The media often feeds into our ideals when it comes to physical appearance and attractiveness. It's also likely that our ideals inform what the media chooses to portray (in other words, it's a two-way street).
When it comes to celebrities, this makes sense - they are paid to be our fantasies. And when it comes to marketing and advertising, there is clearly value in connecting products and experiences with people who are very attractive. This, in and of itself, isn't necessarily a concern.
It does become a concern, though, when people start to compare themselves and others to these ideals, ideals which are largely unrealistic. For some people, these comparisons aren't just passing thoughts - they become fixated on them, and go down the rabbit hole of anxiety and negative self-image.
Additionally, almost all media images and even TV/movies/commercials involve significant production (e.g., makeup, hair, etc.) and employ digital manipulation, typically in post-processing (e.g., photoshop), to make actors and models even more so-called attractive. So the comparisons that consumers are making are not even with real people.
Dove has come up with several marketing campaigns intended to challenge beauty ideals portrayed in media.
Keep in mind the Dove is owned by Unilever, who also own Axe. Axe isn't exactly social progressive when it comes to healthy representations of women in particular. Also keep in mind that these are marketing campaigns - they were intended to increase Dove's sales, and they were very successful in doing so. So are these campaigns really about making the world a better place, or are they about making shitloads of money off of women's insecurities, but in an indirect way?
First campaign: Evolution
The next campaign: Real Beauty Sketches
If you haven't seen the ad yet, watch it first before reading the rest of this post:
Now on the surface, this seems lovely and all - Women, you're more beautiful than you think! Now buy our product! But most commentators have have been highly critical, calling the ad campaign patronizing, manipulative, and worse. Here's some commentary from the Globe and Mail:
Dove’s new campaign: Real beauty or sentimental manipulation?
Women have reportedly wept over this video. And who could blame them? The soft lighting and schmaltzy music were calculated to jerk those tears out come hell or high water, preferably the latter. For Dove, this latest effort in its successful Real Beauty Campaign, launched in 2004, was a highbrow social experiment. To me, it’s sentimental manipulation, sentimental because it encourages women to rerun that old script of themselves as noble but underappreciated, smart but self-sabotaging, hard-working but undermined by societal beauty pressure. It’s the kind of underdog myth that gets women feeling all cozy and sisterly about their dear, beleaguered psyches, which invariably need a pat on the back.
The Beauty Sketches video felt out of touch not only with modern, confident women in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In wave of feminism – some might even take it as a backlash to it – but also with the complex etiquette of vanity. Every woman knows that even if she considers herself pretty, it’s inappropriate to brag about it. In an interview situation, she would never go on and on about the beauty of her eyes (hence the unlikeliness of my tongue-in-cheek script). The judgment of her would be cruel. And yet the glaring paradox is that we’re living in a highly narcissistic digital culture that encourages vanity. Just have a look at the comment threads of teenaged girls on Facebook, a fascinating study in vanity manners and disingenuous modesty. Often, they will post a flattering picture of themselves looking beautiful and then express surprise when friends respond with compliments. “Really?” they will write in the thread. “Thx! U R pretty too!”
Almost immediately (and inevitably), a video spoof of the Dove Beauty Sketches campaign surfaced, featuring men who report feeling great about their looks (one says he thinks he looks like a “white Denzel Washington”) while casual onlookers express otherwise. It’s tag line: “Men: You’re less beautiful than you think.” The humour was a powerful and confident response suggesting that, while women acknowledge the differences in vanity issues between the sexes, stereotyping them in such a simplistic fashion is just plain hilarious for all concerned, men and women.
And this is also why I don’t get too worked up about the perceived hypocrisy that a company that sells beauty products (including skinlightening creams in countries such as India) claims to be worried about how women are overly critical about their looks. Hey, that’s marketing, which I think most Western women get. And if they don’t, then they’re not paying attention, because just as we’re bombarded with beauty messages, so are we deluged with commentary about how we should be wary of them.
So, yes, the whole Real Beauty premise is just a cleverly subversive piece of communication: To avoid the beauty industry’s messages about what to look like, you should buy our product. But let’s be honest: In one way or another, women are complicit in these pitches about how to improve themselves. That’s what the fashion/beauty industry is all about. And if we choose to engage in it, it’s mostly because doing so is a lot more fun than paying income tax.
Most women, on the whole, are very aware of which aspects of their looks they like and which parts they hate. That’s life – unless you consult a plastic surgeon. Even Elizabeth Taylor, whose face was a masterpiece, hated her chin. It was too small, apparently. Not that she would have made note of that if she were asked about her appearance. And that’s because she would have known that we hate beautiful women who quibble about their smallest, inconsequential self-perceived flaw.
The spoof video: