Notes from the Margins: Dove Makes us Feel Great in All the Wrong Ways

Each week in Notes From the Margins, D.L. Mayfield writes about the kingdom of God, marginalized people groups, and popular culture.

Judging by the amount of shares, clicks, and likes, I was not the only woman who teared up whilst watching the newest ad from Dove, called Real Beauty Sketches. I couldn’t believe it as it was happening, as I was already biased against feeling anything—I have longed trained myself to laugh at what the advertisers are trying to sell me, not swallow it hook line and sinker. And yet, there came a point in the ad where I could barely see for all the emotion that was welling up within. I was hooked.

Image: YouTube

The ad chronicles an experiment in which a forensic artist asks women to describe themselves and then draws them based on their description. Later, he asks a stranger to describe the original subject, and draws that rendition. At the end, the women are shown the two portraits of themselves: one, through their own eyes (my mother always said I had a big jaw) and two, through the eyes of another (in this one I look so much more open, and friendly). The women, who range in age from 20s to 40s, are visibly stunned when shown the two portraits. The difference is easy to see: when talking about beauty, women tend to be their own harshest critic.

What made me cry as I watched this carefully orchestrated piece of advertising, even as I raged against it, was the look in the eyes of the women as they realized what they had done. They knew that they had sold themselves short, that their own self image needed “a lot of work”. But beyond the shame, there was also a glimpse of the wonderful. They were able to, for perhaps the first time in a long while, perceive what they looked like through the eyes of another. And lo, it was good.

Image YouTube

The reason we all resonate with this concept is because it is true. We were all made in the image of God, glorious, beautiful, and whole. But somewhere along the way, we all lost sight of this bigger picture and learned to view ourselves the way the world did: broken, lacking, our value assigned to peripherals—what we look like, how much money we made. We learned to see ourselves as though through a mirror dimly—our imperfections magnified, especially when it comes to physical beauty.

Dove would have us believe that to right this wrong all we have to do is look through the eyes of another, and treat ourselves with more kindness (and, presumably, Dove body care products). This is a fine, if not bland, bit of self-esteem boostery. And my feel-good fuzzies might have stayed with me if it hadn’t been for those seconds near the end of the ad, when one of the women in the experiment says:

I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children. It impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.

And whoomp, there it is. Beauty, even the “natural” kind that Dove is presumably advocating for (although all of the women in the ad are good looking, mostly blond haired and blue-eyed), is “critical to your happiness”.

It turns out that Dove is selling the same old stuff, after all.

We have allowed ourselves to see through these types of eyes for too long. We see so dimly, are so bowed down by the thousands of imperfections that have been pointed out to us, bullied by the people looking to make something off of of our own warped self-images. And all throughout the world, there are people getting rich off of our insecurities. We are being sold the same old lie, the one that started everything in that garden long ago—that we are not made in the likeness of God, that he is holding back from us, that we would be better off if we just had a little more of something, anything.

Image: YouTube

There is a reason we respond in a visceral way to ads like this. They are getting at a half-truth of the human condition—that we are all beautiful in our own way. The problem is who is telling us this story. We don’t need an industry obsessed with profits, stereotypes steeped in sexuality, and exploitation of human desires to tell us how to live. We don’t need a body wash that makes us feel natural (or shames us into worrying if we should go sleeveless or not). And we don’t need a stranger to tell us how our eyes sparkle or how our noses are cute and little (like in the Real Beauty Sketch ad) in order to finally realize how valuable we were all along. Dove, while making some real strides in the areas of expanding our definitions of beauty, is still not anywhere close to empowering women as they would like us to believe.

What we need is to be known, and loved, right down to our very cores. We need to understand who God the father is, and how is radical love changes everything about us. We need to know that we are valuable and worthy beyond gender, abilities, and outward appearances. Because life is hard, and we bear the marks of sin and sorrow on our very skin. Accepting our imperfections and delighting in our natural beauty will only take us so far.

Instead, we need to wade into the depths of how far off our own eyesight can be, and pray only to know as we are known. That, my friends, is the critical need of our times, and it goes way beyond being happy. It points to who we were created to be, allowing us grace for ourselves and even more important–grace for each other.

Which is more than I can say for the advertising industry, Dove included.

 

 

About D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield lives and writes in the Midwest, where she currently is a part of a Christian order among the poor. Mayfield’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Image, Christianity Today, Books and Culture, and The Other Journal. Her book of essays is forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016. Learn more at www.dlmayfield.com.

  • KM

    Good job at looking beyond the content to the philosophical framework of the ad!

  • http://toerris.me Mark C

    I’m with you. I was totally digging it until the part about beauty being critical to our happiness. And isn’t that the core of so much advertising? It was a big letdown when she said that.

  • http://www.livesayhaiti.com Tara Livesay

    Down with advertising and the BS the love to feed us all. Good on you, girl!!!

  • Heather Walters

    I see what you’re saying here, but I think the quote you use on “beauty being critical for our happiness” is mistaken. When I watched the video, I felt like the point was our perception of ourselves (seeing ourselves as beautiful), not our actual beauty, is critical to our happiness. Which it totally is–it’s all about as you say, seeing ourselves as the full, beautiful, wonderful humans that God made us to be. It’s critical to see ourselves in that truth. I’m not saying the Dove ad was perfect, but in a world where most advertising actually does tell you “you need this product to be beautiful and/or successful and therefore happy” Dove is actually making efforts to use their “advertising power” as it were to encourage women and change culture. Advertising isn’t going ANYWHERE; in fact, one could make an argument that literally everyone is selling something (individuals included). It’s not the selling something that’s necessarily evil. It’s how you treat and affect others through it. Some advertisers have more sway; don’t we want them to use their power for good? It seems like Dove is at least trying to do that, which I’m happy about. I think your point that we need to be known and loved by God is beautiful and true, but no advertiser can do that. I can’t do that for you either. But I can try and encourage you closer to a point where you can receive that. Dove isn’t a Christian company, but it seems that as a secular company they’re trying to encourage women. They’re advertising, but they’re trying to do it in a way that’s positive for our culture.

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  • Lee

    I will remind you that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Dove may be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and doing it imperfectly — but that is STILL worlds better than either doing nothing at all or doing the wrong thing.

    This “beauty is everything for women” trash is so ingrained in our culture that I am not at all surprised they didn’t manage to sidestep it completely; it would be much more surprising if they had. But they have at least pried at a door which had formerly been entirely locked and sealed. The best response here is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and say that because Dove slipped up, what they tried to do is worthless. It’s to engage with them about how and where they slipped up, and encourage them to do better the next time.


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