The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty: An Embodiment of Postracial Rhetoric
The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty: An Embodiment of Postracial Rhetoric
Peitho Volume 23 Issue 1 Fall 2020
Author(s): Mary McCall
Mary McCall is an Assistant Professor of English at North Dakota State University. Her research focuses on professional and technical writing, writing across the curriculum, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.
Abstract: In 2004, Dove launched its Campaign for Real Beauty (CFRB) to promote a more inclusive understanding of beauty based on confidence. Through examining the CFRB advertisements and their construction of “real beauty,” I argue that Dove adopts a postracial rhetoric that normalizes Whiteness, disregards the material realities of race(ism), eschews diversity, and is performative and embodied. By claiming diversity without also acknowledging the history of racialized depictions of bodies of color, Dove homogenizes the racial and ethnic differences of the models in an essentializing discourse, foregrounds White bodies, and reproduces stereotypical imagery of Black bodies across its ads.Tags: 23-1, beauty advertising, bodies, Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, postracial rhetoric, Race, weight stigma
In response to women’s growing dissatisfaction with the representation of the female body within media and advertising, Dove commissioned a global study in 2004 to get a better understanding of the relationship between beauty and self-esteem. The study concluded that 57% of the 3,200 women across 10 countries surveyed believed that “‘the attributes of female beauty have become very narrowly defined in today’s world’” (Etcoff et al. 27) and 75% indicated that they “wish the media did a better job of portraying women of diverse physical attractiveness, including age, shape and size” (43). Based on these survey results, Dove launched its Campaign for Real Beauty (CFRB) in 2004 to “widen” the definition of beauty from the perception of physical attractiveness to confidence, acceptance, and pride, among other qualities (“The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”). In 2005, Dove initiated its “most iconic” phase of the CFRB with a series of ads featuring the “real bodies and real curves” of six, non-professional models (“The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”)—in other words, no digital re-touching of their photographs was allowed.1
Through these ads, the company lauded itself on initiating a “global conversation” revolving around beauty stereotypes and bodily perceptions (Dove, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”). In its 16-year history, the CFRB has published a number of viral ads and videos in TV spots, on YouTube, and on its social media pages with body-positive messaging featuring young girls and women of all ages. This decade-plus long campaign has largely been met with overwhelming success. It has been credited with being “on the natural beauty train long before many brands were even thinking about it” (Brown) and (in)directly influencing other brands such as Nike’s “Big Butts” and “Thunder Thighs” ads (Associated Press) and Victoria Secret’s “Love My Body” campaign (SheSpeaksTeam). The CFRB won PRWeek’s “Best U.S. Campaign of the Past 20 Years” award (PRWeek Staff) and Ad Age’s top spot in the 15 best ad campaigns of the 21st century (Neff). Unsurprisingly, it has been profitable, too, increasing Dove’s sales from $2.5 to $4 billion within its first ten years (Dasher and Zed).
However, some scholars analyzing the campaign are hesitant to extend praise just yet. Some point to the irony of a campaign celebrating women “just as they are” while using its models to promote a firming cream (Brodbeck and Evans; Howard; Stevenson). Others critically evaluate the relationship between feminism and corporate culture (Murray), arguing that the campaign is an example of “feminist consumerism” or a “corporate strategy that employs feminist themes of empowerment to market products to women” (Taylor et al. 124; Johnston and Taylor). Consumer responses echo this skepticism, contending that “Dove’s version of feminism lacked transformational potential because it encouraged a solipsistic focus on the self, rather than making connections between personal problems and the social organization of society” (Taylor et al. 135). Many female consumers also believe that the Dove models’ “deviant” bodies are still significantly fitter than the average American female body (Scott and Cloud; Postrel). These “deviant” bodies are also able-bodied ones (Heiss).
Despite this range of scholarship, little work has thoroughly analyzed the relationship between race and gender with the CFRB. Thus, I argue that without fully considering the intersectionality of gender, race, and weight stigma, Dove’s feminist consumerist message does little to challenge Western, White beauty norms.2 I use postracial rhetoric to examine how the text and visuals of the CFRB gloss over and homogenize the racial and ethnic differences of the models in an essentializing discourse that reflects a universal approach to “beauty” without thoroughly considering how cultural differences affect various notions of beauty (Johnston and Taylor; see also Bordo, xxii). Postracial rhetoric stems from postracialism, or the “claim that we are, or are close to, or ought to be living outside of debilitating racial reference” (Goldberg 15),” whose origins are frequently attributed to Barack Obama’s 2008 election to the presidency (Adjei and Gill; Teasley and Ikard; Paul; Temple). By focusing on Dove’s use of a postracial rhetoric, my analysis accomplishes two goals. First, it develops current critiques of the campaign that do not thoroughly address its relationship with race and gender. Second, it takes up discussions of postracial rhetoric that largely circulate outside of rhetorical studies and situates them in a feminist, embodied, rhetorical context by articulating major components of this rhetoric and explaining how they apply to the depictions of Black, female bodies in the CFRB.3 While my analysis primarily focuses on how Black women’s bodies in the campaign are read, I also discuss how the bodies of other women of color are largely absent from the advertisements as well.
