Beauty Redefined Blog

Dove Doesn’t Redefine Beauty, It Reinforces It

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One of the things we hate most in this world is when companies try to commodify self-esteem to sell products to girls and women. And this time it’s hitting really close to home. Dove just debuted their latest viral video at Sundance named “Selfie,” which repeatedly asks girls to “redefine beauty” by taking selfies and realizing how beautiful they are. The take-home message: “The power is in your hands. Redefine beauty.”

girls beautyredefined halfAt Beauty Redefined®, we believe this whole-heartedly! (Duh). We even trademarked it in our name! But Dove is a beauty-peddling wolf in female empowerment clothing. Dove doesn’t so much “redefine” beauty as much as it merely re-centralizes beauty as the foremost priority in a girl or woman’s life. It’s not revolutionary to re-encourage females to fixate on their looks, or document their looks at any given moment through their cell phone cameras, and then discuss what they see. This is for-profit advertising that sells anti-aging creams, skin firming solutions, and underarm beautifiers under the guise of promoting life-changing self-acceptance through feel-good videos. This tactic allows a company to cash in on women’s insecurities by being a false ally in the fight for positive body image.* 

Our nonprofit’s premise of “redefining beauty” is about expanding the definition of “beauty” in a truly empowering way: we’re not just expanding the definition from “thin, young, white” to “less thin, slightly older, and any skin tone with Eurocentric features;” we’re expanding it from “thin, young, white” to “you are so much more than just a body to be looked at.” We don’t want girls and women to feel good about their appearances; we want them to feel good about themselves.

One of the feel-good messages at the end of Dove’s video is a girl saying, “I was looking through my selfies last night and I realized I am beautiful. I’m pretty cute.” Now she can go face the world and excel at everything she sets her mind to, right? She finally sees her beauty! Isn’t that all we ladies need to succeed? No, because perpetual concern for appearance will still dominate her thoughts and impair her performance at literally every skill or task she tries to accomplish. Dove’s marketing depends on us believing our self-worth comes from the belief that we’re beautiful, but we want you to know that it doesn’t. Regardless of what you look like, or what you think you look like, you can feel good about yourself, because you are not your appearance. Positive body image is the cornerstone of our work, and it is founded in the life-changing understanding that your body is an instrument to be used and not just an object to be adorned. We teach people how to recognize and resist harmful messages about bodies that keep us fixated on our appearances through the power of body image resilience. (We’ll get there in a minute.) 

magazinesElena Rossini at The Illusionists put it perfectly: “The people at Dove have actually exploited a void in the marketplace. By introducing so-called women with ‘real’ bodies, they distinguished themselves from their competitors. According to the New Yorker, after the introduction of their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, Dove’s sales shot up 700% in the U.K.” Dove, whose parent company also owns Axe and Lynx (with the notoriously pornographic, sexist ads) and Fair & Lovely (the skin bleaching cream for women of color), also employs the world’s highest paid photo retoucher, Pascal Dangin, for their Real Beauty ads.  In a New Yorker profile, he was asked about his work with Dove’s ad campaign and said: ‘Do you know how much retouching was on that? But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.’”

Dove is not the only for-profit company using this same faux empowerment-based marketing tactic to drive profits.  As Charlotte Alter said, “Pantene had an ad late last year that equated shiny hair with respect at work… And American Eagle’s Aerie brand recently debuted a lingerie campaign featuring ‘real un-Photoshopped girls’ to encourage customers to ‘embrace their own beauty,’ as a brand representative described it on Good Morning America.  After years of marketing outer beauty, it looks like inner beauty is the hot new thing.”

While we love a non-Photoshopped image or feel-good ad as much as anyone, any campaign featuring women with shiny hair at work or models in their underwear is still just convincing us to buy more stuff at the end of the day. It’s still putting the never-ending focus on women’s appearances, begging us to spend our money on appearance-“enhancing” products, and distracting us from our potential to focus on anything else more important than that. [Read: everything. Everything is more important than worrying about your appearance.]

girls beautyredefined half 2

We’ve called out lots of other big-name brands for co-opting “empowerment” to sell sexist products over the years. One of the most successful swindlers of our time is Victoria’s Secret, whose “secret” is telling the masses their marketing “empowers women” and “helps customers to feel sexy, bold and powerful.” In the case of VS, a push-up bra and thong that says “best kisser” are made to stand for “empowerment” in a way that basically slaps us in the face. And Special K has also jumped on the bandwagon of selling diet food in the name of self-esteem and empowerment. Their “what will you gain when you lose?” campaign and their latest commercials encouraging women to end “fat talk” are still about convincing women that replacing two meals a day with a tiny serving of magic lady cereal will help them drop weight every single week. Because weight loss and beauty are our jobs, right? Full-time, life-long, unfulfilling jobs.

These are just a few of many examples, but at the end of the day, these examples are a perfect lesson in media literacy. We need to feel an obligation to put media under closer inspection for the influence it has in our lives. Next time you are flipping through a magazine or watching the latest ad telling you you’re beautiful the way you are (with the help of their product), train yourself to ask important questions about what you see. If you don’t like the answers you find, you can turn away from the messages that hurt you!

  • Who is advertising in these pages or on this screen?
  • Who owns the TV show, movie, magazine, video, etc. you are viewing? (Find out who the powerful decision makers are behind the scenes.)
  • Is the media you read and view promoting real health (which is measured internally) or beauty ideals meant to make you spend money?
  • Who are those messages promoting impossible ideals speaking to? What would it look like if this message were directed at males (or females)?
  • How are women and girls presented here? What are they being valued for?

artgirlAlmost 3/4 of the women in both of our doctoral studies (Kite, 2013 & Kite, 2013) described themselves in self-objectifying terms, meaning they viewed themselves from an outsider’s perspective. Looking through your selfies to remind yourself of your value is the perfect illustration we’d use to describe self-objectification. Living a life of self-objectification is debilitating, and here’s why: Living a life for others’ viewing pleasure is not fully living. When girls and women live their lives in this perpetual state of body-monitoring, they are forfeiting some of their own humanity. They are living as passive objects whose primary purpose is to be judged and consumed by others, and not as humans actively making choices and experiencing life for themselves. This constant preoccupation with appearance comes at the expense of every other mental and physical capacity you can think of.

Our nonprofit version of “redefining beauty” here at Beauty Redefined is all about helping girls and women recognize their power and their worth outside the confines of the lies sold to us by media. While media and cultural ideals would have us believe we are only worthy of value when we meet (or believe we meet) cultural beauty ideals, we teach girls and women to understand their reflections do not define their worth. Whole industries preying on our insecurities would crumble if we just believed that. Friends, Dove has one thing right: “The power is in your hands. Redefine beauty.” You do have that power, but it won’t come by taking selfies and letting someone convince you that you fit some arbitrary definition of “beautiful.” It won’t come by buying magic lady cereal, new underwear, anti-aging products, or anything else. Redefining beauty is a continuous process of learning to see yourself for who you really are, and for-profit media and products for what they really are. You are capable of more than looking hot, and when you realize it, your whole life opens up.

We help people “redefine beauty” by harnessing their power for body image resilience in four areas. If you’re up for really taking your power into your own hands, skip the endless stream of selfies and start here:

Mental Power:

  • Increasing our media literacy (understanding how and why media is engineered the way it is — see our entirerecognize” category of blog posts)
  • Critical thinking about beauty and health ideals (skin color, body size, age, BMI, fitspiration)
  • Critical self-reflection about our own beliefs and choices
  • Making conscious choices about media and cutting out what hurts (try a media fast)

Physical Power:

  • Using our bodies as instruments rather than objects (setting and achieving fitness goals)
  • Redefining health for ourselves by internal indicators and how we feel — not how we look

Spiritual Power:

  • Understanding you are more than a body and tapping into that higher-level thinking in whatever way suits you
  • “There exists a positive relationship between spirituality, mental and physical health, and wellness. …If a woman draws her sense of meaning from a spiritual force that goes beyond herself and that provides coherence and purpose to the universe, she will find less need to focus on her weight, shape, and appearance in an attempt to find happiness or life satisfaction” (Choate, 2007, p. 323).

Social Power:

One of our empowering sticky note slogans!

One of our empowering sticky note slogans!

