Critics have been having a field day with “Real Beauty Sketches,” the latest ad campaign from Dove. They’ve underscored that most of the featured women already appear close to our society’s beauty ideals—white, under 40, blonde, thin; they’ve labeled the campaign both racist and misogynistic. David Zweig recently pointed out that regular women now have reason to feel even worse about themselves, if they don’t measure up to how “real” women are supposed to look. He writes, “At least every woman expects to not look like the models and actresses in standard beauty advertising.”
The assumption being that, if we did look like beautiful models and actresses, we’d feel better about ourselves?
This is an erroneous belief—and this is where Dove is actually doing us all a favor. By featuring attractive women who are unhappy with the way that they look, Dove is (perhaps inadvertently) telling the rest of us that even if we did achieve the beauty we’re eternally chasing, we probably wouldn’t be happy either. And I can attest to the fact that this is true.
As a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles, I have treated extraordinarily beautiful models and actresses who more than exceed our society’s beauty ideals. Yet most suffer from some sort of dysmorphia surrounding their appearances, many even meeting the diagnostic criteria for Body Dysmorphic Disorder—a devastating illness characterized by a “preoccupation with an imagined defect in appearance,” which “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). The disorder also carries an alarmingly high suicide completion rate: 22 to 24 times higher than what occurs in the general population.
How is it that these beautiful women, the ones who supposedly lead blessedly charmed lives, are the ones who are the most tortured by their appearances? For one thing, the physical scrutiny they face in the modeling world and in Hollywood begins at a startlingly young age.
Girl Model, a documentary released last year, followed girls as young as 13 being scouted from impoverished parts of the world, where their parents are promised better financial futures if they hand over their daughters. These girls have no education, are not paid living wages, and live in subhuman conditions. All alone, they must navigate cities in which they do not speak the language, and where they regularly interface with clients who pick their bodies apart. If they are lucky, they land with agencies that don’t bully them into having sex for a job. Equaling disturbing is a story that just broke last week about modeling scouts who hover in front of Sweden’s largest eating disorder clinic, trying to scout girls as young as 14. Their logic is that if the girls are already anorexic, then they won’t have to worry about them gaining weight and losing out on potential jobs.
While it is important to cry out about the terrible fallout everyday women experience as a result of unrealistic beauty ideals, how about these young girls? There is a misguided assumption that because they are beautiful they have it made, when in reality the opposite is true. Dove’s campaign does the important service of letting us know that even if we end up getting a semblance of what these women have, it won’t make us happy. Good looks won’t solve our problems or even ameliorate our insecurities. Why bother buying beauty products in the first place?