“I should be more grateful of my natural beauty” one woman concludes after participating in the Dove Beauty Sketches. In fact, the woman, Florence concludes that natural beauty “couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”
Florence came to these undesirable conclusions through participation in a commercial released as part of Dove’s campaign to promote “real beauty”. The commercial, titled Dove Real Beauty Sketches is the most viral video commercial of all time, amassing over 114 million views in the month following its release.1 Viewers of the commercial responded with tears, hope for change, and a feeling that this campaign might cause people reconsider the way they look at themselves.2 This initiative was launched in response to company research in 2005 that found only 4 percent of women see themselves as beautiful.2 The campaign, according to Fernando Machado the global brand vice president, is focused on turning beauty from a source of anxiety to a source of confidence. This campaign, and the resulting commercial have two fundamental problems. The first is that it promotes a world in which women should simply see themselves as more beautiful in order to increase their worth, rather than valuing other characteristics that they might possess. Secondly, the basis of their campaign, and reasoning for launching it—that women tend to see themselves as less beautiful than they truly are—is scientifically wrong.
Dove’s “real beauty” initiative, unsurprisingly, combats women’s anxiety about beauty in a way that still promotes the importance of beauty. As a company that profits from the sale of beauty enhancing products, they pair the idea that “you are more beautiful than you think” with the concept that possessing beauty is essential to life and happiness. It seems that Dove is arguing that women see themselves more negatively than they should, at least in part because they are overly critical of their physical beauty. Dove still tells ladies beauty is supremely important to the way they view themselves
In fact, after the transformative experience of the Dove Real Beauty Sketches, Florence finds that her perception of her own natural beauty “impacts everything.” Instead of responding to the finding that beauty is a source of negative affect and anxiety for women, we should argue that there are other qualities women possess which are significantly more important than being considered beautiful. Instead of proving to women that they are worth more than they thought because they are more beautiful than they believe, we should prove to them that their worth is not a constituent of their beauty. Dove has the right intention of reducing anxiety about beauty itself, but it seems their methods also promote it in other, more subtle, ways.
The second, more objective problem with Dove’s Beauty Sketches is the evidence and research supporting their commercial is highly disputed by a large body of psychological scholarship. In a recent article in Scientific American, Ozgun Atasoy3 shows most women see themselves as less attractive than they actually are contradicts the well-established doctrine of “self-enhancement.”
Self-enhancement is the theory that individuals tend to see themselves in a more positive light than is actually accurate. This is corroborated by a recent study conducted by Nicholas Epley, a professor at the University of Chicago and Erin Whitchurch, a professor at the University of Virginia.4 In this study, Epley and Whitchurch took photos of participants and digitally modified them into more, and less attractive photos. Participants were then shown the original photo and modified photos, and asked to choose the photo that they believe is the original. Unlike what the Dove campaign would likely predict (that participants would choose the less attractive photo), participants tended to choose the modified photos that enhanced their attractiveness as the actual photos. Further, when participants were choosing for a stranger, they tended accurately choose the original photo of that stranger from the given set of photos. It seems that people tend to view themselves as more attractive than they truly are, rather than less attractive.
Atasoy continues on to argue not only does research show that we tend to see ourselves as better than we truly are, but most of us see ourselves as better than the average (an obvious impossibility). This extends beyond beauty, to unrealistic optimism and to overestimate our own good behavior. In fact, we even tend to believe that we are less prone to self-enhancement, essentially that we are better than average at accurately assessing ourselves. Though this cognitive mechanism seems harmful, as it causes our representation of ourselves to be different than the truth, many argue for self-enhancement as valuable. Self-enhancement causes individuals to truly believe that they are better than they are, and have better characteristics than they do, which can lead to higher confidence. Confidence is an important factor in credibility, likeliness to be hired for certain jobs, and even for attractiveness as a romantic partner. Thus, it seems that self-enhancement can and does have important practical consequences.
It also seems that the tendency to be optimistic and believe that one will succeed at a higher rate than the average would be an important factor in hope. One will be more likely to believe that circumstances will change and become better for them, and thus will be more likely to continue to look forward and exert effort to change their situation. Hope is an important component in the human desire to continue to exert effort, as we believe that this effort will tend to create positive results. Self-enhancement might be our best defense against giving up, and an important tool in believing in ourselves, even through adverse circumstances. It even seems that knowledge of this premise might be beneficial to Dove itself, as exploitation of it might leave women scrambling to raise their actual attractiveness to their perceived level (though most women would likely believe that they are the minority that is better than average at assessing their attractiveness).
It seems Dove got it wrong. They are promoting a view that in some ways increases anxiety about beauty, all based on the false premise that women see themselves as less beautiful than they actually are. Their commercial shows women that others see them as more beautiful than they see themselves, and thus (as we should base our opinion of ourselves on others’ opinions of us), we should recognize ourselves as more beautiful. A more accurate commercial might have been to show women over-reporting their attractiveness, and overemphasizing the role of their physical features in their overall worth. Then, the subjects they interacted with could counter by emphasizing the other, non-physical qualities that the person demonstrated, and express that this is an important factor in that person’s worth. If Dove’s intention is to emphasize “real beauty,” they should not be proud of Florence’s conclusion that natural beauty “couldn’t be more critical to your happiness,” and should instead place importance on the non-physical, and non-beauty product enhanced aspects of beauty.
1“How Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ Became the Most Viral Video Ad of All Time”, Laura Stampler, Business Insider
2“Ad About Women’s Self-Image Creates a Sensation”, Tanzina Vega, New York Times
3“You Are Less Beautiful Than You Think”, Ozgun Atasoy, Scientific American
4“Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition”, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin