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Editorial: I’ll Take Door Number Three, Please

Last week, Dove unveiled a video for its #ChooseBeautiful campaign. This isn’t the first time Dove has dabbled in viral marketing that features regular women, but it’s the first time India is the (partial) setting. In Delhi, San Francisco, Sao Paolo, London, and Shanghai, the brand set up two doorways – one labeled ‘average,’ and one labeled ‘beautiful’ – and filmed women choosing which door to enter. It’s narrated by women who describe their choice.

First, props to Dove. I’m going to tear apart their #ChooseBeautiful campaign in a second, but I don’t want to do it without paying the company its due. The brand is known globally for its efforts to portray Real Women in its advertisements, and the result has broadly been a more varied set of (still conventionally attractive) faces and body types in TV and print ads. Particularly here in India, where advertising’s modus operandi is endorsement by Acknowledged Pretty Person™, it’s a bold strategy. I can’t think of any other beauty products company – any other company at all, really – that has made that kind of effort.

But my goodwill stops there. I’d like to applaud Dove’s latest attempt to celebrate the inherent beauty of every woman, but there’s something a bit … off, not to mention patronizing, about a beauty products company telling me I’m beautiful just the way I am. I’m not denying it’s a powerful message—studies have shown that people perceived as beautiful or attractive are more influential and successful. Perceiving oneself as beautiful can affect our self-confidence in many areas of life, which in turn can influence people’s perceptions of us, and can lead to a reinforcing cycle of attractiveness and success.

But it’s also a sexist message. It’s not like Dove doesn’t have men’s products to shill; it does. They’re not the company’s bread-and-butter, of course, but for one second, let’s pretend that they are. You will still never see an ad asking men to choose between ‘handsome’ and ‘average’; the very thought is somehow absurd, even though men experience insecurity about their physical appearance the same as women. A glimpse inside GQ or Men’s Health will reveal similarly unattainable levels of beauty and physique as between the covers of Femina or Vogue. So why isn’t Dove trying to reassure men they’re beautiful, too?

It’s because the world allows men to be so much more than the binary of beautiful and average. Hell, they’re even allowed to be ‘below average’; some have even made successful careers out of it. But below average, or more crudely, ugly, is something that women must avoid at all costs. No woman should think herself ugly; it’s not even an option according to Dove. Apparently, plays the subtext of this video, no woman should think herself average, either. But if the beautiful door is the only acceptable way in, it’s going to be a long line.

To facilitate the traffic, Dove could have offered doors with labels that define women based on what their bodies can do, rather than what their bodies look like. ‘Strong’ might be one, or ‘flexible,’ if Dove wanted to stick to physical adjectives. Intelligent, funny, and opinionated are all traits that have traditionally been considered unbecoming in women; it would have been great to see Dove help women reclaim the beauty in these characteristics.

Or, Dove could have upended beauty norms by interviewing a wider variety of these Real Women in its #ChooseBeautiful video. While it’s nice to see a variety of ethnicities featured, nearly every woman interviewed in the video conforms to her culture’s concept of beauty. All are slim and most are young. The Chinese woman has relatively wide eyes; the Indian woman would qualify for the much-coveted ‘wheatish’ descriptor. It would be a simple and much more memorable thing to feature a dark-skinned woman (it worked for Tanishq), a woman with a crooked nose, short hair, or even a woman over 50. If there is beauty in all of us, why do we keep seeing only one type of face in Dove ads?

It’s also notable that this gimmick didn’t include a stopover on the African continent. The concept of fair skin as a standard of beauty is found around the world. Blatantly excluding a location in Africa – the vast majority of which is populated by people with dark skin – only reinforces the idea that equates fairer skin with greater beauty. When every other continent was represented in the video, seems like a terrible (I’ll stop short of saying racist, but barely; likely locations were determined by Dove’s market share) oversight.

So, when Dove asks me to #ChooseBeautiful, I think I’ll take the long way around. I, like all women, have been choosing beautiful my entire life. I’ve painted, plucked, moisturized, waxed, and lightened my way there, only to step through the threshold and have Dove offer me a product that can – you’ll never guess – make me more beautiful! The real message of #ChooseBeautiful is that all women are beautiful—but never beautiful enough. Dove literally values women for their looks in rupees and dollars, reals, pounds and yuan. And that’s fine; they’re a multinational company with a bottom line to consider. But I’ll be damned if I let them convince me to value myself that way, too.

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