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September 15, 2005

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Real Beauty


I have been meaning to write this post forever — ever since, in fact, I walked into the Montgomery MUNI station one afternoon several months ago and saw every surface covered with Dove’s new ad campaign. I don’t know if you’ve seen it — the signature image is the one at the top of this post.

My first reaction was totally positive. I was like, hell yeah! Diverse depictions of beauty! Rock on!

But my appraisal soured as I read some criticism. For instance, from Alas (a blog):

Let’s not forget how very little Dove is giving us. All the women in the Dove ads are conventionally attractive; all of them are below the average dress size of American women. No one in Dove-land is fat, no one in Dove-land is disabled, and no one in Dove-land has any wrinkles.

And Mind the Gap says:

But at the risk of sounding like a humourless, spoil sport, never satisfied feminist Iím now going to come out and say ďIím not happy.Ē Whatís not to like? Well I donít like the fact that the empowerment is very little, very late, and I donít 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.

I think those are pretty good critiques. But I’ve been thinking about it — I think about it every time I see one of the ads, and that’s a lot, because they’re all over the place — and on balance I find this campaign to be excellent, for a couple of reasons.

One is what I’ll call the democratization of manipulation. We all know images in magazines and movies are engineered to look great. Models and celebrities get the benefit of good lighting and expert retouching. The rest of us get fluorescent bulbs and hella harsh red-eye.

Now, you could scorn artifice and insist that truth comes only through raw, pimply-faced polaroids.

But instead, I’d just like to see the celeb treatment given to many more and different kinds of people. One reason I like the Dove campaign is that it provides some eminently normal women with the same care Gisele receives — and surprise, they look great. Personally I think there is something ennobling in that attention.

Two, preface: I don’t think we should hold this campaign to the standard of, you know, depicting all possible forms and dimensions of beauty. Because if we do it will clearly fail, per Alas (a blog)’s criticism.

So, two: I love that Dove shows us a group of women — all very healthy, all very skinny in the grand scheme of things — who have different body types. Different proportions. Different structures. Doesn’t sound too radical when you put it that way, but take a look around: In all the other images we’re bombarded with, female and male, everybody’s body has exactly the same mannequin silhouette.

See any healthy (but short) guys in the J. Crew catalog? Any fit (but wide-hipped) women in the Banana Republic spread? Certainly not. And that’s lame. Many of the people I know are fit and attractive, but their frames are quite their own. And I don’t know if this is just me or what, but many of the most attractive people I know seem so attractive precisely because they rock those non-mannequin bodies.

So that’s why I like this campaign: It gives some professional love to normal folks, and it shows people — healthy, skinny people — with real bodies.

I note that the product it peddles is totally lame and unnecessary, but whatevs. One thing at a time.

Now: There are a lot of smart readers out there in Snarkland, and I am verrry interested to know what some of you think about this — the campaign specifically and the beauty/body-image thing in general. Hit the comments yo.

Posted September 15, 2005 at 10:27 | Comments (18) | Permasnark
File under: Society/Culture


My initial reaction to this campaign was seething hatred. My first thought was: it's a weak, token effort to legitimize the familiar advertising strategy of using a bunch of women in underwear to sell a product. Worse, it seems like just because this campaign is in some vague sense progressive, it gets posted a lot more places than the already hard to ignore abercrombie, courvoisier, etc. porno.

Since you're forcing me to think about it though (I was trying pretty hard not to), maybe I wrote this thing off too fast. It's not like a lot of men are going to buy these products, no matter how many girls in underwear tell them it's a good idea. So I can roll with the premise that the way it's supposed to work is that a woman sees the billboard and realizes that she doesn't have to lose a million pounds to look good; instead she can just, I dunno, buy lots of Dove products... Or something like that; anyway, it's a lot more positive than my initial take...

Actually, I'd be interested to hear what other people think the message of this campaign is really supposed to be. I'm pretty sure it's not "Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and, above all things Love". But maybe I'm being too cynical? Maybe by telling the world that we're all beautiful the way we are (only more beauty products would help), Dove really can increase profits? Wait, this is still sounding cynical.

