeries but because, in her search for beauty, she looked outward rather than inward: real beauty is finding what is good in you and bringing it to light, not trying to be someone else.

Perhaps the message we’re supposed to hear is that any woman “can” be beautiful if she makes the right choices—which is empowering, yes, but not so empowering that we’ll feel we can do without a few tastefully subtle beauty products. Emboldening women to identify as “beautiful” is, for Dove, a way of telling self-effacing women—who otherwise might not think enough of themselves to bother purchasing lotions or creams—to believe that their bodies are worth the extra expense. They, too, can become customers.

Moreover, when Dove argues that beauty is “about what comes from within,” the company is not generously acting against its own self-interest, although its products are purely superficial. When we come to believe that inner beauty and outer beauty are correlated, the importance of outer beauty is not diminished but increased. As the soul and the skin blend into a single entity, suddenly the way we look speaks to our character. If we accept that kindness lights up the eyes and that a lovely smile manifests deep spiritual happiness, then we had better invest in some contact lenses and Crest whitening strips.

It doesn’t really matter to Dove whether you choose the “Average” door or the “Beautiful” door—if you’ve paused to ponder which word defines you, they’ve already won: you’ve accepted their terms. Although Dove has rebranded itself as a kind of mental-health therapy cult, it’s only because hopelessly depressed women make for worse customers. There’s no reason anyone has to be “beautiful” or “average”: your life can be about something else entirely. You can walk away, choose you own door.

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