Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign and the need to acknowledge a harmful beauty culture

I’ve watched the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign with mixed feelings over the last couple of years.

On the one hand, it’s a counterpoint to intense cultural pressures to be thinner and prettier. Women I know have said it’s a relief to see a mainstream voice that praises women, instead of undermining them.

But there’s something troubling about the whole thing: at its core the “Real Beauty” campaign isn’t about redefining beauty, it’s about slightly pushing the envelope on the current definition.

“You’re thinner than you think you are” isn’t an empowering message for women (watch the video a couple of times, you’ll see what I mean). It’s not as bad as “you’ll never be thin enough” but it’s a long way from changing the current problematic cultural messaging.

One of my favorite beauty bloggers wrote this rather striking piece the other day about the campaign. She pointed out that

“Just as ads of yore leveraged the attitudes that made women feel bad about their looks in order to sell products, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty leverages the response to those attitudes in order to sell products. It allows for exactly one way that women can feel about our looks—bad—and creates a template for women’s relationship with their looks that’s just as rigid as the beauty standard it’s challenging.”

As someone who believes that a significant amount of change happens in the space between the mainstream and extremes, I want to like the Dove “Real Beauty “Campaign, I really do. I think they’re one of the first brands to acknowledge the way our culture is hurting women, which is a powerful thing to do and the reason why women respond so positively to the campaign. I just wish they were doing something different with that moment of acknowledgement.


21 thoughts on “Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign and the need to acknowledge a harmful beauty culture”

  1. Thoughtful post. I do think its a step in the right direction, so for me, anything that pushes at a particularly bad envelope has merits especially done in so public a sphere. Big business is not by nature a risk taker, so I’m not sure how much we can expect from them. But any small step that shows big returns opens the door for the next step to happen. Maybe not as much as we’d like, but its changed the risk calculation for the next step, allowing that to go further. So while, as you so brilliantly summarize, we still have a long way to go. Journeys always move in steps. For that, I’ll accept Dove as a positive step–not the end, but something that moves a very hard, very difficult journey.

    1. That’s sort of the place I find myself at too – do I accept the small step as progress? I want to, but in Dove’s case it just keeps scratching the back of my brain. Forgetting the content of the message for a moment, the methodology they use to get women to feel open and vulnerable and then essentially crush them is troubling.

      I know something about video production and the editing process, and out of dozens of hours of footage and takes, there’s no way the overall story and direction was an accident. But then given their product suite, getting women to think about beauty outside of the physical sphere isn’t a priority. But, as you say, tough call, I’m sure people’s feelings are across the spectrum.

  2. I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews on this campaign. While there are those who feel empowered by it, there are just as many that say that it looks good on the surface, but still doesn’t address the real problem. Another blogger wrote this post saying why she feels uncomfortable with the campaign. All of the points ring true.

    1. Yup, saw that – totally on point. It’s disturbing because Dove’s campaign acknowledges women are in pain, but then proceeds to basically sling a handful of sand to the eyes.

  3. Reblogged this on So-Called Millennials and commented:
    I was going to write a post about the Dove beauty campaign, but this reblog says my thoughts exactly. I had mixed emotions about Dove’s beauty campaign. At first I was like, “oh that’s nice”, then I was like “hmm, so we’re supposed to cry when we find out strangers DON’T think we’re ugly?” Wow. What about “*I* don’t think I’m ugly?” No? I wear makeup and other beauty products, etc. Of course like every woman, I’ve struggled with my image, but truthfully, very little. I don’t think it’s vanity, though, I just I somehow accidentally developed self-esteem. Even when I gained weight (which I’ve now lost) it effected my self-image very little if at all. When I watched the campaign, I wondered, if I had a sketch artist draw me and my self-perception looked WAY more awesome than reality, would that be wrong? Lol. If a stranger’s version of me was “uglier” I’m not sure I would care. That’s the truth, so I guess I was raised wrong! I was telling my husband about this campaign the other day, and I said “I’ve never struggled horribly with body image, maybe there is something wrong with me?” He said “I don’t struggle with your body image either” (I cried with gratitude of course, lol jk) If I’m ugly I hope to stay comfortably in denial 🙂 Oh, and readers out there with daughters, please raise them to have self-respect and confidence that only comes from within. Raise them just a LITTLE bit wrong: may result with extreme pride in your offspring. Oh, a final thought, I agree that Dove can’t be too graceful about beauty because women with too much confidence would be bad for the economy & beauty industry.

  4. “You’re thinner than you think you are” or “you’re more beautiful than you think you are” (presumptuousness about what people think and how apparently stupid we are at seeing reality aside!) is really nothing but a reinforcement of the ideal that “thin” or “beautiful” is the most important thing about a woman.

    I am all for making the most of oneself–why not, since we have to function in this culture. But these statements do just reinforce existing values and nothing more. I kinda prefer Shania’s approach in Any Man of Mine: This is the way I am and how YOU’ll have to accept me! That is empowering.

    How about NOT judging women all the time? How about valuing their whole value instead? How about not turning “overweight” women against “thin” or “skinny” ones and vice versa. How about live and let live? I don’t feel the love with this kind of ad.

    Big news: women of different colours are beautiful. Really? Is that really big news?

