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February 14, 2007

Real Beauty?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What to make of Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty"? Virginia Postrel writes in the Atlantic that we shouldn't be afaid of, or lie about, beauty. She expands on her article at her blog.



posted by Michael at February 14, 2007


Well, in true blog fashion I am not going to read the link and still comment :)

Beauty is this real thing, you either have it or you don't, but, you know what? The definitions are too narrow, in my opinion, and they fluctuate, obviously. Do you really think Jennifer Anniston would have been considered attractive in 1910? Or Twiggy? Scarlett Johanssen, yes. Jennifer and TWiggy, not so much. Which I guess is the point. Beauty is a constant, but some fashions in beauty change and I see no reason not to expand the range a bit. Not everyone can be beautiful, but there are a lot of beautiful women out there who don't fit in with the American Idol zeitgeist and there's no reason we can't be a bit more appreciative of that type of beauty.

At least, as a 39 year old women, this is the fiction I will feed myself, and I bet you I will be the happier for it :)

*Look, all I'm really saying is, don't take it all so seriously, eh, girls? Life's not fair, but so what?

Posted by: MD on February 14, 2007 3:27 PM

Virginia Postrel has always struck me as the sort of mediocre, small-minded, reactionary pundit that has proliferated in the age of the Internet via self promotion on blogs and through second-tier thinktanks.

Her schtick is always, "We shouldn't be afraid" of this or that. Most recently it was "we shouldn't be afraid of chain restaurants and bookstores."

I get so tired of hearing these pundits' tedious pronouncements being trumpeted like they're fresh, exciting revelations.

And speaking of tedious pronouncements -- there's her ridiculous "Dynamist" book, which, to my mind, reads like Karl Popper's work rewritten by Tom Peters, and packaged as a business-pulp airport bestseller.

Posted by: James on February 14, 2007 6:27 PM


Bravo! I love your take on Postrel.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on February 14, 2007 7:15 PM

In person, Virginia and her husband are clever, sparkling people with a wide range of interests. Still, I came away from a Dynamist conference pretty much convinced that a broad personality type (mine, as well as one I prefer to be around) had been mistaken for an ideology capable of resonating with the general population.

Posted by: J. Goard on February 14, 2007 7:56 PM

"Beauty" is one of those categories that gets confused because it perches on the intersection of objective and subjective. Objectively, none of the women in the picture Virginia Postrel uses as an illustration is one I would want to look at on, say, a porno site. In that sense, I agree with her point: "Let's face it, beauty is special, admit it, move on!"

However, if I project onto any one of the women in the ad the idea that "Here is my wife of x years and I love her", it is easy to shift into a subjective perception of her that makes her beautiful. Obviously your mind immediately starts putting together a different backstory depending on who you are and which woman you're looking at.

Insofar as the campaign works - and Postrel says it does - it does so by inviting you to shift over to a subjective approach, which, let's face it, is pretty useful to be able to do in your day-to-day interactions with people. Evidently it's as easy for the middle-aged female target group to make that mental shift as it is for me.

The ad encourages them imagine the possibility of being beautiful to someone who loves them. It works on more levels than that, too, since the models are tastefully revealed in a public place - the Romantic implication being that if you reveal the real you it will be beautiful. I'm not so sure I subscribe to that, but on some level I'd like to.

And so it moves soap. Call me cynical, but I'm okay with that.

Posted by: robert on February 15, 2007 3:47 AM

Few are beautiful,
Few have beauty,
Call it hurtiful,
It's the truety.

Posted by: ricpic on February 15, 2007 11:20 AM

This is a tough one to deal with. Many people — not just women, but mostly — do suffer a great deal emotionally because, well, they aren't physically attractive. You can say, "they aren't attractive because of images in the media" or "our culture has stereotyped images of attractiveness," etc. until you're blue in the face, but cultural history offers pretty convincing testimony that standards of beauty are reasonably consistent down the centuries within broad cultures.

If you look at the history of Western art, the surprising thing is not that there are occasional variations according to fashion, but that the idea of beauty has changed surprisingly little. A Roman beauty, based on what little evidence we have from wall painting and sculpture, is a Renaissance beauty, is a Gainsborough beauty, is a Romantic beauty, is a 1920s beauty. Of course the clothing and hair styles change, but it's possible to make period films because you can take a contemporary knockout and dress her in the styles of Jane Austen's era and she is still radiant.

There is some inner imprint of beauty that no ideology or rationalization can touch. True, as I mentioned, it isn't the same in all cultures — but even cross-culturally there is a surprising agreement; Japanese and Chinese women movie stars look to me, a non-Asian, more beautiful than the average Japanese and Chinese.

So what do you say to comfort someone who is not beautiful? To begin with, you don't lie. You acknowledge the unfairness of the genetic lottery, like the unfairness of many other things in life. You recognize that there are other qualities that may be more important for most people most of the time than physical beauty (which, as poets and philosophers through the centuries have reminded us, is a flower soon to fade).

You don't have to resort to wet lines like "A good personality counts," although of course it does. So do intelligence, creativity, kindness, humor, spirituality and many other aspects of character. Generally, as people age they recognize non-esthetic virtues in others more readily.

Does that eliminate the suffering? No. But now we are in a different realm, where we must ask ourselves the meaning of suffering and whether it can ultimately be for good. It is a question that no one, whatever their degree of beauty, can avoid confronting sooner or later.

Posted by: Rick Darby on February 15, 2007 5:09 PM

Dove doesn't actually believe this, they want to sell soap by appealing to women's insecurities. (Just like SUVs...but that's another story.) They're just going about it slightly differently than usual, trying to make the women who don't feel they're pretty enough (which is a lot of them) feel Dove is on their side.

I do wonder if it's a bigger problem in the modern era when we see supermodels all the time than in the Middle Ages when the biggest thing you had to worry about was Jane the plowman's wife over there who still had all her teeth and hadn't had smallpox yet.

Posted by: SFG on February 19, 2007 8:59 AM

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