Like nearly every other feminist blogger, I’ve written about the Dove ads before. And yet, I have more to say.
These ads have created quite a stir, and not just in feminist circles. They’ve prompted op/eds in major national newspapers. They’re being discussed on blog after blog. And you can’t turn on the TV, read a women’s magazine or walk down an urban street without seeing them.
There seem to be a few camps of thought out there when it comes to these ads. First is the group that says, “Real women! Right on!” and ends with that. Then there are those that say, “This is another ad campaign, still negotiating women’s bodies to sell products, and that is bad.” And then there’s the “These women aren’t models, how dare they be on billboards” set. To me, though, all of these views are insufficient.
Twisty, as usual, has a really fantastic take on the ads. Read her post. I agree with her. But at the same time, I don’t dislike the ads as much as she does. And while I find them problematic, it’s for slightly different reasons.
For me, it comes down to one question: What do we, as feminists, want from advertising culture, and what do we reasonably expect? There are those of us who see advertising as inherently evil, and will argue that any form of it is dehumanizing and bad. If that’s where you’re coming from, then it’s perfectly consistent to dislike the Dove ads. But, if you’re coming from where I am — which is where you’re critical of advertising, but recognize its necessity in our economic system (or at least recognize it as something that isn’t ever going to disappear) — then the Dove ads become harder to criticize.
Now, they certainly aren’t impossible to criticize — after all, they’re selling ass-firming cream, which is pretty antithetical to feminist ideals in itself. So yes, it is shitty that Dove makes ass cream. It is shitty that so many women feel the need to purchase ass cream. It is shitty that there are a lot of rich white guys making a lot of money off of women’s ass insecurities. If I see ass cream in someone’s bedroom, I think that they are unnecessarily self-critical and even vain.
So here’s my dirty little secret: I use ass-firming cream. It’s not Dove brand, but if Dove ass-firming cream worked, I’d use that, too. If someone offered me free liposuction, I’d probably take it. And while I’m certainly not skinny, I’m not obese or even very overweight — I’m short, and probably built smaller than most of the Dove “real women.” And while it’s deeply humiliating to be copping to my ass-firming and liposuction fantasies on a feminist blog (or in any sort of public space, but particularly here), I think it speaks truth to a lot of things: that the cult of beauty affects even women who should know better, and that beauty culture can work in quiet and subversive ways that undermine even the strongest political beliefs. That doesn’t mean that politics don’t help — I’d bet that self-identified, politicized feminists use less ass cream than non-feminists. But the fact is that as long as ass cream is in demand, it will be produced and sold, and it will be advertised. That sucks. But that’s how it works.
It’s circular, of course — ass cream is in demand because beauty culture creates a demand for it; buying ass cream reinforces and recreates that beauty culture; and advertisers of ass cream and other beauty accoutrements help to create an unattainable beauty standard that will create a demand for more ass cream. And part of the reason that ass cream sells is because women are told that beauty is valuable, and that it’s even attainable — provided that you’re willing to work hard enough. My problem isn’t the fact that we have beauty ideals. Every culture has them; hell, the animal kingdom has them. Recognizing and admiring beauty isn’t the issue. The issue is how narrow and unhealthy our culture’s definition of beauty is, how we present beauty itself as the highest feminine ideal (ahead of, say, intelligence), and how we’ve created an unwinnable situation for women within that culture. Beauty, we say, is achievable, as long as you invest time, money and effort. But at the same time, you’re never supposed to know that you’re beautiful — read any fairytale and you figure out pretty quickly that female beauty is thoroughly rewarded, but only if the beautiful female doesn’t realize that she’s beautiful, and never tries to be beautiful. But if you’re beautiful, even outside of fairytales, things happen to you — you get the prince, you get a promotion, you even get to keep your job (since not being beautiful enough is grounds for termination in some occupations).
So beauty will get you places, but you should not try to be beautiful, and you can never recognize that you may indeed be beautiful, and yet you must work at attaining beauty.
