Dove’s mission to get us in touch with real beauty started with this video released over six years ago. The company is still at it, recently releasing another video. It documents an experiment that begins with several participants talking to the camera about their appearance. These participants then describe themselves to a forensic artist who sketches them accordingly. Another person then describes these participants to the same forensic artist, who draws a second sketch. Both sketches are placed side by side, and the difference between how the participants describe themselves and how others describe them becomes clearly visible. All agree they look more beautiful when described by strangers. The video concludes “You are more beautiful than you think.”
This video is already contributing a lot to the online discourse on beauty. It has both great potential and great limitations. When it is seen as an end, we can only hope to remain stuck on its limitations. For example, we could endlessly debate how the video features only certain types of females and the vocabulary used to describe them is limited to a certain type of beauty. Such conversations would limit the potential of the video to contribute to a lasting, positive change in the discourse on beauty.
To take advantage of this potential in a such a way as to elevate the discourse to the next level of understanding, we should use this video to increase our awareness of the cruel limitations of our current definition of beauty. Posts such as this one help identify how these limitations affect even our attempts to redefine beauty for the better. These conversations help us avoid getting stuck within a limited understanding of what beauty is, and help us continue to advance on a path of ever-increasing understanding.
It is only normal that this newest Dove video both breaks some barriers and remains contained within others. On the one hand, it directly challenges the image we construct of our own selves. We are all aware how negative one’s self-perception tends to be, compared to others’ perception of us! On the other hand, despite what it is trying to achieve, the video remains limited within a narrow definition of beauty. As jazzylittledrops.tumblr.com mentions, “the majority of the non-featured participants are thin, young white women as well.” And as for “the descriptors the editors chose to include: When the participants described themselves, these were some of the things that were implied as negatives: fat, rounder face, freckles, fatter, 40— starting to get crows feet, moles, scars… Whereas some of the implied positive descriptors used by others were: thin face, nice thin chin, nice eyes that lit up when she spoke and were very expressive (my actual favorite), short and cute nose, her face was fairly thin (this was said twice), and very nice blue eyes. So… I don’t know if anyone else is picking up on this, but it kinda seems to be enforcing our very narrow cultural perception of “beauty”: young, light-skinned, thin. No real diversity celebrated in race, age, or body shape. So you’re beautiful… if you’re thin, don’t have noticeable wrinkles or scars, and have blue eyes.”
If we remember that this video is a stepping stone that can help elevate the discourse on beauty, we understand that it is not a magic pill that will instantly clean up our tainted perception of beauty. Rather, this video can be used as inspiration to adjust our thoughts, speech and actions regarding this topic. We of course have to keep in mind that the discrepancy between how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others is influenced by many factors—including culture, age, emotional well-being, and the control our ego has over us.
The challenge is, well, kind of very big, and we are only beginning to address it. Perhaps we can start by using this increased awareness—regarding our limited understanding and appreciation of beauty—to alter our speech and/or behavior in such a way as to address this discrepancy. Simply put, we should strive not to describe ourselves with descriptors we would not use on our loved ones. We could also reflect on our personal discomfort with compliments, perhaps by accepting that this is how people see us, even if we do not see it ourselves.
We might also consider reflecting on the conception of beauty as not merely physical. After all, it is our spiritual self that matters most. Truly happy people are incredibly beautiful, whatever their body shape, hair type, or facial features. And we know that true happiness is spiritual happiness. So why not reinforce that in our speech? For example, why not add to the compliments we make about physical characteristics by emphasizing the virtue linked to it? Instead of telling someone that they have a beautiful smile, why not also emphasize the virtue of joy linked to it? That way, we might begin learning how to put emphasis on the important type of beauty.
We should also be careful not to become fanatical. Describing someone as “thin” does not mean we are shallow or superficial; some people are thin, just like some people have brown hair and others have blue eyes. We have to be careful not to make anyone feel bad about how they look. Just like we cannot let someone who is of a higher body size feel ugly, we cannot let someone who is of a lower body size feel ugly, either. It seems like more and more girls who are naturally thin are becoming self-conscious, and even feel guilty about their size. A friend of mine used to overeat on purpose to gain weight, because she was often labeled as anorexic. Because of her metabolism, all that served to do is make her skin break out. The situation was very disturbing to me: while so many of our friends were struggling to lose weight to feel beautiful, she was trying to gain weight for the same reason.
Another danger of a narrow-minded approach to broadening the definition of beauty is forgetting that some things are just plain unhealthy. Broadening the definition of beauty to accept all people does not mean forgetting the health hazards of certain body types. Being too thin or too fat as per our genetic makeup does not make us ugly. However, it does make our body not function at peak efficiency. Just like beauty, physical health is not related to a single, homogenous body size for all. And just like with beauty, we need to learn to have conversations about our health with relation to our body size. A friend of mine, a doctor in a family clinic, told me how the mother of a teenage patient threatened to sue her for psychological damage when she told the young patient to change her habits (she did not exercise, and her diet mainly consisted of fast food) else her hypertension and her type two diabetes become out of control. How could she be expected to care for her young patient, she was telling me, if she could not address her weight, which had been ballooning over the last couple of years?
It is now up to us and our daily conversations with others—including men, the lack of which is another limitation of this video—that will define the success of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. It is clear that change is not needed but rather, a transformation is. So I hope that Dove continues its campaign, slowly breaking one barrier at a time, helping us to advance along the path of understanding what true beauty is.
First published on Sahar’s Blog on 11 May 2013.