Lately, a lot of companies have done some splendid turnabouts in the way they portray notions of beauty. This January, notoriously sexist Axe advertising took an unexpected turn by expanding the definition of masculinity. More recently Indian e-retailers Jabong pushed the boundaries of gender too. And now personal care brand Dove has launched its #MyBeautyMySay ad campaign.
The MyBeautyMySay campaign is perhaps the most mature of Dove’s many attempts at confronting gender identities, because it features so many binary-shattering people, who are owning their bodies or professions or age. The spots feature women who rolled with the punches that gender stereotypes threw at them. The boxer with the pigtails that made her look out of place in the ring; the blogger who knows that fashion is plus-size too; the model who rocks both menswear and womenswear; these and others share their stories of being put down by the rules society has drawn up for them. The message Dove wants to put across is “don’t let anyone define your beauty for you,” and it comes at the end of the company’s own long relationship with the beauty myth.
The first Dove soap ad, released in 1957, had actual doves, a gimmicky voice over, and thin-white-blonde woman, but let’s be real, it isn’t half as shaming or subliminally insulting as many personal care ads we see today. The ad limits itself to the ‘skin-test,’ and never once cuts to a scene showing how the soap boosted the woman’s self-esteem, or confidence, or sex appeal – all of which is a staple of many ads today. From deodorant, to hair removal cream, to lip balms, products have been marketed as a solution for sweat, body hair and rough lips, all of which we are expected to be ashamed of. Surprisingly, Dove’s first ad fares better, because it makes zero qualifying statements about the kind of beauty you should aspire to. Not bad for the ’50s.
Now, fast-forward to 1991, when Dove’s trademark ‘litmus test’ ad had begun using women who didn’t look like models. Even till this point, advertising was all about competing with other products (you’ll notice they even use rival company’s names).
But pretty soon something in the world of advertising changed. The simple product-pushing templates were modified until they began hitting out at women’s (and men’s) insecurities. One might even go as far as saying ads were now producing those insecurities in order to sell products.
So when Dove intimated its ‘Real beauty’ campaign in 2004, it was like a breath of fresh air. The first images of this new campaign featured a number of women of different races and body types all lined up in their underwear. Thick around the middle? Chubby thighs? Darker skin? Not double-lidded? Great! But it was still within a capitalist framework, and was still all about femme-presenting cisgender women. And as well-intentioned as the copy was for the little check-box cards released under this campaign were, there was also something deeply troubling about the choices Dove was asking women to make.
As if trying to pacify both the consumers and the makers of the ad. But do the negative associations with some characteristics simply disappear if you call them by another name?
The one time Dove rally succeeded at spinning terminology on its head was when it went up against ‘ageing,’ which we get told is a woman’s worst nightmare – or some drivel. Almost as a rejoinder to their own 1970s print ad– purporting the anti-aging benefits of their skin care products – Dove, in 2007, released an all new ‘Pro-Age’ line of skin care featuring older women. And it really does get you thinking, because ageing is so terrifying to women, that they won’t even put an older face on a skincare ad, unless it’s for medical usage.
Following this, Dove tried a new six-minute ad-campaign with American forensic artist Gil Zamora back in 2013. Having become the most-watched ad ever, it revealed how self-critical women are, and that self-perception is an area mired with patriarchal notions of how you should look. After that, they launched the #ChooseBeautiful campaign, which you might remember involved confronting a bunch of women with doorways marked “average” and “beautiful.” Both of these experiments were filmed and circulated as real tearjerker films, but at the same time both ad campaigns were using an ugly-beauty binary that just isn’t real (beauty it subjective, remember? Can’t believe we had to spell that out). A lot like the earlier Real Beauty campaign, these ads intended to empower women to see themselves through a set of terms bequeathed to them by these well-meaning, concerned companies (Yo, Dove is super invested in research on women and beauty). It’s all about ways of seeing, as John Berger discovered. But it isn’t about reclaiming or de-stabilizing. It isn’t about taking the labels “average” and “beautiful” and throwing them in the trash as you blaze down the street in your buggy, a beer bottle dangling from your lip, because gender expectations is hella outdated. It’s about putting those labels on doors and keeping the binary.
So with its latest ad campaign, Dove appears to be testing its own love of binaries, and once more, we’re paying attention. Because it gives us a tough boxer in pigtails, an androgynous model, a gap-toothed administrator, and other women who have dared to love themselves in a world that wants to profit from self-hate.