That’s what women are faced with. Oh, and if you break the rules, watch out. If you recognize or promote your own beauty, you’re the evil witch (think the Queen in Snow White) or, more likely, a sexual deviant who uses her physical powers to emasculate and destroy men. If you don’t work at beauty, you’re lazy and ugly and you can be duly punished — like, for example, losing your job because you didn’t wear lipstick. And even if you do fit the standards of beauty, if you slip up for a second there will be plenty of people to smirk at your fall — just think of the dark pleasure that so many of us take in seeing candid pictures of celebrity women looking “ugly” without their makeup, or the popularity of “worst dressed” lists.
So, to me, beauty itself isn’t the issue. I like beautiful things. I like looking at beautiful people. But when a culture definies “beauty” in a ridiculously limited way, tells one class of people (women) that beauty must be their primary goal and is the ultimate key to success, and then makes beauty nearly impossible to obtain but yet requires that we try our hardest to obtain it, it creates a mass neurosis.
Of course, we have to deal with the root causes — why do women feel that they need to use ass cream in the first place? How have we created a culture which points to just one body type and labels it as singularly “beautiful”? How can we get to a point where beauty is one characteristic among many that are valued — and where it’s a characteristic that is valued less highly than things like intelligence and creativity? These are all issues with ties to advertising. Ideally, women wouldn’t buy ass cream in the first place — there would be no demand for it, and so it wouldn’t be advertised or sold. But that clearly isn’t what’s happening here. So while attacking the demand is key, in order to do that we have to deal with the ads. We have to recognize that beauty ideals aren’t going away, and so we should work to reshape them. Relatedly, beauty advertising isn’t going away (at least not anytime soon), and so we have to reshape how we want beauty items advertised — and yet we have to remain critical of the items themselves. The first step to dealing with demand is injecting a diversity of women’s images into mass culture. As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here), if the anorexic body was only one part of a wide spectrum of body types given equal value in beauty culture, its presence wouldn’t be problematic. It’s the fact that the anorexic body is not only held up as the ideal, but is really the only image of women’s bodies that we’re exposed to through advertising and beauty pornography, that is damaging. So yes, the Dove ads are pitching a shitty, problematic product. But at the very least, they’re putting different bodies out there. They’re still using women’s bodies to sell things, and one can argue that it doesn’t matter what kind of bodies they’re using — they’re still being used. But I think it does matter what kinds of bodies are being used, because that use both reflects a beauty ideal and reinforces it. And I see no good reason not to expand that beauty ideal as widely as possible.
So are the Dove ads the progressive ideal? No way. As many other commentators have pointed out, the women in the Dove ads still fit the beauty mold more closely than someone who has stomach rolls, or a really flat chest, or someone who is physically disabled, or even someone with blemished skin or imperfect teeth. None of the Dove women could be called “ugly” by our cultural beauty standards. They don’t obliterate beauty ideals. But they expand them. They deviate from the super-skinny advertising mold. And the more that beauty is de-mystified and re-classified as something that even “real women” are capable of, and the more diverse “beautiful” becomes, the less hold the beauty cult will have on us — and eventually, hopefully, that will mean that fewer women are buying ass-firming cream because they think they have to.
They don’t answer all of our dreams, and they aren’t perfectly (or even mostly) feminist, but they’re a start. And after years of wishing that magazines and advertisers would use more realistic-looking women, I’m not going to attack this ad campaign to the point of saying that they shouldn’t even have done it. I’d rather take the position that this is a decent, tentative start, and now they need to do even better and go even farther. And we need to continue to criticize and deconstruct beauty culture, but we have to do so with a coherent and reasonable set of demands and expectations.
Further reading about the Dove campaign, if you feel like being thoroughly irritated:
Fat-phobic male entitlement syndrome at its best — in summation, women in ads are there for me (me being a heterosexual male) to look at — even if they’re advertising a product intended for other women — and therefore their bodies should fit neatly into what I consider a pleasing form. The article itself is good — the content is puke-worthy.
A Vogue writer says we should let models do their job, and leave “real women” out of advertising — it’s just a little too close to home. She also tosses in an inexplicable, unrelated slap at feminists and Our Bodies, Ourselves.
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