I begin by reviewing scholarship about postracialism from ethnic and racial studies, Black studies, communication, and rhetorical studies. Given this range of interdisciplinary research, I define what I mean by a “postracial rhetoric” and synthesize prior discussions about postracialism into its four key components: A postracial rhetoric normalizes Whiteness, disregards the material realities of race(ism), eschews diversity, and is performative and embodied. This last point positions this analysis of Dove’s postracial rhetoric within embodied, feminist rhetorics that advocate for “an ethical reading of bodies and recognition of bodies as people—not objects” (Johnson et al. 40). Through examining the CFRB advertisements, viewers’ responses to them, and the models’ statements about their participation in the campaign, I describe how Dove enacts a postracial rhetoric that allows the company to both foreground White bodies and reproduce historical, stereotypical imagery of Black bodies across its ads. By claiming diversity without also acknowledging the history of racialized depictions of (female) bodies of color, Dove does not engage in anti-racist efforts but instead “asks us to focus our views on visible triumphs associated with racial difference” and ignore “obvious instances of discrimination” (Cobb 413). Considering Dove’s reputation as being at the forefront of shaping beauty advertising, this oversight is troubling indeed.
Defining Postracial Rhetoric
I begin this section by outlining my use of a “postracial rhetoric” to situate this term within the scope of embodied, feminist rhetorics. I do so because references to postracial rhetoric outside of rhetorical studies often either do not clarify their understanding of rhetoric or carry connotations of rhetoric as “‘empty talk,’ or even ‘deception’” (Herrick 1).4 Although approaches to rhetoric within the discipline can vary, I adopt Dolmage’s definition of rhetoric as “the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication” (3). I have selected this definition for several reasons. First, it includes a focus on the body as Dolmage adds that “we should recognize rhetoric as the circulation of discourse through the body” (5). His emphasis on the body corresponds to how embodiment informs rhetoric given that “the physical body carries meaning through discourse about or by a body” and that such meaning “can be articulated beyond language” (Johnson et al. 39). Second, Dolmage’s definition is grounded in disability studies, which is complementary to feminist theory considering shared concerns about “the politics of appearance,” “the relation between femininity and embodiment,” “the commercialization of health and fitness” and “the ideology of normalcy,” among others (Garland-Thomson 1559). And third, the definition’s attention to power and the body aligns with feminist rhetoric, “a set of long-established practices that advocates a political position of rights and responsibilities that certainly includes the equality of women and Others” (Glenn 3),5 and one of its goals to “make all bodies and the power dynamics invested in their (in)visibility visible” (Johnson et al. 39).
With this rhetorical framework in mind, I understand postracial rhetoric to mean the circulation of textual, visual, and bodily discourses that (in)directly suggest the eradication of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice. I do not posit this understanding as postracial rhetoric’s “true” definition as it, much like rhetoric itself, can have multiple interpretations. I am also by no means coining the term, but I do outline what I have gathered to be its main components from prior scholarly discussions about postracialism that are largely outside of rhetorical studies and do not always explicitly define their approach to a postracial rhetoric.
Postracial Rhetoric Normalizes Whiteness
On the premise that racial preference is on the decline, postracial rhetoric promotes a universal message of equality and, consequently, an idealized version of society in which Whiteness is unraced and therefore the default (Temple; Klinenberg; Teasley and Ikard). Various iterations of this rhetoric “‘in effect proclaim that whiteness is normative’” (Walker and Smithers qtd. in Gunn and McPhail 20). In the context of media and advertising, a postracial rhetoric can homogenize (i.e., “smooth out all racial, ethnic, and sexual ‘differences’” (Bordo 24)) and normalize (i.e., create “models against which the self continually measures, judges, ‘disciplines’, and ‘corrects’ itself” (Bordo 25)) Western, White representations of beauty. It is critical, then, to acknowledge that these representations “have dominance, and not to efface such recognition through a facile and abstract celebration of ‘heterogeneity,’ ‘difference,’ ‘subversive reading,’ and so forth” (Bordo 29-30). By advancing a racially unmarked, “normal” culture at the expense of others, postracial rhetoric is an “an outsider-imposed identity discourse” (Temple 51).
Postracial Rhetoric Disregards the Material Realities of Race(ism)
The assumption that the United States has “overcome” race with the election of its first Black president “renders invisible the material realities of ‘race’” (Teasley and Ikard 412). This assumption is quickly proven false by the very same “daily realities of racialized bodies [that] suggest that racism is still pervasive in the United States” (Adjei and Gill 142). By “material,” I refer to Bordo’s definition (which itself is influenced by Marxian and Foucauldian perspectives), which is “the ‘direct grip’ (as opposed to representational influence) that culture has on our bodies, through the practices and bodily habits of everyday life” (16). Collins likewise emphasizes the contributions of material, lived experiences towards Black feminist thought, which is “situated in a context of domination and not as a system of ideas divorced from political and economical reality” (288). Not only does postracial rhetoric gloss over the present-day, material impacts of race(ism), it conveniently forgets or ignores the history of racial inequalities that is embedded within current race relations in the United States.
Postracial Rhetoric Eschews Diversity
In believing that “African-Americans have finally achieved racial equality,” postracialism is an “assimilationist term” that downplays Black cultures in favor of “mainstream White behaviors and orientations” (Temple 46). As such, its rhetoric “expresses a desire that African-American identity and heritage practices decrease, rather than increase” (46). Postracial rhetoric also goes hand in hand with a color-blind rhetoric that uses terms like “fairness, open access, and equal opportunity” (Holmes 26) and in so doing causes “social inequalities [to become] invisible” (Collins 26). What is ultimately valued is a homogenous (i.e., White, heteronormative) culture.
