The limits of ‘Real Beauty’: are they only skin deep?

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The monumental success of Dove’s most recent ‘Real Beauty’ campaign echoes that of previous campaigns by the Unilever-owned toiletries brand. These adverts aim to provide an alternative image of beauty to that of a seemingly unattainable ideal offered by similar companies. Together with the huge popular success of these adverts, Dove has also gained praise from various places for attempting to break the mould set by others by encouraging and reinforcing a positive self image. This is a hugely successful alternative marketing approach that clearly resonates with people. But is this revolution worthy of our unreserved praise?

For those who haven’t seen it yet, the premise is as follows: a forensic artist draws an image of a variety of women based on their description of themselves. Following this, he draws another picture of each woman based on a description given by someone who had a brief encounter with them as they waited to have their first drawing made. In all of the cases presented to us, the images created from the women’s description of themselves were vastly different from those created from the stranger, and according to the reactions of the women, the images created from the stranger’s description were considered to be more ‘beautiful’, fitting with the tagline provided at the end, that, according to Dove, ‘you’re more beautiful than you think’.

Whilst I applaud Dove for raising the issue of self image and addressing the homogeny of cosmetics advertising through their various ‘Real Beauty’ campaigns, and for the execution of this particular advert, which is undoubtedly very powerful, it seems unwise to uncritically accept the message that Dove is propounding as beneficial – the slogan ‘you’re more beautiful than you think’ needs some examination. Whilst it is common to reflect negatively and sometimes obsessively over our self image, we do so because we’ve learnt that beauty is very relevant to how we are perceived. We’ve learnt this from the same structure within which Dove exists, and this advert still adheres to traditional images of beauty. Dove merely tells us that we tend to undervalue ourselves, whilst recognising that beauty is still significant, as opposed to the more powerful message that it is how we perceive ourselves more generally that is important, not whether our perceptions match up with a superficial reality.

The problem is that we are surrounded on both sides by artifice. On one side we are presented with a misleading ideal of beauty which we presumably are supposed to aspire to, and on the other hand we have to contend with a distorted sense of our own beauty. Crucially, these two things are both coming from the same source, that is, advertising and the media. We praise and accept Dove’s advertising campaign and it is successful because it resonates with us, yet the traditional advertising campaigns which feature artificial beauties continue to experience considerable success. According to Dove’s message, there are still objective measures of beauty, all that their message suggests is that we are wrong about how we place ourselves on such a scale.

Above all, what is needed is an alteration in the way we view ourselves and the significance we put on physical appearance. This cannot come from the same channels which promote products or provide positive messages with ulterior motives, and must be achieved through acceptance of our differences and through being comfortable with ourselves. The revolution must come from an alteration of our own self-perception, in our own minds. The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised.

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