Friday, April 19, 2013

Science vs. Dove: Thanks, But We Are NOT Our Own Worst Beauty Critics...

So there's this new Dove 'Real Beauty Sketches' ad campaign, and I'm finally ready to say my piece about it. I watched the 3-minute version and felt emotions swelling in my chest. I liked this cathartic feeling, so I immediately watched the 6-minute version, which moved me to tears (they welled up in my eyes but didn't fall. I now think my tears knew better than I did...). My thoughts hadn't yet sorted themselves out, but my emotional reaction was pretty straight-forward; I'm pretty sure I reacted EXACTLY the way these videos were intended to make women feel: emotionally understood, connected to women-of-the-world, and grateful to Dove for taking the time to do something so, so nice, just because they (make a shit-ton of money and therefore) could.

But something nagged at my conscience. The video made me feel soooo flipping warm and fuzzy that I didn't trust it. I wanted to watch it over and over again, to revel in that bittersweet symphony, but instead avoided it like the plague Jennie Craig. Perhaps my contrarian skepticism stepped in, or maybe I just never got over the whole "real women" concept (read my last post on "real beauty" here).  I've given far too many About-Face media literacy workshops to allow myself to simply react to media without (over)analyzing both my reaction and the media itself.

My suspicions were validated when other body-image bloggers pointed out some major issues with the video. You can MUST read these thoughtful and passionate critiques here, here, and here. These essays rightfully describe the ad campaign as being a heck of a lot better than what we're used to seeing in the media, but still falling short of our vision for inclusive body-positivity, in which being physically "beautiful" or "ugly" (or "real," for that matter) doesn't determine women's paths in life, or feelings of self-worth. 

This is all serious stuff, but I've got another bone to pick.  Are the claims and assumptions characterizing this ad campaign scientifically supported? I'm a researcher; Show me your data, and I'll show you mine!

Below, I outline 4 science-y assumptions/claims that have been made in this campaign, along with my reasearch-y assessments.
I tried to find a version of this in which a woman taught a man, but nothing. :( 

1) "Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves to be beautiful."
Meet Dr. David Frederick!
Dove offers this statistic - a product of "company research" - in the paragraph explaining the video on youtube.  Okay, fair enough. I'm actually tempted to believe this number, purely based on semantics. You see, most body image researchers don't ask research subjects whether or not they consider themselves to be "beautiful." Why? Because "beautiful" is highly subjective (particularly if you're asking women "around the world" who may have different cultural understandings of beauty.)

I contacted my favorite body-image-expert and co-author, Dr. David Frederick (who was the friend who came up with "Mirror Mirror Off the Wall" as my blog title!). I asked him to share some of his latest research, from a 2013 paper titled Understanding body dissatisfaction: Social comparison, objectification, and sociocultural factors. I asked him for insight on this 4% number. He offered the following:

"In a sample of over 24,000 men and women, we asked "how satisfied are you with your overall physical appearance?" using a 1-7 scale. (1 = very dissatisfied, 4 = neutral, 7 = very satisfied)" Here are the results:
28% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance.
15% of women are neutral about their appearance.
58% of women are satisfied with their appearance.
If you're wondering how 4% became 58%, it's, again, a matter of semantics. David explained, "There are studies that find most women want to change their weight, but this doesn't mean they necessarily are feeling 'dissatisfaction.'" If we follow the same logic for that 4% number we can imagine that even if 96% of women don't consider themselves to be beautiful, many still (gasp!) manage to be satisfied with their appearance. 

Dove: not wrong, but not quite right either. I'll let you decide!

2) Other people view us as more attractive than we view ourselves; "We are more beautiful than we think."
This statement incapsulates the entire "point" of the video, if it is possible to do so in one sentence. The sketch artist "social experiment" seemingly "proved" this statement to be true. But can the finding be generalized? Let's look at the numbers. I couldn't find one single study that answered this question, but have of several that, when combined, help give us the full picture.

