All-American soap manufacturer Dove is known for many things: its fresh, clean scent; keeping skin oh-so-soft (thanks, one-quarter moisturizing cream!), and, more recently, its marketing department's rather uncanny ability to sell millions of bars to women by talking frankly to them about their self-esteem issues and the hang-ups they have with their bodies. Now, with their latest viral video campaign, "Dove Real Beauty Sketches," they're set to sell millions more.
It's an unorthodox tactic, for sure, but of course, soap has always been about more than just keeping your bits clean. When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey, a bar of the stuff was most memorable for two things: washing out the mouths of foul-mouthed children, and serving as the punchline to an oft-told joke about what you should never, ever drop in the shower.
Yup. The ultimate fear of soap users everywhere. Don't drop the soap, because once you do, to paraphrase Avenue Q, "it would suck to be you." I'm joking, of course, but the message -- echoed every time I heard it, from my sleep-away summer camp to my elementary school's playground -- was clear: Being gay is thoroughly unclean. I laughed along with everyone else back then, but it wasn't until I grew up and discovered my sexuality that I realized just how much the joke wasn't funny.
What struck me most when I watched the Dove video was how much I related to the women featured in it, and how it gives us gay men an opportunity to talk about our own body issues. Like our straight counterparts, we live in a culture obsessed with beauty, youth and sexual desirability. But for many of us, these insecurities are even more acute, amplified by a constant stream of societal messages -- like that "hilarious" joke about dropping the soap! -- that tell us that we should feel ashamed about who we are.
It might be easy for the society at large to assume that gay men love the way they look. After all, so many of us go to the gym, follow the latest health crazes and scour the aisles of Sephora for the latest anti-aging potion in a bottle. What's so bad about that? Nothing, really -- on the surface. But when research shows that gay and bisexual men have significantly higher prevalence estimates of eating disorders than heterosexual men and are four times likelier to suffer from depression, it certainly makes you question whether our obsession with our bodies comes from a place of personal pride or from deep-rooted feelings of insecurity stemming from a lifetime of being told that we're limp-wristed sissies and anything but masculine.
This lingering shame manifests itself not only in how we treat ourselves but in how we treat each other, which might help explain why we often find it difficult to create a culture that's actually worth marching for. Online and off, I regularly see examples of gays behaving badly: putting each other down for everything under the sun, from the way we look ("Nice man boobs!") to our mannerisms ("Masc only!") to where we spend our summer vacations ("What do you mean you don't have a share in the Pines?") to the way we walk ("So swishy!") to using "bottom" as a four-letter word to things so ridiculously ridiculous that it's a miracle that some of us manage to have any friends at all. Then again, people who feel fundamentally flawed often lack the reserves to give much back to others.
Of course, it's not all "Sturm und Drang." I know many people who have managed, through hard work, love and patience, to work through this shame and arrive at a place of acceptance. Many gay men and women would even say that the shame of our upbringings not only unites us but can, over time, be a source of strength and basis for increased compassion. And I am optimistic about the future. Brave parents like my sister and brother-in-law are teaching their children early on that it's OK to love whom you love so that the next generation can grow up without shame around their sexuality. But it is ongoing work -- for all of us.
Just like the brave women in Dove's video who risked being vulnerable for millions of people to see, gay men need to find ways to acknowledge and talk about the shame and poor self-image that many of us have experienced. The key is to acknowledge the pain from the past and work toward reducing shame's power in the present. If you sometimes believe you're too fat, too skinny, too smooth, too hairy, too girly, too old, too busted or just too fucking much, know that you're not alone. With a little time and a lot of awareness (and the help of a professional, in some cases), it is possible to start washing away the negativity and insecurities we've been subjected to for so long and find inside ourselves the symbolic meaning of that little white bird on one of those bars of Dove soap: peace.