The power is in your hands to redefine beauty in empowering ways. See more. Be more. THAT is Beauty Redefined. 

*Disclaimer: We fully recognize that many people see Dove’s marketing as a “step in the right direction.” We can concede on that point. Though they do airbrush their models and sell anti-aging, anti-cellulite, and other female-specific “flaw fixers,” they don’t  reinforcing the same stereotypes of supermodel bodies selling everything, and that’s cool. We’re glad their videos get people talking about body image and beauty ideals. Some people may perceive our response to Dove’s videos as too nit-picky or critical, but the whole idea of “redefining beauty” is very, VERY close to our hearts, and we want as much as anyone to help girls and women feel good about their bodies. That’s why Dove’s videos are so frustrating to us — they fall so short of actually assisting people in achieving positive body image when they could so easily do so. Instead of asking girls to take selfies and post them online, and thus invite input from others about what they look like, they could ask girls to step away from the selfies and the constant, debilitating focus on appearance that is epidemic among females and focus on using their bodies for good. Studies show using your body as an instrument, rather than focusing on its appearance, improves the way we feel about our bodies. No studies show that posting selfies and asking for public comment on them helps anyone to feel better about their bodies. We want Dove to do so much better, especially if they’re using the phrase “redefine beauty” to do it.  

 

  1. Rachelle
    Rachelle01-23-2014

    This is true: “…believing our self-worth comes from the belief that we’re beautiful, but we want you to know that it doesn’t.”

    I seriously refuse to believe that self-esteem/ confidence/ and worth can only come from believing that you are beautiful. I tried so hard to ‘convince’ myself that I AM beautiful. But only when I shifted my focus to the other parts of myself was I able to finally feel better about myself.

  2. Kylie
    Kylie01-23-2014

    Thank you so much for this post! I absolutely hated the Dove campaign where the man sketched two drawings of each person, and though I haven’t seen the newest one yet, I am almost certain I will disagree with it as well. I work with teenage girls and I wish they could all understand the message you are conveying in this post. Yes, it’s important to feel beautiful in your own skin, but there is so much good that a woman can do that has nothing to do with what she looks like! If we limit our accomplishments to only that, how many wonderful opportunities our we going to discredit as unimportant?

  3. BeBe
    BeBe01-23-2014

    Why are we talking about inner and outer beauty as if they’re mutually exclusive when they don’t need to be? A woman can and should value herself based on factors that have nothing to do with her appearance while at the same time making her outer appearance reflect how she feels on the inside. Nothing wrong with that.
    1. Your self esteem should remain the same whether you consider yourself to be beautiful or not because self esteem isn’t based on outer appearance.
    2. Valuing the inner more than the outer shouldn’t mean abandoning looking your best.
    3. There is nothing wrong with valuing outer beauty. Superficial beauty may not be the most important thing a woman can aspire to, but it is fun. Makeup, hair, pretty lingerie make a woman’s world much nicer.
    4. Standards of beauty don’t exist because of the media. The media simply regurgitates our beliefs and perpetuates our own ideals. Human beings can distinguish between a flower and a weed, and the main difference is one is beautiful and the other is not. If we’re going to argue that every wrinkled, overweight woman is beautiful (on the outside) then we all have to agree that weeds are beautiful, and that’s not happening. Nowadays it’s like we know the truth but also hate that we don’t measure up, so we try to make a falsity (stretch marks are beautiful) into a truth.
    5. Having high self esteem doesn’t mean you’re immune to feeling self conscious. The best way to avoid feeling self conscious is to get rid of whatever makes you feel that way. You enjoy yourself more when you have nothing to feel self conscious about. (Note I said you enjoy yourself more, not like yourself more.)

    • Sarah S.
      Sarah S.01-23-2014

      You’re missing the point, BeBe. It isn’t that we all should be thinking stretchmarks (or whatever piece of lady Dove is selling a product for) are beautiful. The point is WHO CARES about being beautiful? We shouldn’t.

