Toward the end of January, Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” celebrated its tenth anniversary. Ten years of raising women’s self-esteem and/or just telling us we’re not as ugly as we think we are (mileage varies). The campaign’s first video, 2006’s “Dove Evolution,” demonstrated the unrealistic nature of advertising images by showing the rapid-fire transformation of a non-model-looking woman into a billboard model, through the use of makeup, styling, lighting, and lots and lots of photoshop. The video received thousands upon thousands of near-instantaneous shares, plus a Lion at Cannes in 2007. (Ironically, Dove did, in fact, use Photoshop to smooth and perfect the diverse group of “real woman” models used in their print campaign. Furtherly ironically, the company sells anti-aging cream, firming cream, and brightening cream, I suppose for the benefit of women who don’t look like the women in their ads.)
“Evolution” wasn’t really threatened by any other entries into the self-esteem viral-video market until they eclipsed themselves in 2013. That video, Real Beauty Sketches, had women sitting down for a forensic sketch artist, who made contrasting sketches of them based on their own (critical) and then someone else’s (far less critical) description, showing women that “[they’re] more beautiful than [they] think [they] are.” The video received both praise and criticism, the latter for, in particular, almost exclusively young, thin, conventionally attractive white women and for implying that women are our own worst critics when, in fact, pretty much everyone is our worst critic.
And that’s been the question surrounding the Campaign for Real Beauty basically from the outset: Is being beautiful something we really want to emphasize above all things? In a society where women and girls really are evaluated on our beauty for things completely looks-unrelated, is telling a girl, “Your looks don’t matter as long as you love yourself” really realistic? And how do we address matters of beauty when the concept is both subjective and largely defined by arbitrary, exclusive societal standards?
(Non-Dove-related) case in point: Last summer, feminists overwhelmed @LilyBolourian’s and @cheuya’s #FeministsAreUgly hashtag, originally intended to reclaim and revise conventional, white-centric beauty standards, with a flood of conventionally attractive selfies. And then some other feminists responded with the argument that some feminists are, in fact, what societal standards would deem “ugly,” but that shouldn’t matter because looks are unimportant. And then Bolourian clarified that neither the hashtaggers nor the critics of the hashtaggers were really getting the point, because it’s easy to talk “ugly” or “not ugly” when you’re basically one of the people the beauty standards were built around in the first place.
And in fact, the very genesis of the Campaign was a series of interactive billboards inviting passersby to vote on whether a pictured woman was “Fat or Fab?” or “Wrinkled or Wonderful?” — implying, intentionally or not, that a woman can’t be both.
For my part, I’m not overwhelmed by their most recent video, which invites women all over the world to enter a building by choosing between a “Beautiful” and an “Average” doorway. There’s a lot of footage of women trying to decide which door to use, and women analyzing their choice to use the “Average” door, and ultimately women deciding they are, in fact, worthy of the “Beautiful” doorway. (Interesting side note: Three of the women who go through “Beautiful” are either dragged or, in one case, redirected by the woman pushing her wheelchair.) As someone who falls decisively into the “average” category — if a mathematical construct like that can be applied to physical attractiveness — I’m perfectly aware that my choice of doorways isn’t going to affect my own self-perception or, more important, society’s reaction to me because of my appearance. I mean, whether I’d be considered objectively beautiful is debatable, but I can definitely say I’m closer in appearance to the majority of women than to the women Western society singles out as “beautiful.” That’s not low self-esteem; that’s just logic.
(Dad, please don’t tell me I’m pretty in comments. I love you, but this is not the time.)
The campaign as a whole has received that kind of response, neither a roaring success nor an overwhelming failure, both encouraging women and girls who don’t feel beautiful and disappointing women who continue to be left out of the “beauty” conversation entirely. And this is not me trashing the campaign out of hand — for all of its flaws, if women do find themselves reconsidering their negative self-talk and the messages they internalize that make them feel bad about the way they look, that’s a good thing. Even if it is, at its heart, a bunch of ads. But it is, at its heart, a bunch of ads. And in a society where women can lose their jobs for being too pretty and 81 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat, “you’re perfect exactly as you are” is a simplistic glossing-over of a whole boatload of issues.
Regardless, however you feel about the Campaign for Real Beauty, I think we can all agree that none of us who isn’t wearing a gorilla suit looks like a person in a gorilla suit. And that’s a win for everyone.
Three women separately enter a room and shake hands with a woman in a lab coat.
VO. What do we, as women, really think about our appearance? The answers might surprise you. These three women are about to take part in a Dove True Beauty experiment. And they have no idea.
INTERVIEWER. How do you feel about your appearance?
WOMAN 1. Good. Pretty good.
WOMAN 2. There’s definitely room for improvement.
WOMAN 3. Um, I feel okay about it. You know, I have good days, bad days.
INT (cringing). Mmm. Yeah, that bad. Okay. Um… [her phone rings] Oh, I have a phone call, and I have to take this, but I’ll be right back. There’s a mirror, just right there.
The interviewer winks at the camera as she walks out of the room. The women look around the room awkwardly as they wait for her to return.
INT. The women think that this is part of the interview. Because we told them that it is.
We see shots of the interview team preparing the room for the interviewees, taking a real mirror out of the wall. Then we’re back to the women in the room. Woman 1 stands and turns to the “mirror,” and a person in a gorilla suit appears in the opening.
W1 (jumping). Oh, my God!
Woman 2 stands and looks in the mirror and shrieks as she sees the gorilla, which is trying to mirror her movements.
W2. What the fuck?!
Woman 3 stands, sees the gorilla, and just stands with her mouth open. The interviewer is in the control room, watching on a monitor.
INT. Wow. You must hate what you see when you look in the mirror.
Woman 1 stands and looks around for the voice, while the gorilla continues to mirror her movements.
W1. What? Is that supposed to be me? Because I would never believe that that was me.
Woman 2 sticks her hand through the mirror opening; the gorilla tries to bat it away.
W2. That’s not a fucking mirror. It’s not a mirror.
INT. You look in the mirror, and what you see is a disgusting zoo animal.
W1. I don’t think that I look like a zoo animal!
INT. But is that the real you?
INT. Look at yourself in the mirror. Do you feel unattractive? I bet you do.
W2. No. I don’t. That’s a man in a gorilla suit.
W3 (shaking). Ani — animal in the room!
W1. I want to leave, please. I don’t want the $25. I’d like to go.
Woman 3 starts patting down the walls, looking for a door.
W3. Is this the door? Is this a panel?
The gorilla is waving at and reaching through the opening to the women.
VO. Again, the women have no idea.
The interview comes back into the room.
INT. What would you say if I told you that that was not your face in the mirror? That was a gorilla-man in the mirror, and not your face.
W2. I’d say yeah.
INT. You thought that was you, and you totally fell for it.
W1. No. No, I — No.
W2. What is wrong with everyone? [waving at the cameras] What is wrong with everyone here?
W1. I never thought that was me in the mirror. Not once.
INT. Well, you can — You can thank Dove. Okay? Just thank — thank Dove. Hashtag #truebeauty.
W1. No. No.
INT. Thank them.
Woman 1 walks out of the room, leaving the interviewer to shout after her.
INT. We showed you using science!
W1 (O.S.). No.
The interviewer looks into the camera, confused.
VO. Dove. You fell for our weird psychology experiment, and it showed you you’re not actually a hideous monster. So where’s our Nobel Peace Prize or whatever?
White screen with the Dove logo, and then fade to black.