In the last couple of weeks, a Dove beauty ad has gone viral. By now, I’m sure, many of you have seen it: how a series of young(ish) women are introduced to a sketch artist and asked to describe themselves. The sketch artist proceeds to draw them—and then the ad introduces a twist. The sketch artist also draws these women as they are described by others, and in every instance, the second drawing is much more attractive than the first. The ad concludes that most women are more beautiful than they realize. (A spoof ad concludes that the opposite is true for men.) Compare this to a recent ad for Disney, which, aside from the expected product placement, presents a fairly empowering message to a wide variety of girls.
Although both ads seek to empower women, critics have pointed out that the Dove ad presents a fairly narrow range of beauty (mostly young, mostly thin, mostly white), and the ad rests on the assumption that beauty is the most important criterion of value in women. Similarly, although the Disney ad downplays physical beauty, the concept is still present in this line: “I have heard I am beautiful; I know that I am strong.”
As for me, I have mixed feelings.
While I think it’s absolutely critical that we continue to have conversations about the artificial standards of beauty often imposed in our society, I think it’s also disingenuous to suggest that we exclude beauty from the equation when we talk about women’s (and girls’) self-esteem. Beauty and femininity are so deeply linked in our culture that it will take a seismic shift in our thinking to change this, and such change won’t happen overnight.
In the meantime, what about beauty?
My four (almost five) year old daughter knows she is beautiful. She lights up when she gets compliments. Perhaps this means that I’ve failed her as a parent, that she already buys into the idea that girls should be beautiful. But I prefer to think it’s that she likes the way she looks—she believes that she is beautiful, independent of any outside measure of beauty.
As for me, my relationship with beauty is more complicated. I’ve been told all my life that my body is a temple, and as a church we spend a lot of time and money making sure that our temples are clean and beautiful. In this context, beauty is a partial reflection of the sacred. By this logic, I should feel beautiful; I should be able to see reflections of the divine when I look in the mirror. On particularly good days, I do. On not-so-good days I’m convinced my husband is simply blinded by affection.
The problem is not that women want to feel beautiful—or to be told that they’re beautiful. The problem is that too often beauty is defined too narrowly, and that too much weight is attached to physical appearance.
We may not be able to do much—at the moment—about the social weight of beauty. But we can (and I think should) fight to extend definitions of beauty and tell the women around us that they are beautiful in so many different ways. For all that the Dove ad has come under fire, I think it is true that too many of us find it hard to see our own beauty.
One last story: As an undergraduate, one day I found myself staring at a young woman during my lunch break. She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen—but with her dark hair, skin, and eyes, she was as unlike my red-haired and freckled self as it was possible to be.
As she rose to leave, she stopped by my table. I was mortified. I was sure she’d seen me staring at her, and she was going to call me on it.
Imagine my shock, then, when she said, “I just wanted to tell you how beautiful you are.”
And so I was. And so are we all—if we could just see it.