    • Angel
      Angel01-23-2014

      You are shallow person! Are you BeBe? Nothing is wrong with wrinkled overweight women. If that is the case then no women is beautiful. (Outer appearance)

    • Angel
      Angel01-23-2014

      BeBe I am going to start calling women beautiful. Pretty I would call them that, lovely maybe but not beautiful. If they were dressed up for some special event like a prom or a wedding and they looked beautiful, I would call them beautiful. What is beautiful anyway? I am going to summarize this from the dictionary, something that is pleasing to the eye when we talk about how someone or something look. I have never met someone that was not pleasing to the eye but I met a lot of people that had not so pleasing qualities. Meaning rudeness and meanness. Which made their personalities not so beautiful. I understand why a man would say a woman is beautiful. Or a husband calling his wife beautiful and, a wife calling her husband handsome that is understandable. Even a teenage boy thinking a teenage girl is beautiful is understandable but why do we have to classify people into being beautiful and ugly. Saying a person is ugly or beautiful narrows them down into nothing. Something that does not define who they are.

      ” Standards of beauty don’t exist because of the media. The media simply regurgitates our beliefs and perpetuates our own ideals. ”
      I agree and disagree with this quote

      While yes that may be true but have you heard of this rap song in the 90s by Sir Mix a lot, in the song he was explaining his point of view of what he found attractive which back then media did not portray the women he was attracted because it did not live up to societies standards and, let be real here it did not live up to white standards. That is why he made the song, not just to make people laugh and dance, but that is how he felt. My point is that we live in the U.S.. In the U.S. obviously we have different cultures, beliefs, races, religions therefore we have different beauty standard but those different beauty standard are not all represented. Unless you look in some magazine that is targeted towards a race or ethnicity, you will not find all types of beauty represented in mainstream magazines. You will only find what the media find is beautiful and that’s not fair. So your quote is saying that majority of American ideas is that you have to underweight, white, and curvy to be considered beautiful because that is what media is portraying. Yes there are some people who do find overweight women with wrinkles beautiful. Who find them beautiful? maybe other overweight women w/ wrinkle, older men, their husbands or partner or whatever. Another point I am trying to make is beauty is also subjective..

  4. WakeUp
    WakeUp01-23-2014

    Sure, we absolutely want women (and everyone in the world) to not even care about appearances and just we happy with who they are on the inside.

    “We don’t want girls and women to feel good about their appearances; we want them to feel good about themselves.”

    And then maybe after we can all hold hands and sing kumbaya.

    Get real. In the world we live in, appearances matter AND THEY ALWAYS WILL. Nothing will ever change that. So let’s focus on what we CAN control.

    What we can control is how we react to the fact that appearances matter. Are we going to starve ourselves and paint our faces in order to meet a standard set by society? Or, can we teach young women that no matter what they look like, no matter what society says, they are beautiful? They should meet their own standard of beauty. Beauty redefined.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined01-23-2014

      You realize that’s exactly what we do, right? In our off time from holding hands and singing kumbaya, we teach girls and women how to have positive body image, which is feeling good about your body regardless of what you look like. You’re right — appearances matter. They matter a disproportionate amount for females, and the importance of appearance is only reinforced by Dove’s idea of “redefining beauty.” In a world where appearance appears to be EVERYTHING for females, we teach them that “beauty” is more than what they’ve been trained to see and that there is more to them than what they look like. Beauty Redefined.

  5. Tamsyn Eastgate
    Tamsyn Eastgate01-24-2014

    I completely understand that what Dove is doing is not actually redefining beauty and that they are encouraging women to continue to obsess over their outward appearance. But I think we also need to understand that Dove is a business that sells cosmetic products that is obviously trying to make a profit, as that is what businesses do. It would be counter-intuitive for Dove to start going around and saying ‘stop being interested in your, or other women’s outward appearance, and instead celebrate who you are on the inside!’, because the more people did that, the less likely women would be to be interested in buying their cosmetic products. I don’t think we can really ask Dove to start doing that, because it would just be bad for their business, (although there are still of course less and more harmful ways they can choose to advertise their products.)
    Instead, I think we need to use our media literacy to recognise that Dove is a cosmetics company that is trying to sell us cosmetics, and so they are really the last place we should be looking to for messages on having a healthy self-esteem about our inner and outward appearance. That’s not Dove’s job. If, when we see such ads from cosmetic, ‘beauty’ and fashion companies and learn to quickly filter them out and discard them as ‘just trying to sell us something’ then we’ll have more time to spend considering actual helpful body image advice such as on this site.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined01-24-2014

      Totally agree, Tamsyn! I think you’re perfectly correct in stating that Dove is a cosmetics company, so OF COURSE they keep the discussion at women as bodies alone. That was the point of our post, so I hope that came across! As you say, “they really are the last place we should be looking to for messages on having a healthy self-esteem.” Thanks for commenting!