Postracial Rhetoric is Performative and Embodied
Understandings of race(ism) do not occur in a vacuum, but are bound up in cultural symbols: “the language of racism is masked within the language of culture” (Adjei and Gill 144). These symbols are not only linguistic ones, but visual as well. Considering how bodily features (e.g., skin tone, hair, body shape, etc.) and gestures all carry cultural weight, Cobb notes that “postracial imagery unevenly assigns concepts of visibility to performances of racial identity” and that “postracialism [can be] treated as performative and as a thing to be embodied” (412). Put another way, bodily features and gestures are not race-neutral. Sherrell describes how the need to keep Whiteness unraced and therefore “invisible” (148) appropriates embodiment by requiring Black bodies to “simulate whiteness and white embodiment in white institutions and spaces” (142). Modifying one’s behavior, mannerisms, and features becomes a survival tactic with the knowledge that “merely being noticed by whiteness has led to violence against, and death of, Black bodies” (150). In response, Sherrell proposes “embodied filtering,” a “means of titration of experience,” that counteracts encounters with racism with bodily rituals (e.g., restorative actions such as applying lotion, massaging one’s skin, and making selective clothing choices) that promote connections to one’s Black community and ancestry (151-152).
With the exception of the last one, most of these components of postracial rhetoric operate primarily within the realm of textual language. Cobb, though, situates this rhetoric in a visual context through explaining the paradox of how “Blackness is rendered hypervisible as a symbol in a post-race United States; yet, it is also made invisible in terms of its own social and cultural relevance” (407). With its history of racial caricatures (that intermingle with discriminatory visual imagery of other racial identities), portrayals of Black bodies remind us that “there is never a culturally neutral ground for racial depiction—no place where our representational contexts have taken a reprieve from old ways of knowing race that create enough distance for the postracial to occur” (418). We cannot simply “forget” these historical caricatures when looking at images of Black people (and others of color) just as we cannot use an election of a Black, male president to treat the history of racial injustice in the United States as “one long, bad dream” (407). In the following sections, I use postracial rhetoric as an analytical lens to examine how Dove’s textual, visual, and paralingual discursive practices reveal the power dynamics embedded in its representations of race and reproductions of White beauty norms in the CFRB. My analysis takes up Cobb’s argument that we must be as critically conscious of “our approach to visuality” as we should be with “our idea of raciality” (419).
Postracial Undertones to Dove’s Definition of “Real Beauty”
In the now-iconic ads that the CFRB launched in 2005 (see Fig. 1), “real women with real bodies and real curves” (Dove, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”) in white underwear strike confident poses daring to expose “curvy thighs, bigger bums, [and] rounder stomachs” (Fielding et al.). Clearly “real” in this context means bodies that are not “retouched, airbrushed or altered in any way” (Fielding et al). Both components—featuring “real women” in the ads and depicting them as they are in “real life”—make up two out of the three vows for “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”—the third being to “help girls build body confidence and self-esteem” (Dove, “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”). The third vow also refers to the Dove Self-Esteem Project, which has “has educated over 20 million young people in body confidence and self-esteem” over the last 10 years (Dove, “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”).
The “real beauty” behind “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’” is an example of postracial rhetoric that fails to acknowledge the dominant ideology of Western female beauty rooted in histories of colonialism and enslavement. To achieve its “utopian” mission (Nayak 427) of eradicating racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice, postracialism supports eliminating race since “it is a false, dangerous and consequently indefensible category” (Paul 703). Race is absent from Dove’s vow to “never” use professional models since they “reflect a narrow view of beauty” and instead embrace the belief that “beauty is for everyone” by using “real women of different ages, sizes, ethnicities, hair color, type or style” (Dove, “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”). While race (physical characteristics) and ethnicity (belonging to a social group with the same nationality, regional culture, ancestry, and language) arguably overlap with one another, the two are not synonymous. “Hair color, type or style” might be a roundabout way of suggesting race, which reflects a lack of critical consciousness about the social construct at best and an active disengagement with it at worst. In any case, the explicit omission of race from Dove’s definition of beauty is significant since it allows the company to participate in the “abstract celebration of ‘heterogeneity’” (Bordo 30) without recognizing, interrogating, and addressing the racial dynamics within Western beauty standards.
Although a “cultural creation” (Smedley 5), race still has (in)direct material impacts whether invoked or not. Put simply, abandoning race does not erase racism. Shying away from the concept risks promoting the belief that “racial invocation inherently produces racist inevitability” (Goldberg 114) despite the fact that “racisms establish, set in place, and extend races, not the reverse” (115). Anti-racist efforts can instead adopt a both/and approach—i.e., acknowledging a preference for Whiteness while still insisting on “equality for all in the face of ongoing racial reference” (121). In this section, I argue that Dove does the opposite by setting the tone for a postracial rhetoric through its early CFRB ads that center on White bodies and white imagery. The Black women in these ads are forgotten by Dove’s marketing team whose decision to have the models wear white underwear evokes conceptions of the “pure”, White, female body as contrasted to the body of the exotic Black Other. Such a choice reflects how “visibility is fundamental to race relations” (Cobb 418) and, when combined with the oversight of the few Black women chosen to be among the CFRB’s inaugural models, signals Dove’s lack of awareness of its own postracial rhetoric.