Ultimately, to get back to my initial reaction, I just hate garish, public advertising in general. Frankly this ad is a couple notches more garish and harder to ignore than creepy, black-and-white abercrombie dude.

Also as a last thought: "all of them are below the average dress size of American women". My response: do any of them look too skinny? Do they look unhealthy? If not, then what's the gripe? Sure, it's nice to be inclusive, but the majority of American women and men are clinically overweight and obesity is an epidemic in this country. Some people think these statistics are scare tactics invented by the diet industry, but I think I have to take the (bigoted?) view that there's a limit to how much fat is beautiful. Type 2 diabetes is not beautiful.

Okay, now my rant is really over.

1) thoughtful post, way to go

2) i HAVE seen dove ads featuring extremely wrinkly old women, so the first quote is at least somewhat inaccurate.

3) i don't even want to open the body image can of worms, but look at that picture you posted. there's something different about it from most other beauty advertisements. there are probably 6 different ethnicities represented there, and not in some Barney-n-friends-tokenistic-really-obvious kinda way.

4) i am often a voice of humorless feminism, but i'm gonna go ahead and give the dove campaign a thumbs up.

also, i'm really into the dove ads that feature well-known cartoon character women with updated hairstyles. the scooby doo and flintstones gals were a trip, but my favorite was the huge billboard of marge simpson with long, flowing, blue hair that towered above the intersection of Sunset and Vine for a while. :]

There's an advertisement campaign somewhere that's set on the corner of some store. Both sides depict the same picture: a woman in a modest plain bikini, with a neutral expression on her face. She is no conventional supermodel, is probably around a size 12 or 14, and her face is plain but pretty in a "normal" and "un-airbrushed" way. In other words, both pictures attempt to portray this woman as neutrally as possible.

On one side, the picture is captioned: "I think I'm fat. Do you?"
and on the other side, it's captioned: "I think I'm thin. Do you?"

I think for the purpose of depicting beauty diversely, that ad does more than the Dove ad, because it forces people to think about perceptions of beauty: how much of beauty is a societal imposition, and how much is self-perception (probably as a result of that societal imposition, but I'm sure it's chicken-and-egg, somewhat). In the Dove ad, as some of the critiques mentioned, these women are still more or less conventionally good-looking, with conventionally slim bodies - the adherence to an aesthetic standard is still suggested, even though this standard has definitely been relaxed somewhat in comparison to e.g. Guess, Esprit, DKNY ads, etc.

This aesthetic standard, by the way, is pernicious: even the term "plus-size models", of which we are seeing an increasing amount of in the UK, while conveying the laudable message that it's ok to be "plus-sized", describes models relative to the "normal-size" models, which are generally ridiculously undernourished anyway. This means that even in the attempt to subvert the standard, one must inevitably refer back to it, thus affirming it nonetheless.

but snarktastic points on democratic photoshopping. and yes, what I do draw most from this ad is the sense of ease and confidence these women all have in their own relaxed-standard-of aesthetics-bodies, despite proportions, hair imperfections, less-than-washboard tummies etc. Rock those proportions, I say.

First of all, I second rAchel's conclusion--snarktastic points about democratic photoshopping. I had very similar thoughts after seeing Matt's Halle Berry posting. She is one beautiful woman, but after I saw the originals I realized how many such I actually know in real life.

Secondly, good point about promoting a variety of structures. Every now and then on BART I fantasize that like Satyajit Ray I can be an empowered casting directory and just hand people a card and stick 'em in a movie. I see that many interesting, often lovely people.

I'm surprised you didn't mention this Slate article--maybe you missed it? The most relevant part:

These Dove ads say it's cool to be round and hefty … so long as your skin is taut and firm and perfect. (And, in case you're curious, Dove says these photos were not retouched at all.) But what's that, you say? You love your real curves, but you've got a little cellulite? Girl, run out and buy our hocus-pocus cream right now! Those cottage cheese thighs are vile! Dear God, cover them up!

