You've seen that video that's making the rounds, the one called 'Dove Real Beauty Sketches,' where Dove, the soap company that asks us to get real, gets a forensic artist to draw women's descriptions of themselves and then has strangers describe the same women. The objective is to show that women perceive themselves as less 'beautiful' than others do. Yes, I know you have seen it. You don't get to 7,156,878 views on Youtube without at least 200 of your own friends being part of the clicks. Just in case you haven't, it's at the bottom of this post.
A number of my friends shared it, with emotional comments. Clearly, it touched a nerve. But, it didn't bring tears to my eyes. It brought a frown to my forehead. I would have described that frown to that forensic artist, by the way, and I would have called it a beautiful frown. A frown that lends glamor to my face. A frown that makes me alluring, a woman that people would want to come up to and buy a drink for and talk to. But, then, I might not have been included in that video.
Let me back up. Let me tell you why it brought a frown to my face. First, I couldn't shake off the sense that the video had left some women out. This essay here makes the point already, so I will let you read it and I will not make the same point exactly. Second, and this is what troubles me the most, I couldn't help getting the sense that there is a deeper point that Dove needs to make, which it doesn't. It implicates the women in their own crime. It attempts to make me sad for the women in the video, for the ways in which they described themselves, and therefore makes them wrong, thereby adding another, harsher spotlight on them. Oh, the poor things. If only they could SEE that they do, in fact, fit our conventional norms of beauty! Oh, look at the ugly woman in the portrait on the left. Look at the pretty woman in the portrait on the right. Pick one. See how wrong you were, silly woman?
It reminds me of the quote from Naomi Wolf, about how 'the beauty myth' is always prescribing behavior and not appearance. The Dove video is doing this all over again, in its own twisted way.
Consider this - is it possible that women are discouraged from talking about themselves as beautiful? Don't we expect humility and shyness and 'grace' as quintessentially feminine characteristics? How do we react when we hear a woman say, "I love how beautiful I look today!" I'll tell you. I have said that very thing. And I have had men and women raise their eyebrows at me or say things about narcissism. I haven't heard similar things when men talk about their successes, either at work or at the gym. The other day, I told a friend that I loved that I could look at myself in the mirror for 90 minutes during a hot yoga class. She laughed out in surprise. I know she bit her words back (she hasn't done so in the past; she has used the word 'narcissist' on me).
The thing is, I am not narcissistic. I am realistic about my beauty and my brokenness. I grew up with childhood polio. My right leg has always been thinner and shorter than my left. Twelve years ago, I would not have revealed this to you. I was deeply self-conscious and had low self-esteem about my disability. Then, a terrible car accident shattered my left ankle and left me with a fake ankle and scars all over the place. I grew fat in a wheelchair. The doctor told me that swimming was the only low-impact exercise I could do. I was mortified. I hadn't put on a bathing suit in years. It revealed the difference in the size of my legs. But, I lost something more than my ankle in that accident. I lost my ideas about beauty. I looked in the mirror, struggled into my bathing suit, and saw a strikingly beautiful woman. Years later, as I go about my day, I still feel radiant and think of myself as a dazzling woman walking down the street. Am I making you uncomfortable yet?
There has been no going back. Yes, every now and then I ask someone to delete a photo because I might look chubbier than I like. But, I don't make myself wrong for that. I blame a society that looks as me curiously when I say that I love the perfection of my beauty. Someone always has a prescription for me to try to get more beautiful, thinner, or fitter. Or at least tone down my own descriptions of my beauty.
The spotlight ought to be on us and on what we want women to say about their beauty. Do we want them to claim their loveliness (or their engagements with it) in words? Do we truly get out of their way if they say that they like the way they look right here right now? What's wrong with the portrait on the left in the Dove commercial? Well, for one, has anyone wondered about the forensic artist and how he is hearing what the women are saying? What's wrong about the portrait on the left is not the way the woman looks but the way we look at what she says about the way she looks.