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 GlobalDemocracy.com’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.