Which is, in fact my problem with them. Weight problems get a lot of play in our cultural analysis b/c frankly, a lot of people are overweight. As Peter aptly says abvoe, Type 2 diabetes is not beautiful.. I think it's true that the upperbounds for the healthy ranges are pegged a little low at the behest of the diet industry, but even then we have an obesity problem in this country. (Plenty of bad science gets spouted by the food industry too.) The fact is, you can do something about your weight. You can't do much about cellulite, and it's mostly hereditary. I think there are plenty of other issues besides how fat one feels that could prevent one from running around in skivvies, and a lot of those are much more directly tied to the photoshopping of magazine models than average model size. When a girl gets a zit it feels like a totally unusual, disgusting event, b/c every other girl has worked so hard to cover up her zits.

Models are tall and skinny b/c they're meant to sell clothes, and fashion usually displays better on tall, skinny girls. Look at fashion sketches---they're drawn on alean creatures with no feet, made from lines. 23% seems kinda low, but I'd like to know how that compares to the obesity changes in the intervening time. 8% doesn't strike me as that unreasonable.

I was also going to point out that the Dove ads were for cellulite cream, but to refer to this slightly earlier Salon article instead. It doesn't make sense to use cellulite-free models to sell cellulite cream. Instead, I'll do Slate one better and say that the real message is that "every body can be beautiful... if you slather your fat asses with our products."

When it comes to the "real-women marketing craze," I prefer Nike's "My butt is big" ads to Dove's. It's admittedly targeting a narrower spectrum of the "real-body" market (athletic women who do "ten thousand lunges" but who don't have model-type bodies), but it similarly embraces curviness, ethnicity, and an affirmative body image while being more positive and empowering.

Also, speaking from my own experience and from many conversations with friends, many people are turned off by the gym experience because they don't like how their bodies look, especially in athletic wear. This creates a vicious circle where you don't want to be seen trying to get in shape unless you're in shape already. If the Nike ads can encourage women (and men) to get out there and do their thing even though they have big butts AND let them know that bodily success doesn't mean turning your body into a fashion model's, then that's a message I can endorse without reservations.

To second Tim on Nike, yesterday while I was waiting for my hair to get cut, I was flipping through Glamour. It was annoying on multiple levels, but every now and then it was interesting. (But an original rant on the state of women's magazines deserves its own home.) One ad caught my eye--it was a Nike ad that was text and a black and white photograph of large, scarred knees. The text was something like, "My knees are tomboys. They get cut and scratched up because I play soccer and run. I'm proud of my knees and wear short skirts. My mother says no one will marry me. But I think someone will. He'll say, "I love your knees. I want the four of us to become old together.""

I kind of liked it, though I thought I thought the counterargument was somewhat precariously put. IF one doesn't have experience of such scarred-knee-loving men in one's life, a single ad buried in pages and pages of perfect, narrow, Photoshopped, knees isn't really going to be that convincing.

Ah, but even the speaker doesn't claim to have experience of scarred-knee-loving men: "My mother says no one will marry me. But I think someone will." It voices, contains and refutes the prevailing stereotype within its own affirmative statement. More proof that someone on Nike's ad staff got herself a college degree.

Plugging in from like a sat-phone in Darkest Minneapolis: Color me unimpressed. It would have been one thing if Dove had gone along with a regular ad campaign and just quietly hired healthy-looking women from off the street as models. I probably wouldn't even have minded had they placed a small notice on each ad noting that the photos were not professionally retouched. But to center their campaign around this clunky RealWomen™ bit and get all on us? No, I don't think so. Does this mean when the "Real" thing is played out, we can expect a return to the FakeWomen™ campaign?

A truly progressive move would have been a permanent policy shift, not one ephemeral ad campaign -- a discreet change in the guidelines about photo retouching and a redoubled effort to look for models that do better reflect our society. As it stands, this whole campaign just sounds like an excuse for Dove to pat itself on the ass.