  6. Frances
    Frances01-24-2014

    On the one hand, I agree with you: women — everybody — should indeed base our sense of self-worth on who we are. But on the other hand, isn’t appearance part of that? There is a long long human history of wanting to look our best, of dressing up and decorating ourselves, of cutting a fine figure out on the town. Of preening. And I am far more saddened by the majority of beauty-based advertisement which says so clearly that only women of a certain age or body type will ever measure up than I am by Dove’s admittedly idealized and limited “real beauty” campaign. It is not perfect, it still emphasizes beauty (but they are a cosmetic company, so what should we expect, really), but it is a baby step in the right direction.

    You know, I’m a 50 year old mom of a kindergartner. I manage two successful professional careers. I’m financially secure. I’m smart. I can be strong and athletic. I’m pretty secure in my accomplishments and I sure don’t put “beauty” at the top of my priority list. But I live in a world full of images that entirely exclude me, and I find myself at the playground with mothers 20 years younger than I am, and dammit, I am offended at messages that tell me I shouldn’t care, because I do. I don’t care to try to meet some arbitrary and impossible standard, but I feel better about pretty much everything if I feel I am presenting myself in a manner that reflects the best of myself. Possibly that’s a contradiction, but there it is. Luckily I am capable of handling the complexity.

    The upshot of all that is that I can’t slam Dove too hard for their campaign; it’s a damn sight less harmful than many. Ditto Aerie’s underwear ad. Of course their marketing focuses on the body — am I expecting something else, given what they sell? I don’t expect a lot more depth from my moisturizer, really. I applaud the work you do; I agree we should be aware of the inherent manipulation in any advertising…but let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good. Or even of just less bad.

  7. Naomi
    Naomi01-26-2014

    On one hand, I’m on board with what you’re saying – ad campaigns like Dove’s are ultimately geared toward profit, and they do push the philosophy that the most important aspect of a woman’s life is her physical appearance.

    On the other hand, you have kind of adopted a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude toward some other products and businesses. You’ve published several articles criticizing the Photoshop/retouching industry, which I wholeheartedly agree with. But as soon as one company launches an ad campaign featuring untouched models (of varying sizes and races, by the way), you still criticize them because the company features models in their underwear. That has me wondering, what ad campaign from an underwear company *would* meet your approval? or is it the idea of an underwear company in general that bothers you?

    I get that the primary concern of these companies is profit. That is true of every company, unless they’re a 501(c)3. But since I don’t make everything I use or wear or eat from scratch, I do have to buy certain products from said companies. And I definitely wear underwear, and since I can’t find my size in town, I have to order it or go out of town. Aerie happens to provide good quality products at a great price, and I already know what size I am there. So yes, I’m going to shop there. I am glad they are doing this new ad series, but honestly, their marketing strategy really doesn’t have any effect on whether I shop there or somewhere else, because of the aforementioned reasons.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined01-26-2014

      Thanks for your comment! In response to your question about underwear models, we haven’t given much of any opinion on Aerie or any other underwear company featuring unretouched models – so no criticism here! In this post, we said, “any campaign featuring women with shiny hair at work or models in their underwear is still just convincing us to buy more stuff at the end of the day. It’s still putting the never-ending focus on women’s appearances, begging us to spend our money on appearance-”enhancing” products, and distracting us from our potential to focus on anything else more important than that.” Our point there is that it’s not revolutionary for body image – it’s good! But it’s still selling a product, so keep that in mind. Past that, we have no official opinion on Aerie. We’re just all about getting PAST the constant focus on appearance, and any company that does that has our approval!

  8. Carly
    Carly01-26-2014

    I agree with the general thesis of this post, that self-worth doesn’t come from defining our own bodies, and I also agree that the priority of Dove, Pantene, Victoria’s Secret, etc is to sell products above all else. Women should look at their worth beyond their body image.

