If I could go back in time and talk to myself at 13 (thanks, Kelle Hampton for the awesome idea – sponsored by Dove, a company owned by Unilever which also makes Axe Body Spray, the bane of my existence while pregnant and teaching high school), I would say, “Hey, it ain’t all about you all the time, you little douche.”
I wouldn’t REALLY say that to 13 year-old me. She was a piece of work, though, that 13 year-old girl I was. Ugly as hell. Usually, when I look back at pictures of me when I was younger, I think, “I was too hard on myself back then. I was actually cute.” Not at 13. I look at those pictures now and I think “awkward phase.” I wanted nothing more than to look like my newly divorced dad’s 5’10″, 115 pound girlfriend, Tessa. Getting her haircut with my moon-face and horrible eighties perm didn’t help.
The adults in my life made it clear from a very early age that looks mattered. A very particular kind of looks too: tall, skinny, preferably blonde. I spent most of my life trying to be what I was not. Most girls do this. Dove soap (despite all of their animal testing) has not innovated a way to change that. Their campaign makes me feel like if I’m anti-Dove “Real Beauty” (barf) campaign, then I want little girls to have low self-esteem. “You don’t support raising the self-esteem of girls? You’re anti-woman!” No, I just believe that parents model self-esteem or self-loathing to their daughters. Mothers model narcissism by reading beauty magaiznes and caring too much what people look like. Or they model dissatisfaction with themselves by dieting, calling themselves names, and openly hating their faces and bodies. And fathers model to young girls what is attractive by the way they treat their wives, girlfriends, and mistresses (I’m looking at YOU, Tiger Woods).
You know why I had low self-esteem as a thirteen year old? It wasn’t because of beauty magazines or commercials for make-up or because Dove soap hadn’t yet begun campaigning to raise it. It was because my grandma and my parents gave me the message that my body was unacceptable. I know they meant well, they aren’t ogres, but they did it nevertheless. My interest in fitness was encouraged by my parents and steparents, but it was never framed as, “Exercise is great for you! You should absolutely do it. You’ll live longer and have less illness and disease.” It was always: “That’s a great way to lose weight.”
My mom and stepfather were very dissatisfied with their own appearances and modeled that for me. I learned about dieting, binging, cheating, fasting, and dieting again from them. My mom would never go out in public without her make-up on. I remember her driving me to school once, and in her glove box she had a giant bag of cosmetics: liquid foundation, powder, eye-liner, blush, mascara, eyeshadow and lipstick. And she put it all on as she drove me to school. When I asked her why she was putting on full make-up to drive me to school, she said, “Because I’m VAIN, okay?!”
My father and stepfather worked in Hollywood on television shows, and there was no shortage of beautiful women there. Both men would go stupid over certain blondes and just GUSH about how GORGEOUS they were. They were both equally scathing in their criticism of fat, ugly women. Whenever I was around my parents’ coworkers, I knew which women they thought were “cows” or “pigs” and which women they thought were “sexy” and “beautiful.”
My husband would have the good sense to keep his mouth closed around his wife. At a happy hour event for his work several years ago, I met three of his coworkers who were young, pretty, and single. He’d never mentioned a single one of them to me. Well-played, Odie.
I certainly hope my husband knows Baby V will be listening very closely to her daddy to find out what she is supposed to look like for him to think she’s beautiful.
I certainly heard that from my dad. My mom’s obvious self-loathing and constant efforts to look better reinforced this for me. Mom didn’t feel pretty enough for dad. She made no secret of it. We kids knew it too. We all knew which of her friends she thought our father was lusting after. She spared us no insecurity. As a teenager, I starved on diets, binged, took laxatives, or exercised up to 5 hours a day every day, all hoping to carve myself into this ideal that my mom tried to be for my dad. And when none of that worked long-term, I took to literally carving myself.
But I’m not going to go all “Emo” on you.
Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty irritated me back when it launched in 2007 or so. I used to see all of those ads in magazines and notice that all of the women were beautiful. They had great skin, interesting features, freckles, and fantastic hair. Some of them were overweight by conventional standards, but they were BRAVELY IN THEIR UNDERWEAR ANYWAY! “Curvy” women can be sex objects too! Then there were the ads that had women my mom’s and grandma’s age NAKED except for their jewelry, smiling alluringly or wisely at the camera in black and white. See, even OLD women, excuse me, “mature” women, can be sex objects! Displayed like so many pieces of meat. It’s the old anti-feminist rhetoric disguised as feminist. “I’m not being exploited! I’m CELEBRATING myself.” Can’t you celebrate yourself with your clothes on? It’s so much classier.
See, you forgot, while you were feeling all empowered about promoting self-esteem, that Dove is trying to sell beauty products. Their website will tell you that they are all about using hygiene to promote health, but what they are really selling us are products to correct all of those “imperfections” in our skin that they photo-edit OUT of their pictures and videos. All photographers do this.
I use anti-aging products (not tested on laboratory animals). I want to look as attractive as I can. Who doesn’t? Beauty and youth are prized by our culture. It is a studied and published fact that attractive people have advantages in life. They make more money, get treated better, and marry rich men. Dove recruits “regular women like you and me” to lecture the rest of us on how to be good mothers, (while being paid for it probably) and about how important it is to nurture the self-esteem of girls. How important it is to teach them that looks don’t matter as much as what’s INSIDE. Now here are a dozen photographs of people looking gorgeous. See how Dove has carefully chosen black women, white women, Asian women, women of indeterminate race, beautiful little multi-colored children, even disabled or special needs children, and women of different ages? See how DIVERSE they are! How inclusive?
It’s all very clever. They have good people working on this. Are we as a culture really so blind? They are trying to sell beauty products. If the irony weren’t so painful, it would be hilarious. No, it’s still hilarious.
I wouldn’t go back and tell 13-year-old me anything. She wouldn’t listen. Teenagers think people in their thirties are sad, old, and trying to regain their misspent youth. They think we have no wisdom to offer them. “If you’re so smart, lady, why are you a teacher in the public high school you graduated from, living in a rental house, lecturing ME with your frown lines, saggy boobs and cellulite?” Then she’d put her Walkman back on and crank up Madonna.
Touche, you little shit.