Well, let's look at it this way. The average dress size for a woman is a size 12. The average model/hollywood actress is a 0-2. If she's a size 8, she probably can't work because she's too fat. (I veto any Kathy Bates, Cameran Manheim, Rosie O'Donnel references. The exception does NOT counteract the rule). So can we take a moment to realize just how radical it is to feature women who are simply are not a size 0.

As for the no cellulite, it's an advertisment, let's walk before we run. Yes they may have Beyonce-ish thighs. But even the presence of an ACTUAL thigh is encouraging to me.
And as for quietly changing the guidelines, I'm not sure that's how protest works. You can't quietly think to yourself that manipulating women into thinking that impossible standards are attainable is wrong and hope people will notice. The message would have been lost.

Yeah, ok, it's cheesy Spice Girls "girl power" type feminism. But I think that's only way to get women to respond to feminism. You can't even say feminism anymore; it caries such an incredible stigma. Here, they are giving women permission to be proud of their bodies. Not everyone has good role models or read Gloria Steinem when they were 12. Sometimes you have to start with Naomi Wolf and positivie advertising.

Will Dove ever use non-plus size models again? Yeah, probably. But I don't think that undermines just how bold it is to suggest that women with fat asses can sell stuff just as good as dangerously thin models.

Oh, and Peter, thanks for the type II comment. I'm sure all of the girls with eating disorders will thank their lucky stars they're only in danger of heart and kidney problems, but hey at least they're not fat.

Posted by: clevergirl on September 20, 2005 at 09:15 PM

Wait, why doesn't it make sense to use cellulite-free models to advertise cellulite cream? What about the Head-and-Shoulders/Ass-Don't-Smell (thanks SNL) campaign style?

George (discovering canister from Don's gym bag): Ass-Don't-Smell?? But Don, *your* ass doesn't smell.
Don (grinning smugly): *Exactly*.

I'm no expert, but my understanding is that the psychological development of eating disorders is almost wholly unmotivated by health concerns, so I hope I wasn't being too insensitive in citing widespread medical belief that being obese will kill you, probably faster than being unathletic. Obviously, eating disorders have the potential to kill you orders of magnitude faster. Ultimately my point was that as long as the Dove ads encourage healthy eating, it doesn't bother me that they don't encourage higher BMIs.

It's not a cellulite cream. It's just soap.

It is my understanding that eating disorders do have a direct cooralation to unhealthy beauty standards promoted by the media. It was cited that once remote regions, previously untouched by television's beauty ideal, started recieving these images the previous standards of womanly curvaceousness were tossed aside for boyish thiness. It was also cited that this region started noticing its first incidences of eating disorders. I know I didn't cite that study so take it as you will.

But I do think that it's ignorant to think that just because a girl is skinny that she's healthy. A lot of women loose weight on the model of diet of cigarettes and diet coke- sometimes just plain old coke. So plus size women are reguarded as less healthy because they had a sandwich in this decade? You just said that these women obviously excercise becuase of their toned thighs- I would say any one of those women will be healthier than Kate Moss in 10 years.

I also think the idea of encouraging higher bmi's is ludacris. Just because we are admitting to the possibility that plus size women could be attractive, I highly doubt that the world is going to flip on it's ear and fat will be the new thin.

Posted by: clevergirl on September 21, 2005 at 10:03 PM

A size 0 or 2 isn't really a size 0 or 2, no matter what people tell you. Measurements on size charts are often larger than what the clothes really are. According to J.Crew and Banana Republic, I really should be wearing size 2, when in reality, I FLOAT in some size 0s. Something is REALLY, REALLY WRONG here.

hi! i liked the blogs. i'm having my research right now about the same topic: women's perception on dove's campaign for real beauty based on print advertisements. by the way, i'm from the philippines and we have quite the same advertisements with what you're having there. there are also ads here of dove which are filipino culture based. they seem more realistic than those you posted if i may say. if you wanna see a few of them they're at ...they're more "realistic" than the main ads. although i say this, i'm not yet sure of its authenticity if they are real models who look that way or were they also digitally manipulated on. hehe!