In Dave's 24,000 person study, women ranked their own attractiveness on a scale of 1-10. In another large-sample study, participants were asked to rank the attractiveness of others, pictured in photos, using an almost identical measure of attractiveness (1-5 instead of 1-10). Here are the results, side-by-side

65% of women consider themselves to be "above average" 
32.5% of women were rated by others as "above average" 

25% of women consider themselves to be "average" 
52.1% of women are rated by others as "average"

10% of women consider themselves to be "below average"
15.4% of women are rated by others as "below average"

Are you seeing what I'm seeing? Even if we give some wiggle-room between these two studies, the pattern above suggests that our positive illusions lead us to view ourselves as more attractive than others view us. Does this mean we're all delusional? No, we're actually illusional. Psychologists use the term "positive illusion" to describe our tendency to view ourselves and the people closest to us as more spectacular than objective reality (if there is such a thing). Yes, this means that most of us believe ourselves to be above average in attractiveness (and intelligence, and kindness, and honesty), even though this is mathematically impossible. Yet, this also means that our romantic partners view us with similarly "positive" illusions (warm fuzzies again!). Oh, and another great concept, the "mere-exposure effect" predicts that the more time we spend with a person (i.e. "mere exposure"), the more we like that person. Thus, strangers are likely to view our looks more favorably simply by spending a few minutes chatting with us... kind of like the women who were asked to "get friendly with" the women whose portraits they were about to describe!

Dove blew it on this one. Big time. Which brings me to the next core assumption:

3) Dove's "social experiment" is experimentally sound.
No. Not in my opinion, at least. Why? I have a few reasons, but the major one is this: from what I could see from the videos, this social experiment was set up in such a way that the "findings" were almost certainly biased in favor of what they set out to prove. Here are three issues I noted (there may be more):

a) The "real women" being drawn seemed primed to provide negative statements about their bodies. For example, one woman was asked "if you could change anything about your looks, what would you change." She responded by saying "wow, I've never thought about this before..." before deciding she'd like fuller lips. Later, the same woman is asked to describe her chin and remarked "I guess I haven't really compared it to anyone else's chin...." before deciding that her chin stuck out too much. How might the results have been different if she had been asked to name her favorite features?

b) The presence of cameras and interviewers likely caused heightened feelings of self-awareness. This, in turn, would have increased the likelihood that the women participants acted in gender-conforming ways. In other words, the women being drawn were more likely to be properly self-deprecating ladies, and the women recalling the others' features would act like properly sweet and kind ladies. We were basically watching an over-dramatized version of plain old everyday fat talk discourse. Boooooring! (and predictable)

c) Finally, and most damning, the "real women" chosen to be drawn were reportedly selected based on fairly exacting criteria. Here are some choice phrases from the craigslist ad used to recruit them: "FLAWLESS SKIN, NO TATTOOS OR SCARS!" "FIT Not too Curvy Not too Athletic," "Beautiful HAIR & SKIN is a MUST!!!" "Well groomed and clean,"BEAUTIFUL ARMS AND LEGS AND FACE"   If this report is true, then the social experiment wasn't poorly planned, but strategically rigged. Want to make sure the women sketched won't be described as ugly? Pick "flawless" "real women" with "beautiful hair and skin." BRILLIANT!

(FYI - Dove has released a "blame the intern" cop-out by claiming that the craigslist ad "wasn't approved." In other words, the ad came from within Dove's walls, even though somebody is about to get fired for it!)

4) Women are their own worst beauty critics.

Seriously. Seriously?

OMG NO! THIS IS A BOGUS CRAPPY ANGERING LIE! Turn on the TV! Open a magazine! Watch a movie! Walk through a mall!  

We face a multi-billion dollar beauty industry that DEPENDS on women's insecurities. We don't come up with this insanity ourselves. There is nothing inherent to womanity that destines us for insecurities. Instead, we're force-fed it through the onslaught of media we encounter every single day of our lives.  

Hey Dove, do you still sell that cellulite cream that doesn't work? No? How about the "firming" body lotion, or that deodorant that reportedly reduces my "underarm dark spots"? Yeah. That's what I thought.

