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Dove Just Wants to Have Fun

Beth Gottfried
Photo from Dove website

Is bigger always better? For Dove, so long as it brings in big bucks, it is.

We've all seen the billboards for Dove's new Campaign for Real Beauty showing full figure twenty-somethings posing in white bra and panties. These women are confident, proud of their bodies, and far from perfect. The campaign's We're Big & Beautiful strategic placement of ads all over the eastern seaboard (from Boston to NYC to DC) is creating quite a buzz. Even comedian Conan O'Brien jumped on the bandwagon recently by introducing male models to advertise the firming cream. His reasoning: women aren't the only ones in need of the cream. Unfortunately, many of us single hetero gals can attest to this ugly truth.

Ugly could also aptly describe the ensuing bitterness raging between supporters of the campaign and those who criticize it. Chicago Sun Times critic Richard Roeper was recently attacked for his labeling of the Dove models as "chunky". and blatantly stating that he'd rather stare at a billboard of beautiful models than "real" women. Who could forget his infamous comment, which sparked the controversy? "If I want to see plump gals baring too much skin," said Roeper, "I'll go to Taste of Chicago, OK?" I'll walk down Michigan Avenue or go to Navy Pier. When we're talking women in their underwear on billboards outside my living room windows, give me the fantasy babes, please."

For his remarks, Roeper has received hate mail calling him a "loser" and a "sexist". But if Roeper's so-called "Neanderthal" (as one unhappy member of the public put it) comments teach us anything, it's that honesty is in short supply and as a woman, I come to his defense. I'd rather see the pretty, skinny-minis on the billboards, too. These models, however, amply displayed on life-size 4-ft tall billboards, who are being celebrated and praised for their "curves" are not "curvy" they are simply fat. Curves imply a waist and some semblance of a ratio between hips, bust, and ass: a la Angelina Jolie. Last time I checked, these women were pretty much straight down from shoulder to hip with some flab jiggling in the posterior, and even some spilling out to the side. But I digress.

The point of these ads according to Dove's marketing director Philippe Harousseau is to "broaden the definition of beauty". "It is our belief that beauty comes in different shapes, sizes, and ages," he said. Indeed, many teenagers and women seem to identify with these models. They see these women's bodies as more realistic depictions of the female form, and more importantly, relevant to their own bodies. Dove also goes the extra step of creating a sense of relevancy and intimacy with the models. (You can read their personal stories here.)

These women are not only images/visuals used to sell a product; they have names and ages and professions just like other real women. There is Gina Crisanti, a barrista, who was discovered taking out the trash and later propositioned for the photo shoot. (Ms. Crisanti appeared noticeably slimmer in the ad (in white panties and bra) then she did in her photo for ABC News with clothes, begging the question of just how "natural" and untouched these photos really are.) Then there is Stacey, who poses with her tush to the camera and smirks at us, confidently. She is proud of her big butt.

Dove wants to relay the message that models like Stacy and Gina are like you and me. But even if you can't identify with them personally, that is, size-wise, such women could be your neighbor or best friend, so the personal touch remains. The ads convey that such every-day women as models are less objectified and more approachable. The "friendly" didactic being preached: Dove is for the average, everyday woman in you, too. But still one can't entirely ignore that "average" and "everyday" are relative to culture from whence they came.

Case in point. I was recently vacationing in Toronto, Canada, where I picked up a copy of the British version of Glamour magazine. I was somewhat surprised to see the same Dove ads featured in the glossy, since I had no clue that these ads were being pitched internationally. I was also surprised that instead of the American women I had seen in the stateside ads, European women were being featured in these ads. No doubt this is an ethnocentric slip on my part.

At any rate, I had to compare the American models and the Europeans and much as was the case when watching East Germany/Russia compete in figure skating or gymnastics in the Olympics during the era of Communism. In all such comparisons, there are clear-cut winners in the looks department. And I'm bereft to report that once again the Americans took a silver medal, at best. Of course, these ads, European or American, are not a competition for whose women look hotter. When models start competing for whose body looks more in need of firming cream, you know the status quo has changed and that perhaps superficial is "out" and inner beauty "in".

Those that defend the ads preach the importance of "curves", citing what it's like to grow up in a society with breasts and hips more ample than Lindsay Lohan's coveted waifishness. Personally, I have to side with Lindsay Lohan, pre-blond stick figure. In her red hair, buxom, foxy days (like when she was 18 circa Mean Girls), she was absolutely stunning. This is why celebrities and supermodels exist; because people don't necessarily want to aspire to be their best friends/neighbors/girl-next-door. Sometimes people want to reside in a fantasy.

Is the Dove "Real Beauty" campaign right in trying to hinder this dream by imposing its own standard of beauty? Isn't it simply like trading in one idealized sense of beauty/superficiality for another? How are they generating a diverse campaign when it is largely comprised of Caucasian women in their still-youthful 20s, all with a similar body type? Where's the diversity in that? Frankly, I concur with blogger Kim Nicole's statement "Call me shallow or stupid, but if you put something on a typical model, I'm more likely to buy it.''

Ultimately will Dove be a trendsetter in forcing our society to re-evaluate our concept of feminine beauty and alter our preconceived notions? Will using reverse psychology (integrating typically non-traditional forms of beauty as models) alter the beauty paradigm that's been engrained in our culture for generations? Time will tell. For now, Unilever Dove is simply hoping to sell their new product. And if they manage to get us talkin' bout a [cultural] revolution and upsetting some men in search of "fantasy babes" while adding up the profits, well, so be it. Sometimes "Girlz just wanna have fun", and from the looks of it, these big models in Dove's big ad campaign are doing just that.

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