Posted by: Mitch on August 9, 2006 at 08:00 AM

Since Robin linked back here recently, I want to correct an old point.

Above I alluded to studies on the question of whether overweight BMI or low cardio fitness is more of a health risk. Although these things usually go together, it is possible to separate them statistically and ask, for example, which is a more at risk group: overweight BMIs with high cardio fitness, or normalweight BMIs with low cardio fitness.

Apparently I got it wrong: I thought I remembered surprising results suggesting that overweight BMI was a greater risk factor than low cardio fitness. But a quick literature search suggests (as is probably more culturally intuitive) just the opposite: BMI is a less relelvant measure than cardio fitness: 1 2. Perhaps someone more expert can offer a better summary of this literature.

I still have little complaint with the models in the Dove ad insomuch as they appear healthy, rather than skinny or overweight. But perhaps it's true that including more models with technically overweight BMIs but high fitness would be constructive.

This begs the rather interesting sociobiological question: is it possible to distinguish high and low fitness individuals by sight at a rate higher than the extent to which fitness correlates with more obvious visual cues such as BMI? What cues would we use for this?

Posted by: Peter on October 17, 2006 at 05:05 PM

When you say 'fitness' I assume you mean healthy-body fitness, not genetic fitness. Because that's what you were just talking about.

BUT, every single one of the at-a-glance measures I've ever heard of have are supposed to indicate genetic fitness: facial symmetry, for instance.

It'd be pretty awesome if there was some secret giveaway. Like the color of the somebody's wrists. That is a ridiculous example but you get the idea.

Yup, I was talking about plain, old fashioned, 3rd grade PE dodge ball physical fitness. But indeed, the ability to recognize cardiovascular fitness in a potential mate almost certainly bears on adaptive fitness. Which is why it would be interesting to know how accurately we can judge somewhat hidden features like cardiovascular fitness, and how much our judgement depends on various external cues like BMI. There's probably literature on this already...

In classic sexual selection theory, animals develop elaborate plumes or other seemingly maladaptive traits to try to help advertise high fitness that might otherwise be hidden. So perhaps we should expect cardio fitness judgements (at least purely sight-based judgements) to depend a lot on external cues.

Getting off topic, and way to speculative...

Posted by: Peter on October 19, 2006 at 01:27 PM

I appreciated your writing. I am currently finishing my Psychology Degree and am doing my final research project on this very issue. In my opinion if we had more advertisments with diverse body types we wouldn't see as much low self esteem in the women and girls in our country.
If we could somehow prove to these companies who sell beauty products, and clothes that consumers would prefer that the adds be more realistic and that it would in turn influence consumer loyalty than maybe this cycle could change.
My question for you is this; is Dove the only company that shows diverse body types? And if not who else does?

Posted by: Kimberly Penner on April 18, 2007 at 07:09 PM

I would like to primarily say that those cynical people out there that say that Dove is pushing this campaign for real beauty "simply to sell a product" are stating the obvious! This company clearly has to think of new and innovative ways to sell its products - and i believe that if you can make just one group of people feel great about themselves (these, say, slightly "plump" women - according to model-standard women anyway) then you are pretty much on the right track!Who are we hurting by encouraging people to buy something which (i can honestly say) is in fact a pretty decent body care range by off-the-shelf standards! And if Dove's sales go up and up then good for them! it's what their ultimate goal is afterall - the managing director of Dove is hardly setting out to start a revolution against size zeros! It's ultimately all about what sells to ordinary women.

And, plus, if sales HAVE gone throught the roof then does this not just prove that it is working? ......

As for the campaign itself, i think its fan-bloody-tastic! I don't care if Dove make money from it - it certainly has proven to me (if anyone!) that if you do make an effort with, say, skin care, or even not having to make an effort, then you are beautiful no matter what.

I may be nearly 6 foot but am not a model-sized woman, and even us tall and supposedly "lythe" or "slim and sexy" women have major insecurities.

Thanks for your time

Posted by: Hannahrt on October 7, 2007 at 03:44 AM
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