“Self-Esteem” Ad Campaigns are Getting it Wrong

  • Copy by: Daryl Lindsey

In a society where media reigns supreme, women and girls are confronted daily with outrageous and damaging beauty standards. These ideals set in place are often so outlandish they end up being contradictory: Be curvy but not fat; thin but not boyish; sexy but not slutty; toned but not masculine. Women face pressure, from all sides, to look and act a certain way in order to appeal to larger society and, most specifically, to men. 

Campaigns such as Stop the Beauty Madness, Dove’s Real Beauty, and countless others were created in an effort to undermine these harmful beauty standards by highlighting the deceptive powers of photo manipulation and encouraging women of all ages, shapes, and sizes to see themselves as beautiful.  

Dove released their latest Real Beauty short film on Tuesday, in which women were prompted to choose between doors labeled “beautiful” and “average” when entering buildings all over the world. The moral of the ad is clear: women should “choose beautiful” and love the way they look. No matter how well intentioned, I feel the message conveyed in the video leaves much to be desired. What is supposed to be inspirational instead feels over-simplified, even condescending. 

Don’t get me wrong; I think body positivity is great, and it can be crucial to a healthy sense of self. The promotion of self-respect and self-acceptance will never be a bad idea in my book. I’m concerned, however, that in both kinds of ads (the sexist, unrealistic ads that tear us down and the empowering ads meant to build us up) the conversation remains squarely focused on women’s bodies. 

It makes me want to scream: What about our minds? 

image via Dove Real Beauty

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher asked us to write something positive about each of our classmates on construction paper. We turned in our piles of little notes, she sorted them by name, and handed them back to us so each student could read what their classmates had written. I remember being delighted by this exercise. Who didn’t like compliments? What young person didn’t want positive affirmation?

My mother held on to most of my school projects throughout the years, amassing an odd collection of finger paintings, papier mâché, and old notebooks, which she kept stored in white legal boxes on a high shelf in her closet. Recently I went through the contents of these boxes on a trip home, craving a healthy dose of nostalgia, and quickly found the envelope filled with those little affirming messages.  

There were twenty-three folded pieces of construction paper inside. 

Thirteen of the notes told me I was “nice,” eight notes told me I was “pretty,” one told me I was “organized,” (which is hilarious because I can distinctly remember being a comically messy and unorganized child) and one told me I was “cool.”  At least this last kid got it right.

I’ll never know what was written about the other girls. I guess it could be possible that I really was just the nicest, prettiest, coolest, most organized girl in Mrs. Jenning’s class, but I’m going to climb out on a limb and surmise that most of my other female classmates received similar compliments. 

We weren’t told we were smart, or brave, or strong. Those are boy things. 

Girls are nice. Girls are pretty. Or at least, we’re supposed to be.  

Perhaps that’s why I spent the majority of my young life utterly convinced I was bad at math, or why I didn’t even realize I was capable of academic success until college. Perhaps that’s why only 12.1% of civil engineers, 8.3% of electrical engineers and 7.2% of mechanical engineers are women, despite 66% of fourth grade girls expressing interest in science and math.

If nice and pretty are the two ideals that women and girls are most often held to, it becomes painfully and tragically obvious why an accomplished congresswoman would be referred to as “beautiful” and “exotic” in an article, or why eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness among adolescents and teens. When these “self-esteem” ad campaigns, however well meaning, focus only on a woman’s appearance as a source of confidence, they contribute to the very idea they are attempting to challenge. They send the message that a woman can only be confident if she considers herself physically attractive.

Should I ever have a daughter, I hope that for every time I tell her she’s pretty, I tell her she’s smart ten times over.