By now you’ve surely seen “Dove Real Beauty Sketches,” part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. In the video, a sketch artist sits behind a curtain and draws a portrait of a woman as she describes her own appearance. The same artist then produces a second sketch of the woman, this time based on another person’s description of her. The experiment is repeated with a number of women, and the results are telling: the drawings based on the women’s self-assessments are markedly less attractive than the ones drawn from others’ descriptions, illustrating the self-fulfilling prophetic power of our negative perceptions of ourselves.
The Dove campaign aims to widen the definition of beauty, a giant step for womankind in rejecting unrealistic standards based on airbrushing and anorexia. At Forbes, Will Burns argues that Dove is to be commended for peddling its beauty wares (this is what exists to do, after all) in a way that generally affirms all women. “Everything in Dove’s world is centered around beauty because that’s the business they are in,” Burns wrote. “Within that market, they have found a truth that … when brought to life in the ‘Sketches’ film, improves the way women look at themselves.”
Yet here is the real problem: women looking at themselves. And looking at themselves, and looking at themselves and looking at themselves some more. It’s called “self-objectification” and it’s the compulsion “Real Beauty Sketches” draws on, as well as the one which remains unchallenged at the video’s end. For each woman still judges herself by her own image. Each woman continues to self-objectify, which the Psychology of Women Quarterly describes as a “perspective on self (that) can lead to habitual body monitoring, which, in turn, can increase women's opportunities for shame and anxiety, reduce opportunities for peak motivational states and diminish awareness of internal bodily states.”
The “Real Beauty Sketches” video tells women, first, that their view of themselves (already likely to be based on how they perceive others perceive them) is inaccurately negative. It then corrects that perception, but only so they can continue to self-objectify more precisely. The underlying problem of self-objectification remains: Others see me; I see myself; therefore I am.
As blogger Jazz Brice brilliantly observed in response to the ad, the real problem is that beauty is just one quality of a woman and far from the most important one: “Dove was right about one thing: you are more beautiful than you know,” she writes. “But please, please hear me: you are so, so much more than beautiful.”
Self-objectification isn’t entirely bad or even avoidable, of course. A 10-year photography project by Jen Davis challenged her negative body image by turning the camera lens onto herself. As such, it straddles that fine line between self-acceptance and self-objectification.
But therein lies the paradoxical power of beauty. It has the power - whether because we possess it or because we lack it - to trap our gaze forever upon ourselves, like Narcissus. At the same time, it also has the power to draw us to the ultimate source of all beauty. We are, after all, made in the image of God, which bestows us with the kind of beauty that Dove can neither give nor take away. As image-bearers of God, our gaze should be directed toward the source of that beauty rather than the reflection. We can treat the beautiful as idols, and thus as the endpoint of our gaze. Or we can treat beauty as an icon, the means through which our gaze is directed to God.