    But you also pointed out that accepting your own body as an instrument is also important, and yet I feel like you simultaneously claim that feeling beautiful is not the point (because our worth comes from within). I see nothing wrong with a girl putting on a push-up bra to make herself feel sexier, any more than I see a girl buying a cute skirt to boost her confidence. They’re wearing these things for themselves, not necessarily for the male gaze, or any other gaze, and if it makes them feel better about themselves, then that’s a plus.

    As a woman who felt that she “didn’t belong” in Victoria’s Secret in the past to buying several items from them, I can attest that feeling cute or sexy makes me feel better about myself. I don’t tie my self-worth with my appearance. I was always confident in my skills, personality, and intelligence. But I wasn’t confident in my appearance until recently, and that’s been an improvement in my life. I was happy with myself before, but just like a girl who’s always told she’s “pretty” one day discovers she’s also smart and that increases her self-worth, a girl who’s always thought of herself as “smart” discovering she’s also “pretty” increases her self-worth as well.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still agree that beauty is not everything. However, I’d contest that a woman shouldn’t put all her worth in how bright she is, either, or how successful she is in her school or career. All of these aspects of her personality are facets of who she is, and she should be proud of every single one of them and flaunt it – including her appearance.

    If Dove’s campaign wasn’t trying to sell a product, would you still be so against the message? If they changed the message slightly, to say “You are kind, smart, strong, resilient” etc, AND added “beautiful” at the end, would it be better?

    Beauty is not everything, and we should not use it alone to define our self-worth. But there’s nothing wrong with feeling beautiful, or with promoting young girls to see themselves as beautiful, so long as we also encourage them to see themselves as kind, smart, strong, etc.

    Just my two cents.

  9. George
    George01-27-2014

    “Studies show using your body as an instrument, rather than focusing on its appearance, improves the way we feel about our bodies”

    This is fascinating, can you link to some more info on this please?

  10. Michael Thompson
    Michael Thompson01-30-2014

    Want to know who is hard on women? Other women. Mindblowing revelation I know. But women judge themselves more harshly than anyone ever could. If a company can help a woman examine the way that she sees herself (and as a result change the way that she feels about herself) wouldn’t that be a good thing? We throw money at companies all the time becase of what they sponsor and do for our favorite charities. Why can’t Dove make a profit off of self-esteem? Jewelers made money off of the right hand diamond. Ford earned a lot of customers by not taking bail out money. Every company under the son exploits pink ribbons for breast cancer and camouflage for the military. I think we should examine the woman that sat at home, watched that video in the dark by herself, and decided at least for one day to not be so hard on herself. Signed,
    Husband and father. One son and one daughter due in April.

  11. Alison Moore Smith
    Alison Moore Smith02-27-2014

    Yes, a million times! Yes!

    I wrote a piece on the first Dove “real women” commercial I saw last year — after seeing people screaming about how awesome it was. I understood what they liked, but not that they didn’t see the rest.

    http://pix2brix.com/why-i-love-dove-real-beauty-sketches-also-hate-it/

    Thank you for all you do. Keep it up!

  12. Concerned Male
    Concerned Male04-01-2014

    Thank you for this! I work in marketing and am all too familiar with the tricky tactics these companies pull and have seen the negative effects on the women around me. When Aerie did their campaign where they didn’t photoshop the “plus” size models people were praising it but I was screaming “ya they didn’t photoshop them but they clearly have many layers of makeup. no one has that perfect of skin”. I was told to just be happy they were at least not photoshopping but to me this was worse because women would see someone who isn’t photoshopped but still has a look that is unattainable by natural means. At least when companies don’t use the “natural beauty” technique we all know and are aware that the image has been altered and is unrealistic. The danger of ads that showcase “natural” models is that they are still not your typical female and they still wear makeup and I just imagine that girls see that and think “if they look that great naturally i must look like garbage”.

    Thank you for all you do. I hope to live in a world one day where women don’t spend an hour and a half making themselves look good enough to leave the house or feel they need to put makeup on before working out. Where my future daughters will know that they are beautiful for who they are and not for what they do to their bodies.

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