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Science vs. Dove: Thanks, but we are NOT our own worst beauty critics

By April 23, 2013 18 Comments

This blog re-published with permission from Kjerstin Gruys, originally from her blog Mirror, Mirror… Off the Wall.

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 three-minute version and felt emotions swelling in my chest. I liked this cathartic feeling, so I immediately watched the six-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…).

Woman poses with her sketches from the Dove Real Beauty Ad Campaign.

Woman with her sketches from the Dove Real Beauty ad campaign.

My thoughts hadn’t yet sorted themselves out, but my emotional reaction was pretty straightforward; 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 Jenny 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 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 four science-y assumptions/claims that have been made in this campaign, along with my research-y assessments.

1) “Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves to be beautiful.”

Dove offers this statistic — a product of “company research” — in the paragraph explaining the video on YouTube. OK, 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 encapsulates the entire “point” of the video, if it is possible to do so in one sentence. The sketch artist’s “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 found 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 to 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 to 5 instead of 1 to 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 were rated by others as “average”
  • 10% of women consider themselves to be “below average”
  • 15.4% of women were 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 in the Dove ad 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:

Dove advertisement for underarm "dark spots."

Seriously? SERIOUSLY?

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 (and 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.

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!

Kjerstin Gruys is a PhD candidate in the UCLA Department of Sociology. Six months before her October 2011 wedding, she decided to live without mirrors… for a year. Her blog began as a way to document her no-mirrors project, and has since evolved into a place where she muses, rants, and reports on her colliding worlds of sociology, social psychology, contemporary feminism, body image, and beauty culture. Her book Mirror Mirror… OFF the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year will be released in early May 2013.