That Happened: Dove’s Real Beauty Ad Celebrates Outer Beauty


ColumnDove says, hey, you’re not that ugly!

Dove’s new ad campaign, Real Beauty Sketches, features a forensic artist asking women to describe themselves and then asking a stranger to describe the same woman. The artist draws two sketches and, in every case, the stranger’s description leads to a more conventionally pretty picture.

Since hitting the internet, these ads have been celebrated, shared (I admit to seeing it and sending it to a few people with the subject line: This is Great), well-parodied and hated-on for being anti-feminist. The argument that these are faux-feminist ads designed to keep us focused on what others think (even if what they think is nicer than what we think) is valid, especially because the ads are coming from a company that makes its money selling products to make us look and smell the way society would like us to look and smell—and, by default, supports the assumption that without smooth pits and and exfoliated elbows, we’re gross.

I agree with the critics that it would be awesome if we could all stop caring about what’s on the outside and celebrate each other, and ourselves, for who we are inside. Dove would benefit from looking inward too, because what’s on the inside of its iconic soap is not so pretty: Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate, Stearic Acid, Sodium Tallowate or Sodium Palmitate, Lauric Acid, Sodium Isethionate, Water, Sodium Stearate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Cocoate or Sodium Palm Kernelate, Fragrance, Sodium Chloride, Tetrasodium EDTA, Tetrasodium Etidronate and Titanium Dioxide (CI 77891). For comparison, Kiss My Face Olive Oil Soap is made from: Saponified Olive Oil, Water and Sodium Chloride.

But, let’s be realistic.

We see what’s on the outside and have opinions because we’re human; most of us also care what others think of us, at least to some degree, because we’re human. I do see some value in this approach to helping people build self-esteem. It’s similar to an exercise used by psychologists treating people with eating disorders where people draw the silhouette they imagine and then have someone trace their real silhouette to help them connect with reality.

In a world filled with messages to hate our bodies (Are you bikini ready? Why are Kim K’s armpits so fat?), this ad is a refreshing change, which is why it has inspired so many conversations.

Even though I see the good in the ad, there are some inherent problems. First, as women, we’re conditioned to be beautiful, but not to say we think we’re beautiful. For a good example, see an early scene in the movie Mean Girls. The head of the popular Plastics clique says, “You’re really pretty,” to Lindsay Lohan’s character. When she replies with a simple, “thanks,” the response is a cutting look and words said with bite: “So you think you’re pretty?” When asked to describe themselves for the artist, many of the women in the Dove ad may have veered away from their best assets so they didn’t seem vain.

Second, it’s creepy. Are we supposed to think these women were plucked from the street then handed a slip of paper with an address and wandered into an abandoned looking warehouse? One woman’s explanation, “I showed up to a place I’d never been and there was a guy with a drafting board,” makes it creepier yet—and makes it clear that this isn’t an ad about street smarts.

Third, many of the comments from the women and men describing the women reinforce traditional beauty standards like a thin face or small nose. And where are the sketches of the guys who showed up to share their opinions in part one? Did Dove try a “For Men” version of the ad and end up with something closer to the parody?

Finally, who is this artist guy to ask women if they are more beautiful than they thought? It must be a nice break from drawing criminals and all, but the fact that the artist is male, and not a therapist of some kind, adds a weird power dynamic. He’s doing the sketching. He is asking the questions. Could Dove not find a lady for this job?

Dove’s website notes that these ads are in response to research claiming that: “Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.” There’s nothing attached to that stat to indicate whether that number is low because most women in the world have far bigger problems than how pretty they are—and nothing to indicate how many of them lack access to clean water, let alone body wash. This ad is interesting because of the conversations it has sparked, but it’s still just a ploy to sell soap.

Image: Dove Real Beauty