In her discussion of Dove's Real Beauty Campaign, Real Beauty Sketches, blogger Kate Fridkis calls attention to some of the campaign's troubling facets. The women's fixation on moles or wrinkles, for instance, that account for a disproportionate amount of their self-denigration; the age and race of the participants, generally young and white; and a seemingly minor detail -- the sketch artist is male. Fridkis writes, "He got to be the one to gently suggest to the women, 'Maybe you're more beautiful than you thought.' He got to present their "true" beauty to them. That felt like it might be open to some discussion in an earnest gender studies class at a liberal arts college somewhere." This wry line of prose is actually more revealing than the campaign itself and part of what should be a larger conversation. Who needs to share responsibility for the politics of beauty and the culture of display, objectification and voyeurism that contribute to a woman's sense of self-image? Men.
I caught a segment on "Good Morning America" where the plucky GMA team conducted its own "real beauty sketch" experiment to yield (surprise!) the same results. As the anchors remarked with surprise over the skewed self-perceptions of their participants, Josh Elliot piped up: "I don't think this is necessarily gender-specific." His comment went largely unnoticed by the rest of the group. But it might as well have been the only statement about the segment. Really? Men are held to the same kind of judgment and scrutiny about their appearance as women? That's right, I remember all those articles we had to suffer through about Romney's hair, his choice of suit, his thin lips, his bloat.
I watched the Dove campaign video several times earlier in the week and my initial reactions ranged from poignant and provocative to disheartening to a general flattening out that the spot was preaching to the choir with the takeaways "Don't be so hard on yourselves, girls. Buy Dove." I understand that the Dove brand is part of a larger beauty industry conglomerate predicated on selling products and increasing market share, not crusading for social causes. I respect their limits and applaud their attempt to raise awareness about the issues women face when it comes to beauty and body image. Every bit helps in the good fight, I thought.
But Fridkis' piece and the brief moment on GMA helped me connect some dots. Elliot's remark is symptomatic of a larger climate of ignorance, whether authentic or willful, on the part of men, which goes something like this: Systems influencing the way women view themselves -- print, social and traditional media, fashion and beauty products, to name only a few, are somehow divorced from the people (men and women) that drive them. I buy Maxim, but I don't really believe that women are sex objects. I need my tabloid fix, gotta see what that hot mess Lindsay Lohan is up to this week. Check out this drunk, fat chick video on YouTube, hilarious dude!
Many men are the first ones to attest to the fact they praise their partner's beauty, inner and outer, and express dismay and sadness when they hear their respective plus-ones diminishing their self-worth. This is not about laying blame at the feet of one gender over another. It is about using Dove's campaign to deepen the conversation about how men also need to be made aware of the way they participate (many times unknowingly) in upholding or reinforcing these cultural systems that undergird a woman's statement about her "huge ears" or "stubby chin."
Like Fridkis, I wonder, too, how the spot would have played had the sketch artist been a woman delivering the line "Maybe you're more beautiful than you thought." Maybe we don't need permission to see our own beauty. Maybe what we need is to stop listening to those that tell us what we need in the first place.