Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Should Beauty Be the Goal?

Dove has released a new campaign project that is going viral. 

In the video, a forensic artist asks people to describe their own faces as he sketches them. Then he asks someone who met the person for the project to describe their companion. He then shows the two sketches (the way we see ourselves and the way others see us) to the participants. It pretty powerfully demonstrates that we are much harsher on ourselves than the world around us. It ends with the phrase "you are more beautiful than you think."

I noticed that one of the YouTube comments has been collapsed for receiving so many downvotes. This commenter had this to say:
this is bullshit. its okay to be ugly, that should be the message, not that your self-perception of your own beauty is false.

and what that woman said, that she should be more grateful for her natural beauty, because it effects all her choices? that's not a good beauty image.

you're allowed to be ugly and it should not hinder to achieve any of your goals in life.
Obviously, her response is not being received well by the doting public that is responding to this video with overwhelming positivity.

Her response made me think about a recent post from Tori at Anytime Yoga. In that post, Tori said:
Sometimes I think of my body as beautiful; a lot of times I do not. And I am okay with both of those. Moreover, whether or not people perceive me as beautiful does not matter in terms of how I fundamentally expect they should treat me.

Regardless of whether I am beautiful, I expect that I should be able to find clothing appropriate to my body and daily activities. Regardless of whether I am beautiful, I expect that I should be able to walk or run down the street or in a store without someone insinuating or flat out stating that my appearance is embarrassing, offensive, or that I need to cover up.
Is Beauty a Moral Imperative?

I completely agree with Tori's point. Beauty is not a moral imperative. You do not have to be beautiful to deserve respect as a human being. Both Tori and the YouTube commenter are getting at the same point: do you have to see yourself as beautiful in order to reach your life goals? Should seeing yourself as beautiful be a precursor to those goals?

The Dove campaign certainly thinks so. They think that seeing ourselves as ugly is holding us back. They tell us to focus on the parts of ourselves that we like.

Yet, the message is ultimately still one that focuses on beauty. At the end of the day, we're still concerned with whether or not we are beautiful before we can be concerned with anything else.

I completely respect the stance that beauty shouldn't enter into the equation at all. I wish that I lived in a world where it didn't matter how I saw myself or how I thought others perceived me. That world, though, is so far from my current reality that I can't ignore the work that messages like this Dove campaign are doing.

Defining Beauty

I am conflicted. Being the language nerd that I am, I (of course) turn to the Oxford English Dictionary when I am conflicted.

The OED has this to say on beauty: 
1. Such combined perfection of form and charm of colouring as affords keen pleasure to the sense of sight
2. That quality or combination of qualities which affords keen pleasure to other senses (e.g. that of hearing), or which charms the intellectual or moral faculties, through inherent grace, or fitness to a desired end
3. The prevailing fashion or standard of the beautiful. (Now obscure)
There are more, but I think that these three do a good job of demonstrating the tension in our discussion of whether "beauty" should be our goal.

To Look Beautiful

For the most part, we define beauty today in that first way. It means to be pleasant to the sense of sight. You are beautiful when your appearance is pleasing, either to yourself or other people. That's why we say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's the visual that matters.

What's in my makeup bag

We can see why this could be a problematic goal. All of that focus on appearance gives the beauty industry the motivation to provide us with a series of "problems" we need to "fix." We need the right tweezers to remove the hair from our brows and the right gel to remove the hair from our upper lips. We need the right underwear to ensure there are no bulges in our middles and to ensure there are the proper bulges in our breasts. We need to be bleached, slathered, scented, and polished. We need our eyelashes lengthened and our teeth whitened. We need our wrinkles smoothed, our hair dyed, and our muscles toned. If we "fix" all of those "problems," the industry will be ready with some more. As long as there are products that can be hocked to fill in the gap, we will be flawed.

This is a problem that disproportionately effects women. One study found that women spend an average of three years getting ready. Another study suggests that the gender gap is closing, but not in the way we'd hope. Now we're all wasting too much time making ourselves physically acceptable by constantly shifting standards.

The Dove video certainly focused on those self-perceived flaws. People talked about the roundness of their faces and the jutting of their chins with venom. We can be cruel to ourselves.

Other Ways to Be Beautiful

But let's take a second and look at that second definition of beauty. Here it is not just visual pleasure, but "keen pleasure to the other senses" and that "which charms the intellectual or moral faculties." We don't have to just look pleasing to be beautiful, then. We can be beautiful because we have a lovely singing voice or because we are great conversationalists or because we bring joy to those around us. Beauty is not just about how we look.

If you listen carefully to the participants in the Dove campaign, you'll hear much of this shift taking place. The people who are asked to describe their new acquaintance's face often focus on things that aren't just purely visually pleasing. They talk about people having "nice eyes" that "lit up" when they spoke. When people looked at their own pictures, they described the ones designed by strangers to be more "open" and friendly. In other words, they weren't just focusing on how they looked but also on how they interacted with the world around them.

That haircut is not going to last, but the impact you have on the world just might.

Physical Beauty is Fickle 

This brings me to the third definition. The now defunct idea that "beauty" means the "prevailing fashion" demonstrates the old adage that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." In many ways, the definition of beauty (especially physical beauty) is going to continue to shift over time. We will never reach it because it is not an attainable end point but a shifting (and subjective) standard.

If beauty is seen more in that second way, though, there are a lot more stable things we can strive for that are tied up in its conceptualization. If being a "beautiful" person means being someone who brings pleasure and joy to the world around us, the goal becomes less about plucking, bleaching, scrubbing, and slicing our bodies into the narrow standard of acceptability and more about examining how our contributions to the world impact those around us.

The Dove campaign tells us that we are more beautiful than we think not because there aren't bags under our eyes or because there isn't grey in our hair, but because those things don't matter very much to that more pervasive, powerful understanding of beauty.

We Have the Right to Look Ugly, but Do We Have the Right to "Act Ugly"?

That YouTube commenter is right. We have the right to be physically "ugly" and still be treated with dignity and respect. But there is more than one way to be ugly, and I'm reminded of my mother telling me to not "act ugly" as a child. To act ugly was to be unkind or snotty. To act ugly was to not extend the dignity and respect to others that I myself deserved.

I don't think we have a moral imperative to be physically beautiful, but what about our responsibility to be beautiful in our interactions with the world around us? Dove says that they are "committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety." If that's true, could this video and their concept in general be used to show us what striving for a broader beauty really means?

Photo: lo83


  1. I think most people are missing the goal of this campaign. I think the purpose of the two pictures is to help women not be so critical of themselves and to help their self-esteem which does effect relationships, jobs, etc. You can be physically ugly, but be OK with that and have strong enough self-esteem that it doesn't hold you back. Similarly you could be drop-dead-gorgeous, but be so critical of your tiny flaws that you pull away from people and opportunities in life. To me the campaign is saying "You're more beautiful than you think you are, so stop being so hard on yourself." At least, that's what I got out of it and it makes me feel better.

  2. I agree, and I love the campaign. I think that (at least for me) there're getting at more than just physical beauty. They're telling us to stop being so hard on ourselves and that will free up a lot of time/energy/confidence to put to good and fulfilling use.