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Beauty and its enemies

In this Atlantic article, Virginia Postrel -- libertarian author of The Substance of Style, a full-throated celebration of style marketing, and the vaguely fascistic-sounding The Future and Its Enemies -- presumes to tell us the truth about beauty by way of an analysis of Dove's recent marketing campaign. While you may be one of the dopes who believes in "the crowd-pleasing notions that beauty is a media creation, that recognizing plural forms of beauty is the same as declaring every woman beautiful, and that self-esteem means ignoring imperfections," the strong among us face up bravely to the truth (if evolutionary psycholgists think it's so, it must be Truth) that "Beauty exists, and it’s unevenly distributed." Postrel elaborates cheerfully, "We know beauty when we see it, and our reactions are remarkably consistent. Beauty is not just a social construct, and not every girl is beautiful just the way she is." Luckily technology exists for women to correct Nature's malfeasance in shortchanging them in respect to this eternal ideal, and that technology is not Dove soap, which Postrel seems to imply is perpetrating some fraudulant conspiracy in linking its straightforward, inexpensive product to a message of self-acceptance for those who can't afford or can't be bothered with the cultural imperative with which woman are increasingly burdened -- to perfect themselves through expensive surgical interventions (which incidentally makes beauty a better proxy for class; very useful for policing class boundaries, helping put a stop to the problem that Samuel Richardson first pinpointed in Pamela). The implication seems to be this: Women who view themselves as a being capable of doing things and seek to be judged for their actions rather than being judged as a beautiful art work (like the Venus de Milo and Nefertiti sculptures Postrel cites) are quite clearly deluded, and this malicious Dove campaign is keeping the wool pulled over their pathetic eyes.

In her conclusion Postrel notes that "Real confidence requires self-knowledge, which includes recognizing one’s shortcomings as well as one’s strengths." And to the degree that Dove's campaign occludes self-knowledge, I can see why she's bothered by it. But all ad campaigns seek to subvert self-knowledge; they work by promising to know more about you than you do yourself and to thereby help you attain some false aspiration it seeks to convince you is your own. But the "false" aspiration Dove's campaign seeks to persuade us to adopt is fairly benign compared with the opposite message undergirding virtually every other beauty-product marketing campaign, namely that you are an object to be judged, your value lies in your appearance, and you should feel mortally insecure until you do everything in your power to rectify these lapses from evolutionarily-proven good taste.

If Postrel wants only to fault Dove for choosing beautiful women and then trying to pass them off as ordinary in an especially devious fashion, that would be an astute point. If Dove was truly on a philanthropic mission to refute restrictive media peceptions of female beauty, they might have chosen plainer-looking women. But it seems that most of all Postrel can't stomach the idea that the campaign would have the temerity to try to redefine beauty as some kind of inner quality.

Another Dove ad, focusing on girls’ insecurities about their looks, concludes, “Every girl deserves to feel good about herself and see how beautiful she really is.” Here, Dove is encouraging the myth that physical beauty is a false concept, and, at the same time, falsely equating beauty with goodness and self-worth. If you don’t see perfection in the mirror, it suggests, you’ve been duped by the media and suffer from low self-esteem.

But adult women have a more realistic view. “Only two percent of women describe themselves as beautiful” trumpets the headline of Dove’s press release. Contrary to what the company wants readers to believe, however, that statistic doesn’t necessarily represent a crisis of confidence; it may simply reflect the power of the word beautiful.

If what you see in the mirror makes you feel inadequate, you are simply being honest with yourself and that has nothing to do with the media, but if you accept what you see, you've become the dupe of Dove? If the word beautiful is as powerful as Postrel thinks it is, isn't that more reason to denature it by watering it down to refer to all a person's noble qualities? Isn't it good if women can be "beautiful" for being smart, productive, engaged? If they look in a mirror and think that? Physical attractiveness exists, it just shouldn't be all-important. Media, ads inculded, are just one of the many institutions that tries to make a woman's attractiveness, or fertility (as Postrel wishes to interpret it), into the only significant quality she has to offer society.

The point is, women shouldn't have to feel tyrannized by the need to attain some level of physical attractiveness, even if evolution would seem to have conspired against them on that front. The survival of the human race no longer depends on this. But the survival of the cosmetics, fashion and plastic surgery industries do. Why is Postrel carrying their water, still?

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