The brand Dove, which has mastered the art of the girl-power viral ad, is back with another impressively touching short film called Selfie, which debuted on Monday at Sundance. The film, directed by documentarian Cynthia Wade, follows real high school girls and their moms, all of whom are encouraged to take self-portraits and then display them in an art exhibit. The idea is that selfies, and social media in general, can be a good thing for teenage girls. Or, as Rachel Simmons put it in Slate back in November, “The selfie is a tiny pulse of girl pride—a shout-out to the self.”
Selfies can say, I think my hair looks great here or I really like my outfit today without having to verbalize the sentiment and risk sounding braggy. And the Dove film takes this notion a step further: In a way, the selfie is upending our idea of beauty. Instead of being surrounded by professionally Photoshopped images of supermodels or actresses in fashion magazines, Instagram and its brethren surround young women with images of their (mostly) unretouched peers. One of the teenagers in the video drives that point home by saying, “I don’t look like the people in the magazines. I’m not blonde. I’m not super tall or super skinny. But that doesn’t mean I’m not beautiful.”
The other striking part of the film was how deeply the daughters were affected by their mothers’ perceptions of beauty. “She has a thing about her eyebrows,” one daughter says as her mother cringes with embarrassment. Another daughter, filmed without her mom present, says, “When you hear her talk about her insecurities, you focus on your own.” Though it seems like a hokey exercise for a grown-up to embrace, you see the mothers actually feeling better about themselves after they take self-portraits. “My daughters have taught me that social media has widened the definition of what beauty is,” one mom says.
Self-deprecation is something that comes naturally to many women (it certainly comes naturally to me), but negative self-talk from mothers is a scourge that parents should work hard to eradicate. Now that I have a daughter, I need to be aware about how any stray negative comment about my appearance, even if said jokingly, could affect her. I know critics might say the video is just shilling for a billion-dollar brand, which it is, or that the girls and moms in the film are clearly middl class and reasonably attractive—which is what critics said about Dove’s last viral video. But I don’t think those critiques should dampen the really positive message, which is that there can be power in the selfie, and that it’s not just Vogue editors who need to take responsibility for what they put out into the world. It’s moms, too.