I’m about to say something that is unquestionably going to piss off the majority of the Internet:
I have my doubts about Dove.
About Dove, and about most of the companies that create those viral “body positive” ads that attempt to show “real” women that they are beautiful.
I’ll preface the following by saying that I am so glad that there are people in advertising and marketing departments who are at least trying to change the conversation – who are saying that maybe, just maybe, the way we’ve preyed on women’s insecurities about their bodies to sell everything from beauty products to cereal isn’t doing us any good; that it’s time to show the women who are buying these products that they’re just as valuable as the models who represent their aspirations (and fuel sales).
But I temper that happiness with a good dose of reality.
Because at the end of the day, we have to remember that these marketers and advertisers are still selling a product. And they need you to buy it.
And as a marketer by trade (although I work in business-to-business enterprise HR technology, so it’s slightly less sinister than the business-to-consumer marketing I’m talking about here), I know that the best way to get someone to buy something is to:
- Pander to their aspirations
- Make them fear that without your product or service, they will never reach their goal
We all know that there’s a serious problem with the way the female body is portrayed in the media and advertisements – that’s old news, and I’ll let you go read the millions of other articles on the Internet if you want a take-down or critique of that.
But my issue is much more nuanced: I think that as consumers, we’ve become desperate for authenticity (hence the use of the term “real women” when models are also real women, albeit just women who are paid to look a certain way) that we are willing to suspend our disbelief and consume and share as many body positive messages as we can get our hands, eyes, and ears on.
The problem is that these specific campaigns are not just body positive messages – they’re advertisements.
In other words: In our hurry to be “real women,” we’ve forgotten that we’re also real consumers.
I don’t want anyone to feel bad for sharing or singing the praises of these empowering messages. Rather, I want folks to understand that every body positive ad must be taken with a grain of salt.
And while advertisers really may have the best of intentions, here are three “grains of salt” that reveal how seemingly empowering body image ads are still less empowering than you think:
1. They Require Women to Accept Their Own Victimization
A few days ago, reductress.com posted a brilliant parody of the Dove #choosebeautiful ad, in which women were given the option to choose between a door labeled “beautiful” and a door labeled “this door has a giant fucking tiger behind it.”
And in both the Reductress article and the real ad, when confronted with the beautiful door, the women have the same response:
“I chose [the other door].”
The parody calls out the sheer silliness of the situation by showing that we choose disempowerment by default, even when the stakes are life and death.
Yet the stakes are false because choosing to call yourself “average” is neither threatening nor fatal.
However the Dove ad uses these falsified stakes in an attempt to reveal that it is our own internalized fear and self-loathing that prevents us from making the “safe” and “right” choice.
But are women really “programmed not to love [our]selves?” Why do we carry around so much self-doubt and self-hate that we would actively choose to reject the promised power, safety, and acceptance that lies behind the “beautiful” door?
The reason I take umbrage with so many of these body image “empowerment” ads is this: We are told – over and over, in life, the media, and advertising – that women are victims of themselves.
We are just tiny, broken balls of internalized self-hate, and we must all have tearful epiphanies about our self-imposed enslavement to beauty ideals while the cameras roll.
And as soon as a logo is added to the end of the TV spot, there’s the tacit message that we need these ads to come in and set us free.
Special K tells us that we tweet bad things about the size of our asses. Pantene wants us to stop apologizing so much. Victoria’s Secret and D.Effect also want you to know that even models hate themselves.
Companies use these emotional appeals to bring about a sense of catharsis:
We gain an almost visceral experience as we align ourselves with the struggles of the women featured in the ads, and we go through the carefully crafted story line (underscored with uplifting music at just the right moments) from self-consciousness and self-hate to awareness, self-love, and action.
Obviously, the intention is good: Let’s call out the bullshit messages we tell ourselves about ourselves. Let’s end the “fat talk” and start living unapologetically.
But on the flip side, these ads create this weird paradigm in which the oppressors aren’t the advertisers and marketers who have fueled a culture of expectation, aspiration, and ultimately frustration, but the women themselves.
And so these newly minted, self-appointed hero-companies must come in and rescue both the “real” women and the models from self-destruction by providing messages (and products) that help them feel beautiful again.
If only we didn’t need someone (like a multinational beauty or clothing company) to come in and save us. Maybe that would change if the end of the story didn’t have to be “and they all felt beautiful and lived happily ever after.”
