Culture And Commerce March 2007

The Truth About Beauty

It is the same in the eye of every beholder.

Cosmetics makers have always sold “hope in a jar”—creams and potions that promise youth, beauty, sex appeal, and even love for the women who use them. Over the last few years, the marketers at Dove have added some new-and-improved enticements. They’re now promising self-esteem and cultural transformation. Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” declares a press release, is “a global effort that is intended to serve as a starting point for societal change and act as a catalyst for widening the definition and discussion of beauty.” Along with its thigh-firming creams, self-tanners, and hair conditioners, Dove is peddling 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.

Dove won widespread acclaim in June 2005 when it rolled out its thigh-firming cream with billboards of attractive but variously sized “real women” frolicking in their underwear. It advertised its hair-care products by showing hundreds of women in identical platinum-blonde wigs—described as “the kind of hair found in magazines”—tossing off those artificial manes and celebrating their real (perfectly styled, colored, and conditioned) hair. It ran print ads that featured atypical models, including a plump brunette and a ninety-five-year-old, and invited readers to choose between pejorative and complimentary adjectives: “Wrinkled or wonderful?” “Oversized or outstanding?” The public and press got the point, and Dove got attention. Oprah covered the story, and so did the Today show. Dove’s campaign, wrote Advertising Age, “undermines the basic proposition of decades of beauty-care advertising by telling women—and young girls—they’re beautiful just the way they are.”

Last fall, Dove extended its image building with a successful bit of viral marketing: a seventy-five-second online video called Evolution. Created by Ogilvy & Mather, the video is a close-up of a seemingly ordinary woman, shot in harsh lighting that calls attention to her uneven skin tone, slightly lopsided eyes, and dull, flat hair. In twenty seconds of time-lapse video, makeup artists and hair stylists turn her into a wide-eyed, big-haired beauty with sculpted cheeks and perfect skin. It’s Extreme Makeover without the surgical gore.

Watch "Evolution" a viral marketing video by Dove

But that’s only the beginning. Next comes the digital transformation, as a designer points-and-clicks on the model’s photo, giving her a longer, slimmer neck, a slightly narrower upper face, fuller lips, bigger eyes, and more space between her eyebrows and eyes. The perfected image rises to fill a billboard advertising a fictitious line of makeup. Fade to black, with the message “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.” The video has attracted more than 3 million YouTube views. It also appears on Dove’s Web site, where it concludes, “Every girl deserves to feel beautiful just the way she is.”

Every girl certainly wants to, which explains the popularity of Dove’s campaign. There’s only one problem: Beauty exists, and it’s unevenly distributed. Our eyes and brains pretty consistently like some human forms better than others. Shown photos of strangers, even babies look longer at the faces adults rank the best-looking. Whether you prefer Nicole Kidman to Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez to Halle Berry, or Queen Latifah to Kate Moss may be a matter of taste, but rare is the beholder who would declare Holly Hunter or Whoopi Goldberg—neither of whom is homely—more beautiful than any of these women.

For similar reasons, we still thrill to the centuries-old bust of Nefertiti, the Venus de Milo, and the exquisite faces painted by Leonardo and Botticelli. Greta Garbo’s acting style seems stilted today, but her face transcends time. 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.

Presented by

Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of The Substance of Style (2003) and The Future and Its Enemies (1998). Her blog, the Dynamist, can be found at More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of

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