Marketing Beauty: The Problem With The Real You

In 2004, Dove launched a campaign that would redefine beauty for women in a culture full of pageants and pop songs drawing lines around the aesthetics of the acceptable by inspiring teens and adults out of their damaging habits. This campaign set new standards for the beauty industry, marketing not only their brand and products, but also an idea of what was beautiful: a multi-colored, multi-sized (within range) panoply of women in poses that weren’t as seductive as their predecessors, but rather happy, exposed, and natural.

Despite the fact that the meager 2% of women around the world who self-identified as ‘beautiful’ in Dove’s un-cited studies doubled from 2004 to 2010, when they were asked to describe themselves to a complete stranger, all seven of the women in Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches project marketed themselves in ways that inspired ugly drawings. The video presentations of these drawings–set to a morose string/piano arrangement and encased in the format of a gripping narrative–proves that strangers think women are more beautiful than they really are 100% of the time. Or is it that real women are more beautiful than they think they are?

Now the way that Dove is seeking to improve female self-image is surely laudable to combat the plethora of problems we are still shocked to discover as real, but this occurrence of “real beauty” in Dove’s ads is part of a larger trend in marketing and beyond. In the past decade, we have seen value in the deconstruction of damaging ideals for women through messages like those through the Hawkeye Effect–not the multi-perspective technology, but the limiting perspective of men in the comic poses of women more unrealistic than representations we would ever catch male figures portraying. Feminist movements have also inspired plenty of critiques of Disney princesses and princes to combat the original stories, and a simple Google search of “real Barbie” provides enough terrifying disillusionment to encourage gender-neutral toys forever. Think what you will of these critiques of reality, but they’re all instrumental to some ideological end.

The true measure of value in campaigns like Dove’s extended projects–and any other marketing trends to redefine beauty before and after–lies in their warfare on the real: whether they are instrumental in cultivating real dialogue about aesthetics and self-worth, or they serve as means to an incomplete end. For instance, contrast the similar videos in Dove’s Evolution of preparing beauty with’s agenda for more honest labeling. The former is a public service announcement with a brand label whereas the latter is a call for democratic change in labeling, not unlike the movements in food labeling of GMOs. The discourse of “a step in the right direction” serves companies like Dove only insofar as what steps they inspire next. I’m not merely suggesting that the financial support of companies with these messages detracts from their legitimacy, but when we see celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence concurrently rejecting the norms of fashion industries and Hollywood while at the same time buying in to their product lines, we’re faced with a tough reality of conditional worth.

The problem we face in pointing the next step towards the right direction is in real-izing what we’re really saying, semiotically. Take one of the newest addition to the fashion trend as a prime example: American Eagle’s new #aerieREAL. The hashtag exploits the idea of ‘real,’ expressing at least that the girls in their photos have not been retouched. But the self-posted pictures of their fans show a wide range of what constitutes the real, and not all of them have the same standards. Meanwhile, they’re still encouraging suspended disbelief with camera angles, make-up, and false labels that claim things are more real with #NoFilter–nevermind that every perspective is a filter, the standards of public appeal still exist, and even our best models are brushing off some rawness.

What we really need–and by “we,” I mean all gender identities: male and non-binary identities, too–is the right way to measure “the real you,” regardless of what the media say. In fact, that is one of the major themes in Dove’s new installment on beauty critique: we hold the looking glass, and we all have agency. In a culture of such photophilia and self-observation, shouldn’t we be in constant check of the ways we see ourselves as more than just the products we buy into, but also as products in ourselves?

Though we will never be truly isolated from the world, we can always monitor and change the shape of our image within it. When the “real you” is just as ubiquitous the products we consume, you should reexamine yourselfie. If the biggest problem with marketing beauty is when we let others do it for us, it’s time we use the right filters and see ourselves for who we are.


