Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” has been attracting attention pretty much since it was established. Much of the criticism of the campaign has focused on the fact that, although it claims to be celebrating “all women,” it primarily features white, conventionally attractive women. Very few of the women could be truly considered fat, most of the women of colour are photoshopped several shades lighter, and I haven’t seen any campaigns featuring women with disabilities. So, really, a campaign which is allegedly about self esteem and empowerment for women is just reiterating that idea that “real” women must fit within very narrow physical parameters. And all of these criticisms are valid, and should be aired.
But there’s more to critique about Dove’s campaign which I don’t see getting nearly as much air time.
In addition to creating an artificial dichotomy of fake and real beauty, the campaign is also stressing the idea that beauty is something which needs to be valued, and that all women must strive to be beautiful, something which I personally find harmful and anti-feminist. I dislike the idea that people need to be told that they are beautiful in order to feel strong or powerful, and the campaign feeds into the general idea that women crave acceptance, and that being called beautiful is a form of acceptance. Given that many women cannot even find bodies to connect with in this advertising campaign, it seems highly questionable to say that Dove is making a statement for all women, or that the statement is positive.
Critics have pointed out the rampant use of image manipulation in the campaign. Image manipulation is par for the course these days, with the most egregious recent example being the mangling of Kelly Clarkson’s body on the cover of SELF, but I would hope that most people understand, these days, that even apparently natural looking images have been heavily manipulated. Not just sharpened and color corrected. Not just daintily gone over to remove pimples. Bodies are fundamentally altered, even in campaign’s like Dove’s, to remove anything which doesn’t fit in with the beauty norm. A fat woman may be included in the campaign, but she’s got to be the right kind of fat, and her image will be edited to remove unsightly lumps and bumps, freckles, and other natural features which women might look at and identify with. In other words, even the “Campaign for Real Beauty” presents unreal bodies which people can never attain to.
But what people seem to be forgetting in their desire to critique the campaign is the fact that it is an advertising campaign which is designed to sell products. Dove identified a niche and took advantage of it, and the goal of the campaign is to get people to buy Dove products. Aspire to real beauty? Dove’s got some soap to sell you. I personally believe that capitalism leads to structural inequality, which makes engaging in capitalism an antifeminist act, which means engaging in advertising campaigns in general antifeminist, but using supposedly feminist values to sell products is especially egregious. Buying into advertising campaigns like this one requires, in my view, a suspension of feminist values on many levels.
The Campaign for Real Beauty site is littered with advertising, including a confusing menu navigation system which is designed to push users into purely consumerist areas of the Dove site. It’s impossible to forget that Dove is trying to sell you something when you examine the site: whether it’s soap or a very limited and specific view of the female body, Dove is counting on you to buy it so that you will keep using Dove products and so that you will keep feeding the system which sustains companies like Dove.
Even if people don’t agree with my stance on capitalism, Dove’s parent company, Unilever, could bear closer inspection. Unilever has been involved in sexist marketing campaigns, perhaps most notably in campaigns for Axe body products, but that’s not where the heinousness stops. The company also tests on animals (an antifeminist act), uses child labour, and has been linked with extensive environmental exploitation and deforestation. Unilever is also antiunion. Any one of these issues is grounds for avoiding the purchase of Unilever products and products from Unilever subsidiaries like Dove. All of them combined makes for a heady stew of reasons to dislike Unilever and Dove, and to be outright offended by Dove’s disengenuous “Campaign for Real Beauty” campaign, which is clearly designed to distract people from criticisms of the parent company; it’s ok that we use egregiously sexist marketing, because we care about “real beauty!”
In other words, you don’t have to be feminist to rejection the Campaign for Real Beauty: you just need to have a conscience.