Real Beauty Sketches?

Dove’s new Real Beauty Sketches campaign is getting a lot of buzz, but whether you call it a commercial or a “compelling social experiment,” I fear the real message might be in the last few seconds. If you missed them, look again.

The purpose of the three minute ad-umentary is to compare two different portraits of several women drawn by an FBI-trained sketch artist. For the first sketch, he asks a woman to describe herself. For the second, he asks someone else to describe her. The results are compelling; the first sketches show women who are – if you’ll allow me to use normalized western beauty standards for a second – less pretty (older, heavier, etc.). Dove’s message is this: You are more beautiful than you think. (It helps that everyone in the commercial is conventionally good looking to begin with.)

It’s moving, and I admit to feeling the threat of tears at one point. They set it up so well! The artist, the space, the gallery where women see the portraits and react. You witness them seeing what we have already seen: they are more beautiful than they think. Fine. We have internalized those beauty standards too, after all.

Then a strange thing happens. As the voice over says, “We should spend more time appreciating the things that we do like,” the shot fades from the gallery and sketches to a softly lit outdoor scene where a woman is being held by a man in a jean jacket. What? She nuzzles into him in the over-used woman-smaller-than-man, woman-held-by-man posture. Is that really the end point of all of this progressive myth busting? Love yourself and you’ll end up in a dappled grove in the arms of some guy? Give me a break.

This final image reinforces another kind of stereotype that women are hammered with from birth: the successful conclusion of any journey is to find yourself adored and accepted by someone else. A guy. In a jean jacket. At sunset. Sad.