Soap: The Slippery Slope
“The greatest skin care discovery of all time!” boasts the 1957 black and white commercial, showing a still of the New York skyline. The camera then pans up to show a flock of white doves flying away, leaving a giant white Dove soap bar to fill the screen. The crackling voice explains the benefits of using a Dove bar instead of another soap product, demonstrating this by having a beautiful blonde young woman wash each side of her face with a different product. “A velvety, just creamed feeling!” the voice exclaims. The screen then switches to show another alluring blonde young woman, with perfect hair and makeup, in the bathtub washing herself, presumably with a Dove bar. She kicks up her leg, perfectly pointed foot visible, and gives a coy smile at the camera as it fades to black.
It’s April of 2014, and I am skimming my Facebook newsfeed, procrastinating studying for my Physics test as usual, when something catches my eye. “Dove Real Beauty Sketches,” it is called, and I click on the link to the video. I watch a six-minute long video where women are asked to describe how they look to an artist hidden behind a curtain. Negative statements, such as “I would say I have a pretty big forehead” and “I have a fat, rounder face” are common. The artist, never having lain eyes on the women, draws each according to their own descriptions. Next, the artist asks other people, both men and women, to describe the women he drew. These new descriptions, such as “eyes that lit up when she spoke” provide a much more positive and forgiving image than the women’s descriptions of themselves.
The most emotional part of the video is when the sketches are hung side by side and the subject of the portraits is brought in to examine them. The differences are evident. One woman describes the sketch she helped to create as “closed off” and “sadder” while the one in which she was described by other people is “more open, friendly, and happy.” The last shot of the video is a white background with the words “You are more beautiful than you think.” As of right now, the video has well over 5,000 views, which grow by the day.
Surprisingly, both commercials mentioned are for the same company, Dove.
The first commercial, from 1957, promotes gender stereotypes as well as exploiting women’s bodies for marketing purposes. It disempowers women by discouraging those who don’t fit into the box it labels as “sexy” or “normal.” Women who don’t think they look like they “should” may feel as though they have less power in the world. The second video is from last year and addresses empowerment and body image. It shows the struggle that women have in accepting themselves as beautiful. The women in the video refused to truly see themselves until, quite literally, the truth was staring at them in the face. Listening to one woman say “I have a fat, rounder face,” made me want to ask her, “compared to what? Who is telling you that your body is imperfect in any way?”
The answer, I think, can be found within the first commercial. The thin, beautiful blonde in the bathtub who acts as if she is the picture of normality led to these unfortunate miscalculations about what makes us who we are. When a woman looks in the mirror and only sees imperfections, she may feel like she is powerless in the world.
The two videos could not be more different; yet they are from the same company and sell the same product. Gender stereotypes, demonstrated in the first ad for Dove, become boxes that define and imprison people within certain roles. These roles contain people, instead of allowing them to break free and fully express themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of commercials and advertisements within the media follow this trend, and box women into certain roles by demonstrating to them what they “should” be. When feminism is added to commercials and advertisements, such as the second Dove commercial, doors can be unlocked and lessons can be taught; for example, the women in the video learn that they are allowed to see and accept themselves as clearly and openly as others see and accept them.
On Dove’s website, you can find their mission statement: “The Dove® brand is rooted in listening to women...The campaign started a global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty after the study proved the hypothesis that the definition of beauty had become limiting and unattainable.”
I find myself thoroughly impressed with the strides that the Dove company has made in portraying and accepting women as complex human beings, instead of as one dimensional beautiful and sleek women in bathtubs. I also find myself impressed with the company for infusing feminism within their advertising. The producers behind the “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” may not consider themselves feminists, but the mere act of showing real women, openly struggling with body image and self-acceptance, is an act of feminism.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.