Dove has done it again. If you haven’t seen it yet, the latest iteration of the company's Campaign for Real Beauty is a video in which women entering a building have to choose between two doors: One is labeled “beautiful”; the other “average.” The results are mixed, with women picking a door either intentionally or automatically—unnerved or unfazed—and, ostensibly, declaring themselves beautiful or average. The punch line is to show that we all hold the power to choose our own label, as Dove says to #ChooseBeautiful.
Of course, the ad has had its share of praise and criticism. They’re just shilling for beauty products! They’re empowering women! I, for one, found the video to be touching and thought-provoking. When Dove launched its Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004, they conducted research that indicated only 4 percent of women considered themselves beautiful. Four. Percent. Can we all agree that that’s bananas? Yes. So, what can we do about it?
Well, we can start with a new understanding of the word beautiful.
A woman’s worth, just like any human’s worth, is composed of her character, her strengths, and her contributions to the world around her. If we’re earning our true value with the everyday tasks of working hard and being kind, then our physical appearance—which society values highly—is an additional value that we offer. There is nothing to lose, and there is no right answer. Your appearance matters because you are a work of art.
And here’s the great thing about art: It's not one-size-fits-all but rather available for unlimited tastes. There is art for everyone. Picasso, Monet, Caravaggio, Rubens, Warhol, Banksy—all artists who have created art valued for its physical appearance, how it makes the viewer feel, and how it impacts the spaces it occupies. None of their art is of an identical style or complies with an arbitrary set of standards. Paint by number never made anyone famous.
Art is tricky, if not impossible, to define. It generally offers no utilitarian purpose, cures no tangible ills, saves no lives. Yet cultures have been defined by their art. Multi-million-dollar museums have been erected to preserve it. If you’ve ever been inside the Sistine Chapel or studied Bob Dylan’s lyrics, you know that art can be inexplicably, mysteriously life-changing.
There’s power in that, to be that kind of artist. Of course a woman’s power does not come only from her beauty, but I am proposing that there is, in fact, power in beauty. More importantly, though, I’m proposing that it’s up to us to take creative license as artists and define what beauty means to us. We’re originals, all of us. One of a kind. And we’re so much better than paint by number.
My guess is that part of the reason so few women identify themselves as “beautiful” is because they’re uncomfortable placing any value on their physical appearance, beautiful or otherwise. It feels like a no-win situation. That’s because picking between “beautiful” or “average” seems like a false dichotomy. And it’s not really natural to choose either. If we pick beautiful, we’re vain. If we pick average, we have low self-esteem. The options are surface-level, superficial.
For many women—worn weary from billboards, magazine ads, and general overexposure of Photoshopped models everywhere—beauty seems like a party they haven’t been invited to. It looked fun at first, but the arbitrary exclusivity of the guest list is so hurtful that it has tainted what it means to be beautiful in the first place. For others, whose appearances were perhaps reinforced from a young age or who were brought up in the Girl Power movement, they may feel attractive, but this may seem too superficial to celebrate, or they may fear being too easily misinterpreted as only attractive. There is too fine a line between under-confidence and over-confidence, so, with the best of intentions, we dismiss the whole thing. Beautiful schmeautiful.
Try as we might to avoid labeling our appearance, it’s practically inescapable. For better or worse (and it’s usually worse), we live in a culture that places a lot of value on what a woman looks like. From Helen of Troy, who launched a thousand ships, to Kim Kardashian, who broke the Internet, history is chock-full of women being defined by their beauty. By now, there are plenty of voices speaking out against that, pointing out how unfair it is, and demanding new standards. I’m not here to fight that fight today.
I’m here to encourage women to keep speaking beautiful. To know you are a beautiful work of art. Yes, your appearance has power. It is part of who you are. But it does not define you, and it’s certainly not all that constitutes your worth.
Let’s not be concerned with whether we’re invited to the party, or whether we might come off as being superficial. We know the truth—that we’re whole, complete human beings no matter what we look like. And that is beautiful.