A “Whiter” Approach to Beauty
Despite Dove’s claims of contributing to a “wider definition of beauty” (Dove, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”), the advertisements themselves are still largely dominated by White, toned women. Results from focus groups of 40 female participants suggested that these women largely viewed the models as having “conventionally beautiful skin, hair, and eyes” (Taylor et al. 132). “Imperfections” such as “cellulite, rolls, body hair, dreadlocks, tattoos, bumps, scars, blemishes, prostheses, and stretch marks” were also mentioned as missing from the ads; the inclusion of dreadlocks in this list implies that physical features typically associated with Black bodies are excluded from implicit, White norms of “conventionally beautiful” standards. Some of the Black and Latina participants noted that “Most of the models are light skinned people, not really dark-skinned” and the Muslim participants commented that the absence of hijabs reflected little diversity in terms of religion (133). Most of the non-White women in the focus groups felt that “Dove’s version of diversity did not challenge hegemonic beauty norms based on white ideals, nor did it address the racism that underpins myriad beauty practices and expectations” (133). These sentiments highlight Dove’s superficial approach to diversity that implies postracial, homogenous assumptions of beauty. The company further compounds the danger of these assumptions by using a minimally diverse group of “real” non-professional models to uphold its claim of equalizing perceptions of beauty.
Any potential gains from the diversity present in the ads are undercut by the CFRB’s marketing team. During a roundtable discussion with the Ogilvy marketing team behind the campaign’s launch, Linda Scott gives this story:
One thing that was brought to my attention just last week that I had not noticed before—a friend and a colleague of mine, Jason Chambers who is a professor at the University of Illinois, was in town last week and he’s African American. I told him that I was having this meeting and he says, “Oh, you know, I would really like to know…That campaign didn’t have any Black women in it. Why is that?” And it was the first that I had ever—I’m embarrassed to say—the first time I had thought about it. (Fielding et al.)
Dennis Lewis, Creative Partner at the London branch of Ogilvy, responds that Dove has “always been multi-racial and multi-cultural,” but then must retrieve physical pictures from the campaign to confirm the existence of Black models. Alessandro Manfredi, the Global VP of Dove Masterbrand and Deodorants, begins to list different phases of the campaign that had “it” (i.e., Black models) while remaining uncertain about the promotional campaign video, “Little Girls.” Scott adds that she is “pretty sure” “Little Girls” has Black models and suggests that Chambers might have been thinking of the 2005 ads as the phase lacking diversity (Fielding et al.).
And yet, the 2005 ads do have two Black models—Syleste Molyneaux and Jane Poku (see Figs. 1 and 2). What is especially concerning about these ads is not just that there are only two Black models within a campaign meant to “widen” the definition of beauty, but that the roundtable discussion demonstrates what hooks describes as “dehumanizing oppressive forces, forces that render us invisible and deny us recognition” (35). The admission of race as an afterthought plus the scramble to provide evidence of the presence of non-White bodies both convey how Whiteness is normalized within an ad series claiming diversity and highlight Dove’s unconsciousness of its own postracial rhetoric.
These actions also undercut the appearance of agency in Molyneaux and Poku’s individual advertisements that include their names and statements about the campaign. On the one hand, these women’s participation in the CFRB is an opportunity for them to advocate their own narratives about their bodies, diversify the representation of women in the media, and be positive role models for Black girls who often do not see versions of themselves in beauty ads. On the other hand, Molyneaux and Poku’s body-positive narratives are not their own while being open to editing by Dove and its marketing team. Black women’s empowerment (and, in this case, individual views and collective consensus on what “beauty” is) strives to be autonomous: “When Black women define ourselves, we clearly reject the assumption that those in positions granting them the authority to interpret our reality are entitled to do so” (Collins 125). Because this empowerment must resist knowledge production tied to objectification, commodification, and exploitation (Collins 308), Black women’s agency becomes constrained in a beauty campaign claiming good intentions but still profiting from their bodies.
Material Constructions of Racialized Beauty Norms
One consequence to Dove’s exclusion of race from its definition of “real beauty” is the failure to identify and respond to racialized conceptions of beauty and their material impacts and, in so doing, renew them. Historically, Black women’s bodies have been objectified to facilitate and justify their economic, political, and sexual exploitation, which is reflected in the “controlling images of Black womanhood” (Collins 111) such as the mammy, “the faithful, obedient domestic servant” (80), and the jezebel or “whore, or ‘hoochie’” (89). This objectification also reinforces “long-standing notions of Black women’s sexuality” (238) and acts as a ballast against which the ideals of White beauty are defined. One example of this objectification in the CFRB is the white underwear that the models are consistently photographed in. The Ogilvy team made the decision for the models to wear white underwear during the shoot since they wanted the women “to look confident and feel sexy,” instead of being cast as “sex icons” (Fielding et al.). “Plain” white underwear, instead of lingerie, would draw the audience’s attention to the women’s skin and “loveliness” (Fielding et al.). The choice of white underwear to convey these impressions ultimately relies on implicit, historical associations with lingerie, which have connections to the exotic Other of the Black body.
A notable instance of a Black woman’s body being used to constitute notions of Black female sexuality and White femininity was the exhibition of Saartjie Baartman (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”), a South African Khoikhoi woman, in England in the early 19th century. Enslaved by a Dutch farmer after her family was killed in a commando raid, Baartman (although illiterate) allegedly signed a “contract” to work as a domestic servant for William Dunlop, an English ship surgeon (Parkinson). Dunlop instead put Baartman on display across England to present her large buttocks (steatopygia) and elongated labia (known popularly as the “Hottentot apron”) as a “‘scientific curiosity’” (Davie). The speculations from Europeans about these features serve as one example of the association of Black women’s sexuality as “animalistic, lustful, and deviant” (Fields 613) that was contrasted against White bodies, white lingerie, and sexual purity (612). Black lingerie functioned “as a racial masquerade akin to Blackface that allowed women, especially white women, to express, and their bodies to convey, the eroticism attributed to Black women via a safely contained and removable Black skin” (612). Conversely, covering Black women in white underwear against a white background—Poku’s clothing is so indistinguishable from the background that the two blend together, leaving only fragmented sections of her Black skin (see Fig. 2)—suggests a restriction and control of “unclean” Black female bodies in relation to the White ideal of “pure” beauty.
These historical constructions of White purity whose counterpoint is the Black Other are embodied and visually conveyed via the white undergarments the models wear against the white backdrop. As Johnson et al. note, “All bodies do rhetoric through texture, shape, color, consistency, movement, and function” (39). They assert that “the body also carries signifying power” (40), which connects to Collins’ point that the concept of White femininity needs an Other who is recognized as embodying the opposite of these values (77). As Collins puts it, “within the binary thinking that underpins intersecting oppressions, blue-eyed, blonde, thin White women could not be considered beautiful without the Other—Black women with African features of dark skin, broad noses, full lips, and kinky hair” (98). In this binary, Black women always remain outside of Western, White notions of beauty that also impact other non-White racial groups (98). Although this long-standing binary is embedded within the visual elements of the ads and the portrayals of the models’ bodies, viewers can nonetheless perceive how this visual rhetoric “confirm[s] an ideology of compulsory beauty for women”—i.e., the “idea that all women…should strive to be beautiful” (Taylor et al. 132, 128). The media, among other predominately White institutions such as government agencies and schools, have a role in perpetuating “controlling images” of Black women which retain their power so long as the stereotypes they rely on remain unnoticed (Collins 111, 125). As noted in the following section, Dove’s pattern of racial insensitivity only continues in later ads of the campaign.
“Tone Deaf” Ads and Racialized Soap Advertising
At first glance, the inclusion of non-supermodel bodies within Dove’s CFRB strikes a positive note. Research in fat studies6 posits that “there are very few opportunities for fat women (or, for that matter, any woman who is not exceedingly slender) to view favorable reflections of herself in mass media” (Fikkan and Rothblum 587). Fikkan and Rothblum argue that it is not enough for feminist scholars to explore how cultural expectations of svelte female figures can cause “every woman [to] feel badly about her body,” but that they must also acknowledge that “because of the pervasiveness and gendered nature of weight-based stigma, a majority of women stand to suffer significant discrimination because they do not conform to this ever-narrower standard” (588). Even if the campaign was to include more diverse body types, this representation would need to be more systemic across beauty advertising to effect social, transformative change about the perceptions of female bodies (Bissell and Rask 664).
Moreover, companies like Dove also need to be attuned to intersections of weight stigma, race, and gender within their advertising. Because of research showing Black women to be more likely than White women to perceive fat bodies positively (Hebl and Heatherton; Hebl et al.; Molloy and Herzberger), it has been speculated that most Black women reject the White ideal of beauty that by definition does not include them, which allows them some buffer from its effects (Fikkan and Rothblum; Saguy). Nevertheless, Williamson contends that it is erroneous to “suggest that all ‘non-Whites’ live sequestered in isolated communities, free from dominant cultural influence” (68). While Black women may dissociate themselves from White mainstream culture, this does not necessarily mean that they are “immune” to poor body image and eating disorders (Thompson 558). Racial discrimination can also outweigh weight discrimination for Black women considering that White women still benefit from racial privilege despite their body type (Fikkan and Rothblum; Saguy). Factors such as poverty, violence, heterosexism, and mental health must also be taken into account when considering the relationship between Black women and their weight (Wilson).7
Merely adding non-White bodies to beauty ads without also critically considering the social, cultural, and political dimensions of weight stigma only demonstrates a half-hearted attempt at challenging established beauty norms. Such an attempt is further weakened by repeated visual gaffes that replicate historical, racial caricatures of Black bodies. In the rest of this section, I outline how more recent CFRB ads do not fare much better than the earlier, iconic phase in terms of successfully representing diversity. While the original firming cream ads from 2005 could have included more women of color, each one did have her own ad with her name and a statement about her body listed. This recognition is not present in the newer iterations of the campaign from the 2010s that minimize the presence of non-White bodies, give White women more of a platform to speak about their bodies, and evoke historical, racialized soap advertising. In so doing, these ads take up a postracial rhetoric that presents homogenous depictions of beauty and normalizes Whiteness. This rhetoric also forgets or ignores the material realities of race(ism) through visual, embodied performances that repeatedly carry the implicit message that White skin is “pure” and “clean” while Black skin is “dirty.”
Erasure of Non-White Voices
While the 2005 CFRB ads made a nod towards including the bodies and voices of women of color, even this minimal commitment to diversity diminished with the 2013 launch of Dove’s documentary-style YouTube video, “Real Beauty Sketches.” This video has two versions: One is six minutes and 36 seconds and has received over 10 million views and the shorter, three-minute video has received over 69 million views at this time of writing. The videos reflect the outcome of a “social experiment” (Dove, “Real Beauty Sketches”) in which several women spend time with a fellow participant before individually describing their facial features to an FBI forensic artist, Gil Zamora, who—separated from them by a curtain—sketches their responses. Next, they detail their partner’s appearance as Zamora—still unable to see them—illustrates their portrayal. Whereas many of the women describe themselves as having freckles, crow’s feet, or dark circles, they are considerably more flattering when detailing the features of their partners. The two sketches are then hung side-by-side and Zamora invites each woman to view them. All of the women agree that the stranger’s description is more “gentle” than their own and confess that they have “some work to do” in appreciating their own beauty.
