Beauty, Dove, & the Lies Society Tells About Women

You’ve all seen the Dove Real Beauty commercial, right? The one from about five years ago, with the forensic artist? Watch it again to refresh your memory:

Many women’s reaction to the video was powerful emotion. Some women cried at the message, which is captured in the tag line: “You’re more beautiful than you think.”

Yes, I am, was the overwhelming response as thousands of women shared the video through social media.

Then came the backlash about whether the forensic artist was biased because he knew about the experiment, and how the majority of the women were Caucasian, and maybe that’s the kind of beauty we’re being told is somehow “real.”

Those arguments may or may not be valid.

But it was a different response that make me sit up and pay attention: the one saying that outward appearance/beauty shouldn’t be what society looks at anyway, and that making a commercial that focuses on it is wrong.

I even saw well-intentioned men get on the same high horse. They meant well. I get that. Society is too focused on beauty. Isn’t that the point? We live in a society that does put an extraordinary amount of emphasis and significance to outward appearance. That is a fact.

Another fact: Women are often way too hard on themselves because they can never measure up to the airbrushed models and movie stars bombarding them every day.

I’m only one among millions of women who grew up with a gorgeous mother, who herself was convinced she wasn’t pretty enough in whatever physical way (too fat or whatever).

I’ve tried hard not to pass on those kinds of ideas to my daughters, but ironically, discovered that I have, at least with one features I’m self-conscious of, passed along the same concern to one of my daughters. I’m sad that thanks to me, she now worries about the very same feature, no matter that she’s gorgeous.


Dove took a new angle on the beauty war. Instead of using images of impossible beauty — the ones where the models themselves don’t even look like that — they started using everyday women to show the real beauty they have.

To me, it was refreshing to see a company essentially back up the trolley to give women a dose of positivity.

Should beauty be the only thing we’re concerned about? Of course not.

But moving past beauty as a societal currency will take take a huge paradigm shift, and likely generations. If we ever move past it.

Even women don’t/can’t always look past the outer shell, and we’re the targets of that kind of judgment every minute of every day.

It’s not a man problem. It’s a societal problem.

A male colleague, one of the men I saw publicly up in arms about this commercial and its focus on beauty (rather than brains, or other qualities), had a habit of referring to his wife on social media and elsewhere as his hot and gorgeous wife.

I’d known him for well over a decade, and he’s always referred to his wife as hot or, sometimes, gorgeous or beautiful.

I’m sure he did so out of love.

BUT. After a lengthy discussion on a thread about this commercial, where I expressed my (always vocal, sometimes loud) opinions on the commercial, he suddenly changed his tune.

Out of the blue, he started referring to his spouse as smart, brilliant, and talented.

Coincidence? Not likely.

The problem is so widespread that not too long ago, one of my writing idols admitted in a blog post that if she could take a pill to be prettier but stupid, she would.

I was horrified, in part because she’s so stinking smart (and she’s already pretty anyway, yet apparently doesn’t think so), but also because she was pandering to the lowest common denominator in society. Not even this brilliant woman of letters was exempt.

(I was also dismayed because I’d lived the stupid/pretty pill thing in the form of medication side effects that made me lose a bunch of weight but also made me dumb as a rock. I was at a great weight and received many compliments on my figure, but I was unable to think clearly and absolutely miserable the entire time.)

Men: Do you think you get what it’s like being a woman, or that appearance isn’t that big a deal? Read this post about sexual harassment at a science fiction/fantasy convention and think again.

Keep in mind that that post was written several years before the #MeToo movement took off.

Women spend their lives trying to figure out what to wear that will make them be taken seriously, which means pretty, but not too pretty, strong, but not too strong (because a woman can’t be strong and feminine at the same time or something?).

About a year ago, right here on Medium, Anne Ursu broke the issue open in the writing industry (specifically the children’s and youth book industry).

Several months later, the same issue exploded in my local area with NY Times bestseller Richard Paul Evans refusing to apologize for his serial harassing behavior.

Worse, instead of apologizing, he defended it, saying that American women are uptight, and that men today are like Holocaust Jews. (Yes, he really said that.)

(Read some of the fallout on his harassment here.)

(Watch Evans comparing men to gassed Jews in Nazi Germany here.)

All of us, regardless of gender, need to remember that every person is more than their exterior. Everyone has layers, a history, interesting facts, unique observations and insights.

If we rely on others’ appearances to decide who to invest time in, we’ll miss out on diamonds we didn’t know were out there.

This isn’t to say that we can’t wear heels we love or compliment someone on their awesome new haircut. Rather, we need to consciously look beyond those things.

Dustin Hoffman had this very epiphany while preparing for Tootsie, where he played the lead role: an unemployed actor who dresses like a woman to get a job.

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The film is generally considered to be a romantic comedy, and he’s brilliant in it. (If you haven’t watched it, do; you can stream it on Amazon.)

(That’s Dustin Hoffman in the 1982 glory of what was considered stylish glasses and hair.)

Before you do, though, watch him describing his epiphany below.

I bet it’ll change the way you think about women and beauty, society, appearance, and intellect, in a good way.

Annette Lyon is a USA Today bestselling author. Check out her piece about author L. M. Montgomery’s battle with depression here, and her ADHD brain hack here.

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USA Today bestselling & award-winning author of women’s fiction & romance. Word nerd. Chocoholic. Mom.

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