I'm still trying to figure out what all of these varying data points and interpretations mean for me. On the one hand, I think it's good news that so many women are satisfied with their bodies. And I also love knowing that positive illusions are probably boosting my husband's view of my attractiveness. Do I like the idea that I probably view myself more vainly than "reality"? I'm not sure! I know it's good to HAVE positive illusions about yourself, but is it good to know about them.  (Is this blog post going to make you wonderful readers feel more insecure about your bodies?!? Scary!) Does it matter if Dove's ad campaign is a biased social (non)experiment? I think it does matter (frankly, I feel suckered and resentful. That damn mood music!), but I'd rather see it replicated more scientifically, rather than dismissed. 

As much as I complain about Dove's "real women" campaigns, I think they do more good than harm. Yes, they reify ideologies that make women focus on their looks and buy more stuff, but nobody else is coming anywhere close to encouraging women to love their bodies, and certainly not  with as much energy or commitment. But I need to stop rambling...

What do YOU think of all this? 
What's more compelling to your psyche: scientific research or emotional experiences?
Tell my why you love/hate/tolerate Dove!


  1. I just think it's funny that the same brand that sells anti-age, firming and under-arm-whitening creams tries to claim they're helping woman to accept and embrace their flaws.
    Also the fact that "being beautiful" is based exclusively on their body image.
    I mean... they focus entirely on physical traits. the fact that they draw faces based on just a bunch of physical characteristics (biased or not) makes me think they just see women as bidimensional as the sketch. You're beautiful because your flaws are not that big, because your drawing looks beautiful. It doesn't matter what you do, what you know, what you like. You're just not as flawed as you think.

    And, of course, this applies as long as you're not what they consider REALLY FLAWED.. I mean, old, tattooed, fat, or with frizzy hair. In that case, well, Dove seems to think you're really ugly and there's nothing they can do to help you.

    1. Hi Pequenia and Kjerstin,

      Great point! The Dove campaign reminds me of "What Not to Wear," in which featured people are continually told they are beautiful while simultaneously being told that wearing clothing that doesn't conceal their "muffin top" or accentuate their breasts is a fashion "don't."

      I don't think Dove and What Not to Wear are necessarily trying to trick or confuse us, or even manipulate us into accepting a socially acceptable body image. I think body norms are so embedded in our culture that the "ideal" body image is considered objective, not subjective. We don't even realize we're putting ourselves down, companies may not even realize it, because we have such a narrow perception of value.

      What really gets me is how the media and other pushers of "ideal" beauty don't understand the opposition and really think they are doing people a big favour by putting us down. I wrote a post about this after yet another unpleasant encounter at a beauty counter, if you're interested:

      - Ashley

    2. Hey Pequenia and Ashley,
      Thanks for your comments here. Pequenia, you are SO right that Dove is defining beauty externally here. In every case, except the "expressive eyes" one, it's just about appearance.

    3. Ashley - great post! Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. It's so true that media and the beauty care industry are harsher on a woman's body than she would be on her own. I'm willing to bet that if you go to any third-world country that has extremely limited (if any) exposure to lingerie ads and beauty product commercials, you would find a higher rate of women satisfied with their bodies than you would find in first-world countries that are bombarded with such media. How many women would worry about wrinkles (fat, grey hair, etc.) if there weren't products being advertised to remove said wrinkles (fat, grey hair, etc.)?

    I'm not a fan of the Dove thing (I watched it once, over my roommate's shoulder and don't know which version it was). I don't like it because it's telling me what beautiful is. The thumbnail you (and everyone else seems to have) used clarify which image is "more beautiful" of the two. In my eyes, they're about equally attractive, although there is a slight preference for the one on the left. After watching the video, I learned the one on the left is the version based on the woman's own description and the one on the right is based on the description of others. Then I am told that the one on the left should be less attractive because it was from the woman's description. It could easily be inferred that (this experiment by) Dove is telling me my definition of beauty is "wrong" because it is different from (theirs and) that of other women's definition.

