Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” YouTube has gone viral with over 30 million views and tells us that women are their own worst enemies when it comes to assessing their looks. Yet, in a society where men control the conversation at all levels of entertainment, advertising, news, commentary, and yes, politics, how can women not be predisposed to see themselves as they have been conditioned? In her bestselling book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg tells women to ignore hyper-sexualized, biased messages that are ingrained in them from childhood while in the same breath acknowledging their destructive influence. No one grows up in a vacuum. The hyper-perfected images of women, advertised via endless digital retouching, only exacerbates a visual “grading” system that is just as damaging to men, setting both sexes up with unrealistic expectations no woman can ever meet.
Whether Dove is correct that women are harder on their own body image than they should be is not even at issue. The question is why? Dove’s video is described by Chelsea Roff on Intent Blog:
“Dove recruited seven women of varying ages and backgrounds and asked an FBI-trained forensic artist to create composite sketches based on each woman’s description of her face. In the video, it quickly becomes apparent just how much the messages each woman has received about her physical appearance over the course of her life — often from family, the media, etc. — shape the way she sees herself. And often, unsurprisingly, her underlying body hatred shines through.”
The artist then asked a stranger to describe the same person and drew another sketch. In all cases, these women were envisioned as more beautiful by the stranger’s descriptions than their own.
How can you fault women for seeing themselves harshly if they have, over time, internalized every criticism men and other women have made of them? Women are more critical of themselves because they are taught to be by years of viewing images of stereotypical beauty in every fashion magazine. It is an oversimplification to say “mommy told me I wasn’t pretty” therefore I am to blame. From where did Mommy get her ideas of beauty?
In most cases, we are not taught to celebrate ourselves for our uniqueness. We grow to admire what we see glamourized every day and, often, what we are told to admire. Remember when Brad Pitt was hailed as “the sexiest man alive”? So is every other man chopped liver? And what if we don’t agree with that assessment? Should men aspire to be him—or are women supposed to want to have him? These messages get shoved down our collective gullets and it is difficult to fight the prevailing wisdom.
Others have noted that self-beautification is a multi-billion dollar industry. Making women think there is something wrong with them is big business and therefore will not stop anytime soon. The selling of “beauty” for women is an even bigger industry than the selling of “sixpack abs” for men.
Last year, 16-year-old Gabby Douglas was subjected to a twitter-hate campaign about her hair that was so widespread, it was covered by CNN. She was criticized at the very moment she was winning us two Olympic Gold Medals in gymnastics. Around the same time, an eighth grader felt compelled to gather 80,000 petition signatures in an effort to stop Seventeen magazine from retouching pictures of young girls. What chance does a woman on the street have when even a teen magazine can’t let go of its airbrushing tools?
And what if a woman dared to think of herself as prettier than she actually is? Perhaps grading herself harshly is a woman’s defense mechanism against insults or accusations of vanity. Aren’t women taught to be harder on themselves, preferring to then get a compliment softening their own self-opinion rather than the opposite? Wouldn’t a woman be trashed for an inflated view of herself?
We are also daily fed images of supposedly empowered women who use sexuality as a means to sell their artistry. In an open letter to Michelle Obama, blogger Rakhi Kumar has stirred controversy by asking that the First Lady stop referring to Beyoncé as a “role model,” particularly after performing a concert in an outfit (according to her designers) meant to depict her “dripping in honey,” featuring a bejeweled imitation of her breasts and nipples:
Mrs. Obama apparently made the “role model” comment after Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, in which Beyoncé stripped down to a black leather bustier and lace eyelet cut-out panties. Kumar states:
Beyoncé is a singer and a songwriter. She doesn’t need to wear see through clothes or body suits to sing. We know that because we’ve seen her singing a cappella in a hospital in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and – and she sounded like a celestial being from a different dimension.
…[W]hatever her reasons, her influence cannot be underestimated or misunderstood.
This is what women are bombarded with every day. How many young girls are influenced when they see ensembles like this from one of our most talented and popular female artists? Beyoncé is a gifted performer and by all accounts, a lovely and generous person. She is more than enough without dressing like a pole dancer. Beyoncé may convince herself and us that she is merely celebrating her sexuality in these outfits but it is hard to see how this is not as much for the purpose of industry as artistry.
Oscar host Seth MacFarlane got into hot water a couple of months ago when he sang “We Saw Your Boobs” as a centerpiece to that awards show. His arguably offensive lyrics telegraphed that no matter how brilliant the performances of actresses like Meryl Streep or Hilary Swank, their boobs were what counted. But wasn’t his meta-joke that women are being objectified by the very industry that purports to celebrate their talent? The actresses being parodied were actually in on the joke, thereby consenting to it, which only furthers his point.
One of the women in the Dove ad said: “We spend a lot of time analyzing and fixing the things that aren’t quite right. We should spend more time appreciating the things we do like.” That is true, but how are women supposed to change this culture and mindset on their own? We first need the awareness and then the participation of both women and men in order to alter these perceptions.
A new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shared that when women are exposed to images of women in successful leadership positions, it “inspired women’s behavior and self-evaluations in stressful leadership tasks”:
“Women are less likely than men to be associated with leadership, and the awareness of this stereotype may undermine women’s performance in leadership tasks. One way to circumvent this stereotype threat is to expose women to highly successful female role models.”
In other words, when women saw photographs of other women in empowered roles, they were better able to imagine themselves stepping into the same pair of big shoes and thus, celebrate their own abilities to lead. When women only saw images of men in power positions, they were less able to imagine themselves getting there and tended to be more critical of themselves in an identical undertaking.
You cannot celebrate what you’ve never heard of. We need to see women as well as men celebrated for their uniqueness, abilities and contributions — without “airbrushing” or some cookie cutter standard. And while a female performer can dress however she likes, if the message being sent by our most successful female artists seem to advertise sex and body shape first, that too, has a lasting effect.
Whatever media depictions are currently at work socially or politically, to be infested with a particular type of thinking on a daily basis is to become brainwashed by it. We cannot constantly send the message that women are to be criticized for not conforming to some unattainable ideal and then wonder why too many buy into it.
Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin, a shocking exposé of sexism and media bias, now available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon. #1 on Women in Politics books for 4 months.
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