Despite the viral success of the video, several critics mention that “Real Beauty Sketches” still does not challenge the fact that beauty—whether “ideal” or “real”—is still held as the standard that women are expected to measure themselves against and use as a benchmark for self-esteem (Rodriguez; Keane; Friedman). Although a full critique of this video extends beyond the scope of this article, the one major criticism of the video that I want to highlight is its lack of diversity. Watching the video, it is immediately clear that the participants are “lovely, thin, mostly white women” (Fridkis; Stampler). Of the group, the ones who get the most speaking time (and are named) are all White women. In fact, the individual stories of three of these women—Melinda, Florence, and Kela—are filmed in short, one-minute videos as part of the series. While these women openly share their insecurities about their physical appearance, Adamson argues that the video only targets “first world pain” and does not problematize the “‘narrow cultural perception of beauty’” it purports to be challenging.
Even though two Black women are shown being sketched by Zamora, they each only speak one line. The first (unnamed) woman describes herself as having a “fat, rounder face” while the second woman, Shelly, mentions that she gets more freckles as she ages. (Interestingly enough, while Shelly is named in the shorter version, she appears without a name tagline in the first, longer version of the campaign video). A Black man is briefly shown describing one of the participants as having “very nice blue eyes,” but he too is given no name. Towards the end of the video when the final sketches are revealed, the White women are often shown standing beside their portraits while explaining their reactions either to Zamora or to the viewers via narration. For a moment, the camera peeks over Shelly’s shoulder as she stares at her sketches and there are flashes of other women of color looking at their own. However, none of these women are shown giving commentary about their experiences. One of the final scenes shows the lights going out over Shelly’s sketches while she is not present. One blogger sums up the situation with: “Out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds” (jazzylittledrops). Thus, it seems that as Dove’s CFRB evolves, even the minimal, though significant, active participation from women of color promoted in the original ads becomes further reduced.
References to “impure” Black skin
In a campaign that omits race from its understanding of “real beauty,” it is perhaps unsurprising that its few models of color are forgotten and/or delegated to the background; in fact, Dove’s ability to authentically portray women of color, especially Black women, within the CFRB has consistently been fraught. In 2011, Dove was criticized for an ad that implied its soap could make dark skin lighter and cleaner (Nolan, “Dove Body Wash”) (see Fig. 3). In the ad, a Black model striking a “‘sassy’” pose (much like Poku in Fig. 2) is positioned in front of a “before” image while more “demure,” light-skinned models are standing closer to an “after” image (Edwards). With this positioning inferring that the body wash is “strong enough to turn a black woman white,” Dove’s PR firm, Edelman, released a statement claiming that “‘All three women are intended to demonstrate the ‘after’ product benefit” and that “We believe that real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes, colors and ages and are committed to featuring realistic and attainable images of beauty in all our advertising” (qtd. in Nolan, “Dove Body Wash”).
Despite this statement, Dove faced yet more backlash in 2017 concerning a three-second video the company posted on its U.S. Facebook page in which a Black woman removed her dark brown top to reveal a White woman in a pale top underneath. Although the White model repeated the same action to be replaced by “a racially ambiguous woman,” this act did not undo the suggestion of “anti-Blackness of the first series of images” (The Race Card). For some critics, the Black woman to White woman transition evoked the Pears’ 1884 soap advertisement that depicted a Black child scrubbed white after washing (The Race Card; Conor). Others referenced the 1901 Nulla Nulla soap advertisement that featured an illustration of a Black woman with both stereotypically exaggerated features and a bib that said “dirt” being hit on the head by a spoon that was surrounded by the tagline: “Knocks Dirt on the Head” (Conor). Taken together, these critiques link the CFRB to the racialized history of soap advertising in the United States and across the world, which illustrated how “primitive, unclean, and ignorant” Black skin could be “corrected” after using soap that would turn the consumer into a “‘beauty,’ as opposed to the ‘beast’ she once was” (Rooks 29). Dua states that the proliferation of “tone deaf” ads and corresponding hashtag #boycottdove suggest that “Dove has lost control of its narrative.”
Amidst this response, Lola Ogunyemi, the Nigerian model in the video, published an editorial in The Guardian defending it. She asserts how she “jumped” at the opportunity to “be the face of a new body wash campaign” and in so doing, “represent my dark-skinned sisters in a global beauty brand,” since this occasion “felt like the perfect way for me to remind the world that we are here, we are beautiful, and more importantly, we are valued.” Ogunyemi’s defense of Dove, along with the Ogilvy marketing team forgetting about Molyneaux and Poku’s involvement in the original CFRB ads, convey how “Black women’s lives are a series of negotiations that aim to reconcile the contradictions separating our own internally defined images of self as African-American women with our objectification as the Other” (Collins 110). With respect to embodiment, Sherrell describes the struggle to reconcile “stories [of] Black bodies as vile, dangerous, subhuman, and of no value except for consumption by whiteness” with “the narrative my body also knows—of brilliance and resistance and humanness and beauty and agency” (149). When applied to Molyneaux, Poku, and Ogunyemi, these negotiations suggest how Dove’s Black models must navigate the “dialectic of oppression and activism” (Collins 16) with respect to advocating positive messages about Black bodies while also participating in a campaign that profits from their bodies. They also illustrate how these models can be complicit in Dove’s postracial rhetoric while also trying to contribute to more heterogenous representations of beauty.
