See What Women Do When They Have to Decide If They’re Beautiful or Average

Dove’s latest campaign hopes to boost body image, but is requiring ladies to choose a label the solution?
Apr 8, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When most women head to the mall, they’re thinking about buying a new pair of shoes or a top for a night out. But in “Choose Beautiful,” Dove’s latest positive body-image campaign, women participating in a social experiment suddenly had to decide whether they’d walk through a shopping center entrance labeled “Beautiful” or one labeled “Average.”

The personal-care brand boldly marked doorways at malls in five cities around the globe: Delhi, London, San Francisco, São Paulo, and Shanghai. If a woman didn’t want to label herself as beautiful, according to the ad, she might have low self-esteem. Indeed, in the clip we see and hear some of the women explaining their decision.

Fair & Lovely commercial.

“It was my choice, and now I will question myself for the next few weeks, maybe months,” said one of the participants.

Causing a woman to doubt herself doesn’t exactly seem empowering. Yet plenty of women are applauding Dove for the feel-good-about-yourself-no-matter-what tone of the ad. There are comments across social media that the clip had people in tears. Meanwhile, other women see this latest campaign from the company as a driver of poor self-esteem.

“Ads like these go hand in hand with magazines who show only supermodels and photoshopped celebs. First they make you feel insecure, then, knowing all women feel insecure, they throw campaigns in [our] faces to REMIND us how beautiful we are,” commented YouTube user Alexandra Zeres.

“I know this is supposed to be inspiring, but all it does is add to the message that beauty is the foundation of a woman’s identity and worth. Just about everything that’s marketed toward women is to convince them that this could make them beautiful (don’t forget that this is an ADVERTISING campaign that came from the marketing department of a major company),” wrote Paige Buursma on Dove’s Facebook page. “I think a better message would be that you can be a confident, nice, smart person with a fulfilling life, no matter what you look like. It’s great to be beautiful, but it is not a heartbreaking misfortune to be average-looking.” continued Buursma. There was no reply to the comment from Dove.

Dove’s parent company, Unilever, has a long history of wanting some women to feel downright unattractive in order to move its products. In India, Unilever makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year selling bleaching creams for skin under the brand name Fair & Lovely. The brand’s notorious advertisements have long depicted darker-skinned women whose lives are miserable—they only get jobs or dates after they’ve whitened their faces with the product.

Last August, spurred by a backlash against Fair & Lovely commercials, the Advertising Standards Council of India stepped in and banned any ads that show darker-skinned women as unattractive failures. But a whole generation of women in the South Asian country have been indoctrinated in the belief that they’re average unless they have a light, bright complexion. And now here’s Dove, asking those same women if they feel beautiful.

Indeed, watching this latest effort, it’s hard not to recall “Mirror Test,” the parody of the company’s advertising style. “See, you’re not a hideous monster,” that video’s pretend psychologist told women. This ad from Dove seems to send a similar message. When nearly half of girls in grades five to 12 are on a diet, challenging narrow beauty standards is necessary, but critics of this ad are wondering whether asking women to choose one label or another is the solution.