The new Dove commercial makes you wonder who made beauty our greatest asset, so central to our happiness. Does beauty in this world always have to be our own?
There were a few things Sleeping Beauty could have learned from her mother. Not much; just a couple of important things like the recipe for a mean poisoned apple, and the confidence to look in the mirror, ask that now-eternal question, and always expect a yes. Of course, that infamous ‘no’ did send things spiralling downhill, so I should cut my metaphor short before it starts to unravel.
I’ve been thinking about beauty, spurred by an ad gone viral, a few gruesome blogs by teenagers who refuse to eat and/or digest their food, and an always-ready interest in suddenly raging debates around me.
Even back then, when Sleeping Beauty was keeping house for seven strange men and Cinderella was cleaning out her chimney, someone had decided for us. Even when there were no competing products in the market to remove your cellulite and make you fairer, even when there were no models walking the ramps in clothes you could never really wear outside, our fate had been sealed. Beauty had become an asset and, for a women, it had become a precious asset, may be even her greatest. Her pretty face would be kissed and married, her name would go down in history and sail a thousand ships.
Centuries down the line, things are changing, obviously. We are concentrating on a different type of beauty today. We want real beauty. We want to take pride in our own noses and lips and slightly overweight bodies. This sounds wonderful, right?
This advertisement, a new instalment in Dove’s ‘real beauty campaign’ — now viral on the Internet and inciting an impressive number of online debates — is experiencing its moment in the sun. Ironically, this ad is showcased in a very attractive package. Dove — with the help of a forensic artist who draws these women based on first their own and then a stranger’s description of them — holds up a mirror to these self-critical women and makes them open their mind’s eye to their real beauty. Every single one of them fails the challenge, but comes out a stronger person. Of course, the clincher seems to be a line spoken by one of the many newly reformed women. She accepts the need to be proud of her natural beauty, because it will determine so many things, like her job, her children, the friends she makes, her happiness. The video, in the fashion of any good marketing strategy, is labelled a ‘social experiment’.
This is all very well, and frankly speaking, I almost like this ad. In its own, self-serving way, Dove has started something that seems positive. But this positive step does not mean that Unilever, the multinational consumer goods company that owns Dove, has stopped investing in advertising its other products. It also doesn’t mean that the overly sexual and limiting ad campaigns for its other brands like AXE and Pond’s have been called off. Thus, the company cannot really afford to tackle real problems. Expecting selfless public service from a profit-driven venture would be naive and idealistic, both of which have gone from being endearing to dangerous qualities in a very short while.
But there is no denying it. Unilever has, at least as far as Dove is concerned, invested in a project that aims, at least superficially, to make women feel better. Thousands of women across the world are watching this ad, closing their screens, and looking in their mirrors to find beautiful, pretty, attractive faces staring back at them. Then there are the women who aren’t impressed. Who know that they don’t feel pretty and beautiful and attractive because companies like Unilever have made it difficult for them to feel this way. These women know that they’d feel beautiful is every day, their senses weren’t assaulted by rake-thin models and fairness products.
And then, there’s a question I couldn’t help but ask myself, though I’m not sure if anyone else is asking it too — Why must we be beautiful at all?
What’s this word that we must believe in and repeat to ourselves like a chant? Who made it so vital to our personal happiness? Who held up that first mirror and told us to see our face and make it our commodity? Who told us that ugly was an ugly word? That you couldn’t — shouldn’t — look at your face and pick out its faults and, calmly and happily, go on with your life?
Today, Dove tells us to look in the mirror and see a beautiful exterior. It tells us to pat ourselves on the back for coming round to our crooked noses and our thin lips. What Dove doesn’t tell us — what no one ever tells us — is that it’s absolutely okay to not be beautiful. No one ever sat us down and told us that, just like there are different races in the world, there are also different faces. That our face is an accident of birth and genes, sometimes good, with straight, aquiline noses and bee stung lips; and sometimes not so good, with big ears and a wonky hairline. Instead, today our face isn’t just something that happened to us. Today, we are constantly aware of it. It’s something we need to work on, either with the help of the knife and surgeons, or with the help of generous “social experiments” and counselling.
As human beings, we’ve been given sentient thought. We see things, we judge its appearance. We don’t do this to people only. A pretty flower, an ugly dumpster, a sunset, a battleground… everything elicits a subjective response. To tell us to shut our minds to recognising and appreciating beauty will be futile.
But there is one thing that we can do. We can understand that, sometimes, when we look in the mirror and don’t find this subjective, personal beauty in our own face, it’s okay. We can understand that this beauty we so desperately need in our world doesn’t always have to be our own. It can be, quite wonderfully, outside us. That if we aren’t pretty ourselves; someone or something else can give us that beauty instead.
I don’t know how possible it is to confront ourselves; to meet our faces without Dove’s helping hand. To see ourselves in the mirror and recognise that our face isn’t what we wanted it to be and despite that, we don’t need to look inside ourselves, drudge up some old needlepoint phrase and find it beautiful anyway. That we don’t need a solemn lecture about inner beauty and outer appearances. That we can shake off this word, this gorgeous word, and walk off happily into a sunset that is, actually, quite beautiful.