    If there is anything valuable to be learned from the study, it is that we don't see ourselves the same way that others see us and we don't see others as they see themselves.

    1. Hey Seashmore! In case this interests you, there was a fascinating study about the introduction of TV to Fiji. HUGE spike in eating disordered behaviors and beliefs.

    2. I lived in a tiny country north of Fiji on the equator (Kiribati). Beauty is defined very differently there than here. There are almost no mirrors and very few windows, and cameras are extremely limited, so people spend very little time looking at themselves. For women, the bigger the legs, the better, and luscious, rolly stomachs are great! You're more likely to hear someone making fun of a "thin" woman than a "fat" one. In my experience, people are so busy just making ends meet and doing the physical work that it takes to survive (cooking, harvesting, fishing, washing clothes by hand, cutting down trees with an axe or machete, feeding the pigs, taking care of kids, etc.) that there is very little space in their consciousness for critique of physical self.
      That being said, I lived on an outer island with no electricity, so exposure to the outside world was extremely limited. On the capital island, there is internet, DVDs, and much more exposure to outside life. I don't have as much knowledge about people living in the capital. But I imagine that you would see some of the same things as they found in Fiji after the introduction of television.
      One thing that is apparent across the entire country is the worship of lighter skin. There are complex historical reasons for this, in my opinion (the country was colonized by the British; the influx of missionaries in the 1850s brought a lot of shame about a lot of things- nudity, brown skin, and cultural practices). As a white woman living in Kiribati, everyone/many people thought I was beautiful simply because of the color of my skin (and maybe my big legs too :)), and they frequently admired "half-caste" people who had one I-Kiribati parent and one European/Asian/American parent.

  3. Hi Kjerstin,
    I want to take this opportunity to Thank You for the Plethora of information you have provided since your Blog's inception. My Body Image presentation received an 97.5 and it has given me a jumpstart to my Body Image–Mass Media paper (which will be used as a pre-curser to my Thesis next year).

    The "Dove Commercial" insight is an added bonus that can be incorporated into my paper (without digressing from its focus).

    Thank you again for all the valuable information, Links and continued support.

    With kind regards,
    DC (MSU Communications Graduate Studies)

    P.S. I can not wait to start reading your book.

    1. Thank you! It's so encouraging to hear that my writing is resonating with people. :)

  4. Thanks for this great article! I also found the ad "moving" even though I knew I should be highly sceptical of such a questionable company like Unilever. I wrote on the day it was released that I was struck by how conventionally beautiful all the women were (which isn't surprising if they were responding to an ad calling for "flawless" and "fit" women). It seems that focussing on these women's physical beauty is the wrong place to start in improving women's self-esteem. Focussing on ANYONE's physical beauty is the wrong place to start. No matter what there will always be people who fall outside the (very narrow) standards for beauty. I really like your scientific analysis of the ad's claims. I too had heard that people tend to over-estimate, not under-estimate, their beauty. Also it did strike me that women are expected to be self-deprecating in social situations. I wonder how these women could find so much wrong with themselves and seem so genuinely unhappy with their appearance when they responded to an ad calling for attractive women? Has it been confirmed that the women who were eventually featured did so after responding to the ad?

  5. Love the post, you bring up some great points!

  6. I completely agree. Thank you so much for so thoroughly going through this! The Dove campaign infuriates me. In my opinion, 60% of the time they do send an empowering message, but their products are awfully hypocritical with each one.

    1. You're welcome! When can products themselves be empowering? I know they're out there (like my "THIS IS A FEMINIST" T-shirt!).

  7. thx for this post. upon 1st seeing this ad, i immediately felt conflicted. i wanted to like the ad, but something made me uncomfortable. i didnt take the time to formulate a conclusion as to y i felt this way. u articulated my feelings very nicely. :) having had excema and very dry skin problems my whole life, i also have a soft spot for Dove, which all the dermatologists i've seen over the years suggest to patients like me.

    as for thots on my own personal body image: other than my weight, i'm very satified w/my appearance. and i am less bothered by my weight when i'm alone -- even when standing naked in front of a mirror! (except when i'm shopping for clothes and esp for a bathing suit :) -- than when i'm around my thin sisters & friends.

    thx for the thot-provoking analysis!