The Fall

At the top of the world, leaves would ripple like fresh clothes drying in the wind

But there, the air is

Down in the rugged earth I stand where
Everything is in between

Fine moments of passing beauty and
Giant mountains of defeat
Highlighting the failure of romance

I am

Just a stretch away from
Knowing, but too afraid to
Leave the world behind

My bags are always packed but
Never are my contents inside

On the foothills I stand
Packing dirt as my soles grind
Quietly into the Earth

Reminding me that the mountain rises
Too looming to take me
Under its cliffs, and so its peak denies my

What a telling future
eXpressed in the setting

Your sun, my declining


I see you down the aisle of condiments
fingering the different brands of ketchup,
trying to decide which of the cheapest
tastes best.

For a moment, I am frozen
until you feel my stare
and match it with eyes that transition
from indistinction to anger.

I turn quickly
to avoid the reality
that I ever knew you

Because I’ve forgotten your name.
Then I remember

The first time we kissed,
your eyes were shifting between
the future and the present
unblinking to consecrate the moment
we became.

And as we pushed and pulled,
opportunities fell quickly
into the past,
leaving nothing
but sore shoulders.

And now,
with my back turned once again
I hope you’ve forgotten me already
and that you’ll never have to remember.


The last time I let you borrow my pen
you chewed the clip off the top
and offered to glue it back on.

And then, after I showed you
step by step
the proper way to re-assemble your phone
you still brought your broken technology
to my attention.


But this is my humanity.

The same way that I inherit
all the supple gestures and earlobes
of those budding lovers of mine,
I also part my lips
to suck the blackened air
from the burnt rubber
of a cocky foot on the petal of hell.

So as we quiet down,
settling our notes in our bags,
and you scramble for the ink
to complete your final test,

it is not ironic
that you have no choice
in your natural selection.

Fred Meijer Center for Writing & Michigan Authors Who May Never Publish Books But Will Get a Better Idea of What “Flow” Even Means

In the morning, the center is quiet
with the stillness of the neatly arranged tables
contrasted by the wilderness in the windows

Until new consultants file in.

Coffee-driven to climb out of their dreams,
this reality is filled with excitement and anticipation
to service writing and self-efficacy

And maybe, if there’s time, build relationships.

So with papers sprawled and pens scribbling,
the roar of conversation buds and blooms
with torn sheets flying up from pads and

Falling to the ground like leaves.

In the lulls, the silence is brief
as the water cooler clicks too direct;
conversation growing out of insight

And connections made over Tootsie Rolls.

And there’s questions, and struggles, and answers,
And Pat, and Lisa, and answers,
And calling, and ringing, and answers

And the wilderness freezes outside

As the work grows for consultants on both ends
From class-to-work-to-class-to-home and back
It’s the candy on the cabinet the brings us back

To the day that student was excited

Hands up for ideas and found theses
A snap and a shout for, “Well done.”
And Hemmingway’s niece? Overwhelming!

As, overhead, the sun rolls on.

And there are panics and breakdowns in time
Broken hearts and shattered minds
But we return to the solace of the center

To find, in our search, inner peace.

And the warmth will return through our windows
like crawling squirrels and chattering birds
as our mailboxes fill with new letters

And faces become familiar friends.

Our dreams shift from grad schools to comic books
and we mark on the walls and our hands
the hours we’ve enjoyed together.

And the other days… where have they gone?

The center will come to a close
as the monitors whir into silence
and we’ll leave with our names intact

Ever-changed inside and out.

But this new home, an old place of living
will settle in peace at day’s end
with the stillness of the neatly arranged tables

Waiting for our return once again.


On the day I awoke in the field of the cosmos, I was content.

Affirmed by nothing but the sun and my existence, I was free beneath the spread petals.
In the wilderness, I was the only civility; but incivility was all I felt
Reflected in the surface of the lake, beside the sun.
I was a coiled wire undone, to stretch and connect with every beginning and end,
freed by my own being; seeing myself as one without essence
but emanating radiance in continuum.

I was the palindromic sign that returned in recursion: the interweaved cursive dispersing within.
Drawn beneath my skin to the depth of my soul: an internal explosion creating my whole

And with closed eyes and softened heart, I knew all that I was, all that I wanted to be, and I was

It was in that moment I realized, in the middle of perfect peace, I was totally alone in my joy.