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Is Dove saying real beauty is skin deep?

A woman walks into a curtained enclosure. From the other side of the curtain, a male voice asks her for a description of herself. She says matter-of-factly, “I’m heartstoppingly beautiful. My forehead is perfectly proportioned to the rest of my face. My eyes are gorgeous. I have cheekbones to die for and Cupid’s bow lips. I am, in short, really beautiful.”

If Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches campaign is to be believed, then this would encourage the gentleman asking the questions to draw a portrait of an exquisite face. He wouldn’t think she sounds like she’s full of herself. He’d think, “Oh wow. This is a confident, beautiful woman. Let me draw a portrait of her that encapsulates the physical loveliness she described.” Or perhaps he’d think, “Scratch this one. Why bother drawing her face when she’s convinced she’s gorgeous? Because such a woman clearly doesn’t need Dove products.” Or maybe she'd be given a Dove hamper and offered a spot in the next advertisement that's part of the brand's Real Beauty campaign.

A screengrab from the Dove ad.

A screengrab from the Dove ad.

The latest international ad by Dove shows a woman describing herself to a man. This man is seen making a sketch, clearly based upon what he's being told by the woman. Then, someone else comes in and describes the first woman. The climax of the advertisement has the woman and the artist standing in front of two hanging portraits. One is based on how she described herself to the artist. The other is based on the description provided by the other person. Seen side by side, the subject of the two portraits is overwhelmed by how much nicer her face looks when described by others. One woman gets sniffly. Another philosophizes upon how a woman's lack of appreciation for her own natural beauty has an impact upon everything – "the jobs we apply for, the way we treat our children." The ad ends with a different woman being comprehensively hugged by (presumably) her boyfriend, which is as good a sign as any of being in possession of real beauty.

Incidentally, the gent in the Dove advertisement is a FBI-trained forensic artist whose career comprised of drawing the faces of wanted criminals. Who else would be the best person to draw women’s portraits in a way that they look really beautiful?

Dove would like women to focus on and celebrate their physical beauty because apparently, those who do not publicly declare themselves as the fairest of all make for (among other things) dodgy friends and bad mothers. Tell Snow White that, why don’t you? The campaign’s tag line is “You are more beautiful than you think.” According to Dove, this is a problem specific to women. In response, there’s already one spoof video that has a number of men in a curtained enclosure, like in the Dove ad. At the end, the portraits reveal that men see themselves as George Clooney or Brad Pitt while women see them as freakish. (“His eyes were rapey,” says one woman. Every Indian woman who has ever had to take public transport anywhere in the country must have nodded in understanding at that line.) The video concludes with, “Men, you’re less beautiful than you think.”

The new Dove ad seems to have made many a heart flutter happily. It’s been doing the rounds of social media accompanied by breathy messages that describe it as moving, sensitive, beautiful and possibly womankind’s most powerful weapon against objectification so far. Never mind the fact that this is an advertisement for a range of beauty products and not a public service announcement. Not just that, judging from the quotes that Dove has selected, it’s evident some physical attributes are acceptable and many are frowned upon. So thin chins are good, as are blue eyes and straight hair. On the other hand, one woman looks at her portraits and says ruefully that the one drawn on the basis of her own description of herself is “fatter, sadder”. It’s also curious that no black women seem to be naturally beautiful enough to show in full. Only fragments of the black women’s faces are shown, and that too when they’re describing themselves critically. Asians, though, can rejoice. If you’re young and slim with long hair and clear skin, you have natural beauty. Who knew?

Dove would have us believe that the women in the advertisement are real women, not models. However, the audience is made privy to nothing other than the way they look. We don’t know where they’re from, what they do, whether they have any hobbies. What are their dreams? Do they torment puppies in their spare time? What's on their e-book reader? The women speak of nothing but their insecurities about their physical attributes. On this basis, Dove would like the women watching the ad to judge themselves. Don’t see your achievements, your personality or your intellect. Just look at your face and dissect the reflection in the mirror for some natural beauty. And regardless of what you find or feel, when a forensic artist asks you what you look like, don’t forget to say you’re just absolutely fabulous, dahling.