2. Empowering Ads Are Starting the Wrong Conversation
I believe that there’s a serious issue with the way the media and advertisers tell “real women” to fixate on beauty – and it’s actually hindering our ability to become body positive.
I’m not talking about the way we are told to look beautiful. We’ve all already heard about that and discussed it to death (and it’s partially responsible for the backlash that spurred the creation of these ads). I’m talking about the way we are told to feel beautiful.
The tearful acceptance that happens at the end of a Dove ad (for both the women on the screen and the ones who view it) is meant to empower women to feel beautiful exactly as they are right now.
Which is all well and good – except what happens on the days when you don’t “feel beautiful,” even though you’ve been told you’re supposed to feel that way?
In that moment, the moment when you feel “less-than” and feel like the feeling of beauty is just out of reach, you are exactly where marketers and advertisers want you.
You have an aspiration: I want to feel beautiful in my own skin. And the fear: I’ll never be able to accept myself. From there, it’s easy to start marketing solutions for helping you feel better – that is, “beautiful.”
In other words: In order to sell you something, marketers and advertisers (whether consciously or not) need you to continue believing that you are somehow disempowered, even though the ad is meant to empower you. It’s a classic bait and switch.
But what if empowerment has nothing to do with beauty at all?
What if we focus instead on the things that we already feel ownership of, power over, and in control of? What if empowerment comes from the inside, not out? (Spoiler alert: It does.)
And while I wish I could say that all it would take for these advertisers to actually engage in the right conversation would be to stop explicitly talking about beauty and instead just start telling women to find their passion and go live it, that doesn’t actually change anything.
At the end of the day, the message still has to tie back to a product.
This happens when Cover Girl had Ellen Degeneres and Queen Latifah tell girls to tell jokes and make music and when Pantene tells women to stop apologizing to men and start shining strong.
Cover Girl still has to sell you makeup to wear while you’re on stage rocking your mission, and Pantene wants you to flip your gloriously glossy hair while you breeze by your male coworkers unapologetically.
Branded empowerment is not empowerment.
3. Empowering Ads Are Still Ads
Choosing to feel beautiful is often sold as a “self-care” practice, where self-care is defined as “intentional actions you take to care for your physical, mental, and emotional health.”
And the self-care practice of choosing beautiful might just include buying things to make you feel beautiful, like clothing, jewelry, or soaps and lotions.
In other words, choosing beautiful as a self-care practice is retail therapy.
I’m not perfect: I’ll admit that I am fully guilty of buying into the “choose beautiful” mentality. There are absolutely days when I indulge in that retail therapy with a new nail polish or eyeliner color, a haircut or a brand new dress.
The issue is: Am I aware when I make those purchases or engage in those beauty rituals that my decisions may have been influenced by marketing and advertising messages? Are you?
This is why I feel like the Dove ads (and all of the others!) are at least a tiny bit disingenuous.
If “choose beautiful” had come from a not-for-profit organization or an eating disorder advocacy center, I could maybe get on board with the message a little more (even though I still think talking about beauty still isn’t the best avenue for achieving body acceptance).
But at least for a non-profit, all that there is to gain is fulfilling the mission of ending self-loathing or self-harm.
But when it comes from a multinational clothing or beauty products company, the message isn’t just “choose to feel beautiful,” it’s “choose to feel beautiful, and when you make that choice, think of my products to help you do it.”
Self-care is undeniably important, but you don’t need to buy products to partake in it.
And while these ads are most likely coming from well-intentioned people who really do want to change the conversation (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt), they remain advertisements—and they’re making a profit from your pain.
Again, I’m pointing this out not to make anyone feel bad for believing in the hopeful message of body acceptance put out by these ads, but rather to just raise some awareness about the underlying advertisements that are attached to each campaign.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel beautiful, choosing to feel beautiful, or accepting yourself as beautiful – but you do not have to let beauty be the cause of your disempowerment or the revenue stream that fills companies’ pockets.
If we really want to learn how to accept ourselves, we can start by refusing to commoditize our self-worth or falsely label that worth as “beautiful” or “average.” And that’s a choice worth making.
Kaila Prins is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a health coach who works with women who are ready to stop “recovering” from disordered eating and start “discovering” their true identities. Kaila’s health coaching services, as well as her blog, can be found at In My Skinny Genes, and she hosts a weekly podcast called Finding Our Hunger. She also counts characters and not calories on Twitter @performingwoman.