April 19 2013
Is Beauty Anti-Feminist?
All week I’ve seen a new ad campaign from Dove called “You’re more beautiful than you think.” Here’s the premise: A woman sits behind a curtain and describes herself to an FBI sketch artist. Later, a stranger describes her to the sketch artist. The drawing made from the stranger’s description is much more beautiful. Moral of the story: Women are negative and self-critical when it comes to their looks.
I watched the ad and several of the accompanying videos. I thought, it’s wonderful that this experiment seemingly encouraged some women to be more confident in their appearance. Maybe viewers of the video will also identify with the message and be less hard on themselves. Every woman wants to feel like she’s beautiful, right?
Well, as if on cue, some feminists have criticized the ad for focusing too much on women’s looks. At Salon, writer Erin Keane posted an article titled “Stop Posting: That Dove Ad is Not Feminist.” Her main gripe is that “The real take-away is still that women should care whether a stranger thinks she is beautiful.”
Sure, our culture (and maybe every culture ever) puts more emphasis on women’s looks than men’s. But taking an ad campaign like this one too seriously – from a company that sells beauty products mind you – we might run the risk of over-applying the rules of political correctness.
In my life, I’ve faced a real struggle with how much I should embrace or eschew my physical appearance. I went through a phase in college where I was sure wearing makeup was wrong. Why present a false version of yourself? Why focus on outward appearance if it’s really what’s on the inside that counts? Isn’t it vain to focus on my own face and hair too much?
Well, there’s a balance. I talked with my mother about it, and she opened me up to a different perspective. When we get dressed up, fix our hair and present the best version of outward ourselves, this send a signal to the people we are spending time with that we care about their impression of us. You asked me on a date? You scheduled a meeting with me? Well of course I’m going to brush my hair.
I didn’t really think Dove was trying to send a message that women should or should not care about what other’s think about their looks. The fact is, we do care. That’s reality. I know some feminists wish there was less emphasis on women’s looks. But many women and men derive great satisfaction from appreciating the physical beauty in themselves and their loved ones. I’ll say it: I like feeling like I’m pretty!
I think the intended message here is about self-confidence.
In fact, while critics of the ad campaign focus on the comments related to weight (like “I have a fat, round face”), they ignore some of the observations women made about their demeanor like “[This sketch] looks like I’m more open, friendly, and happy.” What if a big part of beauty is whether or not you smile?
To me, feminism is about the equality of the sexes, but not sameness. I can still be a feminist and appreciate the natural differences between men and women. It may be a social norm that women face higher expectations in physical appearance, but we might also consider that it may be an innate desire too: the desire to be desirable. I don’t believe we need to defy that part of our nature; we can certainly appreciate beauty without reducing women to just their physical appearance (objectification). Our physical person is a part of who we are, but not all of who we are.