  8. I would be interested in Dave's 24,000 person study. Where could I find it?

    1. Dave's study is being presented on 4/27 at the Western Psychological Association Conference in Reno, NV. Hope that helps!

      Frederick, D. A. (2013, April). Understanding body dissatisfaction: Social comparison, objectification, and sociocultural factors.

  9. Hey there! thanks for sharing. Though I have been given many things to think about, there is one point I would like to raise, Dove is probably still one of the best beauty product campaignes that we have. Whether or not they succeed, they still are attempting to focus on showcasing inner beauty, they do use models of all different skin colors (where many others just focus on white Caucasian women. They also seem to be attempting to bring in women of all different body types throughout their other advertisements - not only focusing on the models that are size 0. Also, if you watch their other commercials, and advertisements, you will also find they use an incredible wide range of ages portrayed, instead of many beauty companies that use select young looking girls to push makeup intended for much older audiences. They do have a lot of things going for them - I do not mean this as a backlash, you had a wonderful blog post here, I was just giving the other side of the argument.

    1. I agree that there is more right than wrong going on here. I think the effect is overall positive, but since I'm a body image researcher I get to be super picky! :)

  10. I hate them because the only message I got from the video was: If people call you ugly, then you are factually and quite literally ugly, because you saw it first here - it's the opinions of others that really matters.

    What they need to focus on is that it's okay to be ugly. I mean, horribly, jarringly, shockingly "ugly". They need to declare war on the Western Beauty Standard... but they'll never do that, because they are part of that lie.

    1. Wow, I hadn't thought of it like that but you're totally right. I'm mixed though, because I've had disordered body image in the past, so it's been healthy to have family members and my husband tell me "No you're not a supermodel, but you're gorgeous in your own way and I love you."

      As a sociologist I recognize that the ONLY way we get any sense of ourselves is through social interaction. I've written about the "Looking Glass Self" theory in the past (a metaphor in which other people are our mirrors), and don't think there's any getting away from it....

  11. I certainly see what you are saying. I did have a few questions of my own while watching the video. I blogged about and then I realized that the whole blogging world was as well.

  12. Seldom-Commenter has only two things to say:

    1. I find it difficult to reconcile Dove's two-faced-ness. On one side they tout themselves as a company that "cares" about women, making them seem as if they're the do-gooders and recognizing what's really important to people, especially women. On the other hand, they STILL conduct animal testing. Women care about animal testing. A great deal. They hate it. So, stop it.

    2. I agree with you that the ads may be a step in the right direction, and do more good than harm, because most people are not recognizing (yet) how much they've been affected by very subtle propaganda. For us, that think about this daily, we see many of the 'fine lines' of their ads. But, for most women, I think it's a whisper of, "Hey...maybe I am beautiful" and I think that's a good thing.

    In short, I think the answer is this: Let's all chill about our appearances, including stop talking about it so much. Morgan Freeman once said something like, "You know how to end racism? Stop talking about it." Let's munch on that for a while. What would the world be like if we didn't think/talk so much about appearance?

    Love ya, Kjerstin!

    ~Maryanne R.

  13. Thanks Kjerstin for a great post! I've never really been a fan of the Dove campaigns that seem to have been generally lauded as a positive social change for women. Sure, there are some positives and I'll give credit where credit is due but there's always been a nagging feeling in me that something is off. Apart from noting that Dove is a chemically-laden product that probably does not serve the overall health of women, and is a product that is made and marketed by a company that has no problem with cosmetic animal testing, I have not been able to quite put my finger on why these ads make me so uncomfortable, so thanks for helping me understand my reservations better! Love your work. All my love and support in continuing to share your awesome message, Charlotte.

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