May 3, 2013
Chances are by now you've seen "Real Beauty Sketches," a video released a few weeks ago by the Dove soap people. It documents a social experiment: Women describe themselves to a forensic sketch artist, who draws them from behind a curtain. Then the artist draws the same women based on descriptions from people who've only just met them.
The accounts don't exactly line up. "My mom told me I had a big jaw" turns into "she was thin, so you could see her cheekbones." "I kind of have a fat, rounder face" turns into "she had nice eyes."
Saturated in soft, silvery light and accompanied by a moody, minimalist score (think "Friday Night Lights" when the team loses) the subjects are shown the sketches side by side and, eyes misting , admit to the artist that their self-appraisals were hindered by poor self-esteem.
"I should be more grateful for my natural beauty," a woman named Florence says earnestly, adding that beauty "impacts everything (and) couldn't be more critical to your happiness." The screen fades to white and this message appears: "You are more beautiful than you think."
Although a lot people claim to have been genuinely moved by the project, some of the professional commentariat have been less generous. They've deemed the women too young, thin and light-skinned to represent the "real." It's also been pointed out that labeling big jaws and round faces as undesirable is insulting to people who have those features.
Then, of course, there's the dark irony that the folks behind all this self-love also have a profit-making interest in encouraging a certain amount of self-loathing. Remember Dove's original "Real Beauty" campaign? The one with ads featuring average- and larger-sized nonprofessional models posing in their underwear? The one that purported to subvert standard notions of beauty by showcasing bodies of all shapes and sizes? Dove was flogging cellulite cream.
Back in 2005, I called those ads not only hypocritical — by claiming to celebrate ordinary bodies while selling products meant to improve them — but also discomfiting. For a lot of women, seeing "regular" female bodies on a billboard felt a little too much like seeing themselves in public in their underwear. And because those bodies were objectified as much as any other mostly naked female body on a billboard, it had the whiff of a personal violation — or at least self-consciousness — you just don't get when you're looking at a professional model.
"Sketches" isn't that squirm-inducing. The women aren't splayed across the side of a bus in their skivvies. They're fully dressed and speaking in their own words. Still, I found the video discomfiting. I couldn't stop thinking about how the kinder, gentler sketches were based on cues from women being asked to describe another woman's looks, someone they might meet again in the process of making the ad. Wouldn't you put the most positive possible spin on things?
The subject could look like Ursula the Sea Witch from "The Little Mermaid" and the operative phrases would still be "smooth purple skin" and "shapely tentacles." And that is because there is no greater taboo than criticizing a woman's appearance to her face. There is one acceptable answer to "Do you like my new haircut?" or "Does this make me look fat?" — and its relationship to the truth is irrelevant.
Conveniently, all of the "Sketches" women easily meet culturally sanctioned standards of attractiveness. None of the video participants was forced to thumb through a thesaurus looking for a nice way of saying "has three heads." And, to Dove's credit, this "Real Beauty" campaign has started some useful conversations about mediated womanhood and the real thing.
But the problem with being told you're more beautiful than you think is that you're still being told that beauty matters a lot. And though there is a sad truth to that, it belies the politically correct pretenses of the experiment.
"I have some work to do on myself," Florence wistfully tells the sketch artist, referring to the labor of self-esteem-building. It's a poignant moment. Still, what would have been downright radical is if she'd simply looked at her watch and said, "Gee, I need to get back to work."
Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles.
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