As this analysis has demonstrated, Dove’s 16-year message of “real beauty” is a postracial one that assimilates racial and ethnic differences to White beauty norms and reproduces and modernizes centuries-old racial caricatures through the claim of equalizing beauty standards. These caricatures have historically functioned to render “a notion of racial difference as visible, and thus, controllable” (Cobb 410) and their presence in the CFRB shows how adaptable a textual and visual postracial rhetoric can be in a digital age. This rhetoric is also an embodied one considering how a series of minimally diverse, racially insensitive ads asks its audience to “consume a number of postracial moments over the terrain of the Black body” (409). Although the focus here has largely been about the depiction of Black bodies, the impacts of a postracial rhetoric within beauty advertising can be extended to other races and ethnicities as well. With its failure to learn from past mistakes, Dove reinforces the “thoughtlessness” or “Arendtian sense of failing to exercise reflective (and by extension self-reflective) critical judgement” (Goldberg 111) of racisms present within postracial rhetoric. This lack of awareness is significant when Dove’s “real beauty” message is already suspect when tied to financial profit; it becomes more insidious with repeated inferences of White purity and “dirty and impure” Black skin (The Race Card).
By outlining the characteristics of a postracial rhetoric and applying them to the textual, visual, and paralingual elements of Dove’s CFRB ads, this analysis contributes to feminist rhetorics which, among other aims, uncovers and challenges White, male, and Western hegemonic discourses and promotes diverse and inclusive ones (Royster and Kirsch 44). Feminist rhetorics unpack the “the nature, scope, impacts, and consequences of rhetoric as a multidimensional human enterprise,” with multidimensionality referring to engagement across multiple boundaries (e.g., gender, race and ethnicity, status, and geographic sites), genres, material conditions, and other means of producing rhetorical knowledge (42). Likewise, my reading of the Dove CFRB ads considers the dimensions of gender, race, and weight stigma embedded within discourses about beauty within the genre of beauty advertisements. These dimensions call attention to an often implicit, but still pervasive postracial rhetoric that is by no means an “empty” one; on the contrary, it supports and produces unconscious, uncritical understandings of race that perpetuate the simultaneous historical discrimination and erasure as well as the objectification, commodification, and exploitation of Black bodies. Furthermore, this intersectional perspective not only reveals both resistance to and complicity in the power dynamics of Western discourses about beauty, but also situates these discourses in a “broader transnational context” (Royster and Kirsch 54), especially when it comes to beauty advertisements aimed at international audiences.
On the one hand, Dove is not alone when it comes to doing damage control over racially insensitive ads. In 2017, Nivea pulled an ad for its “Invisible for Black and White” deodorant that featured a woman sitting on a bed, her back to the camera, and her long, dark brown hair cascading down a white outfit above the tagline, “WHITE IS PURITY.” This ad, supported by White supremacist groups who stated, “‘Nivea has chosen our side’” (Tsang), followed the controversy of the company’s 2011 Nivea for Men ad showing a groomed, Black male model holding the head of his former self with an afro and beard with the tagline, “Re-civilize yourself,” across his body (Aronowitz). The 2017 ad, posted to Nivea’s Middle Eastern Facebook page, reflects how marketing language for skin-whitening beauty products varies globally, with ads across South, Southeast, and East Asia associating whiter skin with confidence, attractiveness, and marriageability whereas ads in North America promote similar products that “‘brighten’” skin and help it to become more “‘radiant’” (Koul). The difference is not that North American audiences are “less racist” or “less obsessed with whiteness as the highest form of beauty,” but that they are more concerned about “appear[ing] racist” (Koul).
On the other hand, the thoughtlessness of Dove’s postracial rhetoric is also evident in the company’s disengagement with its own relationship to a global skin lightening market. Koul’s claim about the desire not to “appear racist” might explain some consumer reactions to Dove’s muddled attempts at aligning itself with protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by White Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020.8 The company participated in #BlackoutTuesday on June 2, 2020, which began in the music industry as a “proposed day of reflection” and rapidly evolved into a social media movement during which individuals and other brands posted black squares across Instagram and other platforms (Coscarelli). While some people posted messages of thanks for Dove’s support, others called attention to Dove’s affiliation with its parent company, Unilever, which sells skin-whitening products like Fair and Lovely in over 40 countries (Conor). When Dove tried to deflect the accusation by stating, “we do not sell skin lightening products” (Dove, “@roberta.camara”), one commenter responded with, “of course you can say you don’t make skin lightening products. Explain your relationship with Unilever” (cassilla927). What these consumer critiques allude to is that Dove’s “real beauty” message “seems skin-deep when it fails to penetrate into the pores of its parent company and its subsidiaries” (Conor).
Other replies to Dove’s black square post correspond to a larger criticism of #BlackoutTuesday, which was seen by some as a way for both individuals and brands to perform allyship without making consistent efforts towards addressing and reforming systemic, institutionalized racism. As Tariro Mzezewa, a Black travel reporter who participated in a discussion about #BlackoutTuesday for the Style section of The New York Times put it, “they post, but with no real intention of listening, learning, donating, protesting or helping beyond the post. The post makes them feel like they’ve done their part” (The New York Times). Some reactions to Dove’s black square reflect similar skepticism with one commenter remarking, “Nice post and all but are there any actions taking place towards the cause?” (x.vivii.xix, “Nice post and all…”) Dove’s answer to posts like these (including ones pointing to its relationship with Unilever) was to refer to its newest campaign, Project #ShowUs, which curates stock photos from women and non-binary individuals to “offer a more inclusive vision of beauty to all media & advertisers” (Dove, “Project #ShowUs”). Although well-intentioned, this campaign arguably boosts Dove’s profit margins more so than anti-racist efforts, as indicated by x.vivii.xix’s reply: “If you’re only mentioning those [initiatives] attached to the Dove name it’s more like a PR move with the benefactors being your stock holders and not actually the cause at hand” (“@dove that’s nice”).
