My niece and the Dove “Beauty Sketches” commercial

My 18-year-old niece has become part of a global phenomenon.

Unless you’re an aging male (hmmm, who could that be), or so consumed by news out of Boston you can’t concentrate on anything else, by now you’ve seen the Dove “Real Beauty” “Beauty Sketches” video, or videos.

I say videos, because there are two: a longer six-minute version of the widely aired three-minute commercial. My 18-year-old niece, Olivia Miller, is in both versions, though her graceful presence is much more prominent in the longer one.

While many women, including my wife and daughters, are aware of the Dove ad, for those who aren’t here’s a capsule summary. They’re part of a marketing campaign that began back in 2004 after the soap company became aware of research showing that only 4 percent of women consider themselves “beautiful.” The first campaign involved a series of billboards featuring photos of women who were not supermodels, taken by noted fashion and arts photographer Annie Leibovitz.

The most recent campaign was the “Beauty Sketches” commercial, released this month. The video has gone, to use a word that has surpassed “iconic” in overuse, “viral” around the world, especially among women. In it, several women, including my niece Olivia, describe themselves to a forensic sketch artist who cannot see his subjects.

After he draws them, based on their self descriptions, the women are then described by strangers whom they met the previous day. The sketches are compared —  with the sketch based on the stranger’s description seemingly more flattering, accurate and pleasing to the women who see both images side by side. The most emotionally compelling parts of the video are when the women describe their feelings about how they look based on the differing images. Their perceptions about beauty standards and expectations have a powerful resonance — even if the viewer realizes she or he is being manipulated as part of a marketing campaign.

Olivia, who lives in Contra Costa County, told me that she found out through a friend of her mom that a casting agency was looking for non actresses/models between the ages of 189-50 who would get paid for a day’s work. Olivia thought, “why not?” mainly because she needed to raise money for a trip this summer to South Africa, where she’ll be trabeling to townships to work with school-age kids, helping with English and math skills, along with promoting HIV/AIDS awareness.

Olivia Miller, 18, in Dove Real Beauty sketch

“We didn’t really know what were were doing and what it was for while we were there,” Olivia told me this week, “because they wanted to keep it real and honest.

“They took off all my makeup because they wanted all the women to be presented as real as possible. That was the beginning of January and then (last week) I started to get texts from a bunch of random people I knew saying they saw the ad.

“I was super embarrassed at first and didn’t want anyone to see it because it was me talking about things I was insecure about, about my looks. But once the video hit a couple of million views I figured it would just be best to embrace it.

“Now, I’m actually proud I got to be a part of it, and it’s a message I really believe in and think is really important for women to know.”

The commercial has drawn a lot of criticism, as well — but even some of the critics acknowledge they were moved by the women’s reactions to the sketches.  More than several articles I read were by women who said the ads played into the usual body-image stereotypes that have played havoc with the lives of too many people in our culture.

OK. But then, again, why does the video seem to strike a deeper note?

One of the most perceptive reactions I found was written by a 20-year-old college student, Julie Zeilinger, and posted on Policymic. Here’s a sample of what she wrote

“I (reluctantly) admit it: I am one of the many women who teared up watching the Dove Real Beauty campaign’s “Beauty Sketches” video. As a 20-year-old college student who, like many (most? All?) other women my age, has struggled with body image for years, the prevailing message of the video — you are more beautiful than you think and other people think so, too — was too enticing to resist. Under the influence of this video, I immediately began calculating how many minutes of time spent putting on make up I could reappropriate for sleeping now that I am apparently more beautiful than I think I am. Because, yes, as a college student that’s where my mind went first.

“… Watching that video I just felt … relieved. Women are constantly bombarded with images of impossible beauty. By 17, the average woman has received over 250,000 commercial messages through the media. Three out of four American teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine — a magazine that probably features fashion models who, on average, weigh 23% less than the average American woman. These effects are visceral: 65% of women and girls report disordered eating behaviors, 53% of 13- year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies (a number that increases to 78% by age 17). But this isn’t just a teenage phenomenon: 42% of first to third-grade girls want to be thinner and 81% of ten year-olds are afraid of getting fat.

“… But while the feeling the Dove video induces is commendable, the message behind it isn’t quite. My goal as a feminist, as a human, who sees those statistics wage battle on the bodies of women I love, not to mention on my own body, who has seen and continues to see the destruction it wages, is not to feel like I’m closer to reaching that ideal: it’s to feel like there is no standard — that it might be possible for me to concern myself with living up to my intellectual potential the way I aspire to fit into a certain dress size. And that is where this video, despite the warmth it radiates, despite the relief it inspires, falls short.”

So take a look at the videos. What do you think? In the attached poll, you can voice your reactions to not just the “Beauty Sketches” but to the issue of body image and women’s feelings about living up to a standard perpetuated by the same product-and-advertising industry that also calls into question the subtle lies dividing perception and reality.

The video has even inspired a parody, a very funny guy’s version, where men describe their feelings about their looks and women then take a stab at describing them. Needless to say, the men are not subject to the same kind of doubts, fears and negativity as the women.

The women’s “Beauty Sketches” video had drawn more than 26 million page views earlier this week.


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3 Responses to My niece and the Dove “Beauty Sketches” commercial

  1. Joy Y. says:

    Wow that must have been an amazing experience for her! I blogged about the video the other day then I realized that the world world was blogging about it. I also posted up the same pic of your niece. I appreciate what Dove is doing but I did have some questions regarding the video. Either way Dove has been immensely successful in galvanizing a discussion regarding women’s self image. Here is my take as Korean American:nn

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