“Good” corporate beauty messages, and their limitations

A spoof cosmetics add: a tub of skin cream with a label that says "No beauty product, ever." The ad text reads: "You're amazing! Buy our moisturising skin cream. Or don't. Either way, we just think you're so awesome!"

Dove kicked up a flurry of controversy in the feminist blogosphere recently with their advertising campaign, which showed that women tend to judge themselves less attractive, than a stranger would judge them. Some women appreciated this message, while others (myself included) reacted more cynically.

The hidden damage caused by the dominant beauty standard is huge. Many women suffer from eating disorders, and some even die. Even those of us who appear to get off scott-free still have to put energy into overcoming toxic beauty ideals, and this is energy that we don’t get to put into other things.

But as Imran Siddiquee showed in her excellent article Women are not their own worst beauty critics, the toxic and hateful beauty standard was not created by you or me, and it does not arise from ordinary women’s lived day-to-day experiences. The beauty ideals that harm so many of us are manufactured by (male-dominated) corporations and delivered in a non-stop onslaught by the (male-dominated) media – an onslaught that Dove is of course part of.

The beauty industries have always used a stick and a carrot. First we are told we are hideously ugly and therefore worthless as human beings. Then we are promised that their product, be it shampoo or skin cream or an on-trend skirt or shoes, will fix the problem. Dove has cleverly moved the goalposts a little, offering women a little more carrot and a little less stick than we are used to getting, but they are still enforcing the same old beauty standard.

What I want, and what I think a lot of women want, is to move away from a culture that measures women’s worth by their adherence to a beauty standard, and towards a culture where women are valued first and foremost as human beings, with beauty as at most a secondary consideration.

This culture of unconditional respect will never come from the corporate world, because it can’t be used to sell products. After all, a person who feels respected and valued as a human being is less likely to buy a tub of conditioning skin lotion than a person who has been told over and over that without inhumanly smooth, flawless, and glowing skin, she’s worthless.

That’s why, as much as I’m genuinely glad that Dove’s ads helped some women feel better about themselves, I still consider these ads to be part of the problem rather than the solution. I am much more excited about solutions that are coming from ordinary women, not from corporations. In part 2 I’ll talk about some grassroots interventions into beauty and culture that have inspired me.

The image is a mash-up of the artwork “Cosmetics Cream by DragonArt”, http://dragonartz.wordpress.com/, and is licensed Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0.

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One Comment on ““Good” corporate beauty messages, and their limitations”

  1. Dove is just the female-marketed beauty products brand of Unilever. The male-marketed one is Axe, to which we own some of the most disgustingly sexist TV spots ever. Sure, if you buy Dove you are telling publicists that female-marketed ads which send positive messages do work with females, and there may be more of them… but be aware of how the people you are giving your money to are selling the other half of their products.
    Don’t buy Dove for their company ethics, because they are less than inexistent.


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