Ultimately, this exchange between Dove and its online audience reveals the limitations of advancing genuine, systemic change within the context of feminist consumerism. Consumer responses show how Dove’s “corporate cosmetic approach” fails to adopt an authentic feminist approach to disrupting White beauty ideals that would “challenge beauty norms, include women across the color spectrum, enable women to resist using skin lighteners, affirm diversity in skin tone, and honor the range of embodied existence” (Taylor et al. 133). Instead, its various ads hinge on the notion of “compulsory beauty” that centers more on individual improvements (through purchasing Dove’s beauty products) versus participating in collective social justice movements (Taylor et al. 128, 134). This understanding of beauty is also largely not self-generated by women, particularly Black women and others of color, considering the requests on Dove’s black square asking the company to provide numbers on how many Black women number among its executives. Still, women acknowledge that campaigns like Dove’s are “‘better than nothing’” and that “ethical consumption” or “making social and environmental change through targeted purchasing” is possible to some degree (Taylor et al. 140).
Dove’s feminist consumerist approach to tackling hegemonic beauty expectations also does not align with the goals of Black women’s empowerment, which include ensuring their autonomy, valuing their self-definitions, and “fostering social justice in a transnational context” (Collins 309). To truly challenge intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and weight stigma, empowerment must go hand-in-hand with self-definition that can be used to “replace controlling images” of Black women (111). As Collins states, “ceding the power of self-definition to others, no matter how well-meaning or supportive of Black women they may be, in essence replicates existing power hierarchies” (40). Littlefield agrees, arguing that a forum is needed in which to have conversations about Black female and male stereotypes in the media and that “an attention to community education that educates young Black women, Black men, and the overall community is the only context that will have any meaning for social justice” (683). Self-definition is a vital component in creating “alternative modes of ‘making it’” (Littlefield 683) for not just Black women, but for all marginalized groups. In identifying these alternative definitions to “beauty” beyond corporate ones, we as consumers can move beyond considerations of how companies like Dove are “losing control” of their postracial narratives towards recognizing and acting on the ways we respond, resist, and contribute to them.
- The truthfulness behind this statement has been contested. In the May 12, 2008, issue of The New Yorker, Pascal Dangin, “premier retoucher of fashion photographs,” described “retouching” the photos of Dove’s ProAge campaign “‘to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive’” (qtd. in Collins, “Pixel Perfect”). He later clarified that his changes were “limited to color correction and dust removal” (Nolan, “Dove Denies New Yorker Hypocrisy Allegations”).
- By intersectionality, I refer to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of the “intersecting patterns of racism and sexism” that Black women often experience (1243). Nash has argued that this concept lacks a clear definition and methodology, uses Black women as “prototypical intersectional subjects,” and obscures whether intersectional identities can be claimed by all or the “multiply marginalized” (4, 9). However, Collins’ articulation of a matrix domination that refers to “how these intersecting oppressions are actually organized” (21) and is connected to a Black feminist epistemology offers a wider applicability of intersectionality and a method of studying it.
- In this article, I capitalize “Black” to signify “not just a color” but also “a history and the racial identity of Black Americans.” I capitalize “White” because “to not name ‘White’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard” (Nguyễn and Pendleton). Because I am examining the involvement and representation of cisgender women in the CFRB, I acknowledge that this analysis does not include the full spectrum of gender identities. Non-binary and transgender people also experience erasure and discrimination in (beauty) advertising, but a full discussion of these particular experiences is beyond the scope of this article.
- For instance, Paul calls postracialism “an empty rhetoric” at best and at worst “the insidious denial of continued racism” (702).
- Similar to Glenn, I capitalize Other here and in the rest of the article to signify “an individual or group who has been or is being marginalized from another, that is being ‘othered’” (Jackson II and Hogg 527). Collins adds that Black women’s “objectification as the Other denies us the protections that White skin, maleness, and wealth confer” (276). Collins’ observation often applies to other non-White racial groups as well.
- Like Fikkan and Rothblum, I “use the term ‘fat,’ as it is descriptive, whereas the term ‘overweight’ implies unfavourable comparison to a normative standard and ‘obese’ is a medical term with its own negative connotations” (576).
- Although further discussion of these intersecting factors is outside the scope of this article, more scholarship is needed about the relationship between Black women, their weight, and their mental health as weight stigma not only influences who is (and is not) included within definitions of “beauty,” but also who is (and is not) considered “at risk” for body disorders (Beauboeuf-Lafontant; Williamson; Ofosu et al.; Thompson; Root).
- At the time of this writing, Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter with respect to Floyd’s death (Associated Press). Nearly two weeks before Floyd’s death, Louisville police officers acting on a no-knock warrant forced their way into the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician, and shot her several times, killing her (Oppel Jr. & Taylor). Subsequently, calls have been made to include attention to Taylor’s death to raise more awareness about police violence against Black women (Ryan).
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- x.vivii.xix. “@dove that’s nice but there are plenty of initiatives…” Instagram, 4 June 2020.
- x.vivii.xix. “Nice post and all…” Instagram, 4 June 2020.