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The Real Problem With the "Real Beauty" Campaign

Laurie Essig teaches sociology at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. She has written for a variety of publications, including Legal Affairs, Salon, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She is the author of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection.

This post originally appeared on her blog, Love Inc., at Psychology Today.

0323Dove's "Real Beauty" has another stunning commercial. In this one, "Real Beauty Sketches," a forensic artist sits with his back turned as a woman describes how she sees herself. He draws her image. Then another woman, an acquaintance, is brought in to describe how she sees the first woman. He draws that image. In the denouement, the woman is forced to look at the portrait he made from her own description and compare it to the far more attractive and realistic one described by her acquaintance. In other words, it is a beautiful illustration of something we already know: women have a warped sense of how they look. 

But women's hatred of the way they look didn't just appear out of thin air. It was implanted in us in a variety of ways, but primarily through advertising that uses "idealized" images of beauty and asks us to compare ourselves to them.

After all, women and girls didn't think a whole lot about how they looked before capitalism. Historians such as Joan Brumberg have shown that adolescent girls prior to advertising tended to think about their inner make-up-- were they kind and good and devout. But with advertising early on telling women to buy creams, "slim" down, put on a bra and generally engage in what Brumberg calls the "body project," young girls started to worry far more about cellulite on their thighs than goodness in their hearts. Some social psychology studies indicate that even women with high levels of self-esteem will feel worse about themselves after looking at these idealized images found in advertising.

 So capitalism created the problem of women being ugly and also created the solution: beauty products. It is an ingenious business plan. Add to this beauty business certain technologies, such as cosmetic surgery and Photoshop, and you have the completely unreal moment in which we now reside where women spend inordinate amounts of money attempting to make themselves look like images of women who don't actually exist. We are caught trying to be a copy of a copy without an original. 

This beauty matrix is surely gendered (and raced and classed). Most studies show that women in conditions of hypercapitalism do in fact feel far worse about themselves than men. That's why parodies of the Dove "Real Sketches" have already popped up, with men describing themselves as far more beautiful than others see them. It's funny because it's true. Men aren't as important to the $160 Billion per yearbeauty product industry and continue to make up only about 5% of cosmetic surgery patients. 

So women- caught in a web of being sold ugliness and the promise of beauty- can be startled, even moved to tears, watching Dove's "Real Sketches," whereas for many men the body project seems laughable.

But is the solution really loving the way we look? With the aid of products that help us look more "natural" such as those sold by Dove? Or is the solution actually outside the values of the market? "Erotic capital" has always been traded among humans, but the sort of erotic capital that is now demanded from the standards set by advertising is unattainable. Even if we starve ourselves, remain young forever, and get a lot of expensive cosmetic surgery to "perfect" our features, we still exist in a world where blemishes are not touched up, eyes not made brighter, and teeth whiter whenever we look at ourselves.  Unless we can figure out a way to Photoshop our real bodies rather than images of them, we are stuck with imperfection.

Rather than telling women that they are in fact beautiful, it might be far more revolutionary to say beauty, real or otherwise, just isn't as valuable as other forms of capital, like educational capital or the sort of "goodness" that was valued by girls before the age of advertising.