    Fantastic post I just read about this:

    1. Totally in agreement with you there – I’ve said it before, and continue to say it regularly, that while there are some positive ways to place value on physical attributes in general what we really need is to focus on the intrinsic value of an individual, their passions, thoughts, hearts, etc…. those are the things that truly define beauty.

  5. I have to agree to a point that it doesn’t address the whole issue. As long as we have impossible standards in the media and in films, women will always be plagued with that daunting task of shooting for the impossible. What I like about it is it calls out the obvious about our own self-worth. I can say that it made me think about what I see and how I feel about myself and I believe that is the true point of this campaign. In order for a woman to grow and be self-confident, she does not need her flaws pointed out, but she needs to see the beauty that lies within each of us. We need to be reminded that the mind can play tricks on us. We are our own worst critics (and I am no different) when it comes to self-image. If this campaign can remind women to look at themselves differently then it’s totally worth it. Even now, I find that when I look in the mirror, I’m starting to look at the positive and beautiful features that I am blessed with, that I have a tendency to overlook due to the features I have that I feel need changing or stand out negatively. What can I say, I’m a “glass is full” kinda gal!

    1. I think your second-last sentence nails it. Also, I really don’t think the media and films intend to set standards for us, so much as just to sell something. Sometimes it’s a lipstick, sometimes a movie but they know we respond to “beauty”, so that is what they give us. I don’t see it as a standard–maybe it’s just me.

      1. I’ve thought a lot about this (your comment and the idea generally).

        When you get critical about how mediums like TV and the movies influence your life (which I have done, consciously) you start sounding pretty serious and then people say things like “jeez, take it easy it’s just a movie.” This is usually a variation of the “giving them what they want” argument.

        But from my perspective, it’s not just a movie, and there are real problems with that type of response. The Dove campaign made me think about why I’m uncomfortable with portrayals of men and women in mainstream advertising. It’s precisely because the focus is on one thing, physical appearance. Just by limiting the conversation they are setting a standard.

        If you think about the “Real Beauty” campaign as a medium itself, I think you have to ask the questions: a) does it really consider beauty in an open way or does it mostly reinforce a narrow definition? and b) regardless of whether Dove is consciously setting standards or not, they have a huge megaphone, do they get to just open the door to what is clearly a place of hurt for women (and men) and only consider physical appearance?

    2. LLAD – before I forget, do you have an email subscription option on your blog? I looked but not sure if I’m just being daft and it’s there. I enjoy your blog but email is the only way I ever remember to look at anything =P

      I totally and wholeheartedly agree with you on the need to remind ourselves of what makes us valuable, worthwhile, and and thus beautiful. I guess where it goes off the tracks for me is that body image has become so oversaturated with importance that when mainstream advertising/TV shows/movies, etc… talk about beauty physical appearance is the only thing they address. Which misses so much of what makes people unique, interesting, and valuable (great examples of this, ).

      1. I’m not sure on the email thing.. Is that something I need to enable?
        Thank you for letting me know you enjoy. I am now trying to figure out how to write more when I’m happy. It’s easy for me when I am emotional – gives me material and an outlet. It’s much more difficult when I am happy as it puts me into a state of blissful, unaware joy. Although I love it and am feeling amazing, I fear I lack substance. Just something I have to sort out. 🙂
        I love your blog as well. I love how you remind people to look for the good and beauty in everyone. It gives me hope. Thank you.

      2. You’re a great writer. Pretty much everything you post makes me think (I read way more than I comment, but I’ll try to fix that now that we are properly introduced).

        I have the “blogging consistency” problem too, I try to focus on questions that really make me wonder about the big picture and then connect to my life. Seems to help.

        For email, go to your WP dashboard, then Appearance > Widgets > drag and drop “Follow blog via email” into your sidebar. That *should* do the trick.

      3. Thank you so much for the compliment!! It made my month! I think I got widgets added. You really are a rare gem of a man. I wish more men who think like you would speak up. Unfortunately, it seems the jackasses have much louder voices.. Or do they? Hmmmm new blog post!!

      4. Hi – of course! Sorry I’m a little slow responding, new job and long days. I think it’s important for all of us to reject the easy assumptions. I’m not saying I don’t have them, but we can all work to be thoughtful and fair to other people and ultimately to ourselves.

  6. I have to comment that I wrote a blog on this Dove beauty Sketch, too which was brought to my attention by my son and have to say first and foremost we must remember that no matter how much we want or wish DOVE to do what is right (?) or better for women we have to remember they ARE a company selling beauty products, so though I do agree with many of the commenters that I wish they could or would do MORE I still give them props for doing something to address women’s self-esteem issues! It is definitely getting a dialog going….. and unfortunately most people are obsessed with looks = happiness , until we raise our children to base their happiness on what they are on the inside and the paradigm shifts, baby steps! Great blog, thanks for sharing!

  7. Um…I don’t have a tv. So I’ve seen the commercial once and I read a women’s magazine maybe 4-5 times annually.

    Dove campaign is slick marketing campaign. It strives to make women feel warmer, more receptive about Dove…and maybe buy one of their products.

    I’ve bought their products off and on for last few…decades. I like their soap. That’s all.

    I don’t see a horrible conspiracy by Unilever, the manufacturing conglomerate. However there are some women who already don’t feel insecure about their body/self and so Dove ads actually are frivolous to them.

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