Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dove's "Real Beauty" Campaign - Wisdom is Early to Despair

So, did you see the new Dove "Real Beauty" video that's floating around Facebook, ubiquitous as the flu virus? If you missed it, here it is:
It's a clever idea, but it seemed a bit off to me somehow.

AND HERE'S MY BIG FAT DISCLAIMER: If this commercial made you cry, you might want to stop reading this particular blog entry right here. I don't want to poke at anyone's sore spots and I'm really coming from a different place on this.  But if this commercial made you a bit uncomfortable? if it felt a bit off to you? well, I have thoughts, so read on.

So, anyway, I read this feminist critique of the ad, which I didn't wholeheartedly agree with, but that seemed to get somewhat close to what was bothering me about it. Unlike that blogger, I do think there's a place for humility and modesty in feminine beauty but, on the other hand, I don't think she's far off when she says:
There is no room in Doveland for women who know they’re hot . . . There’s no room to tell the artist about your thin jaw even if you see and love it. The only confidence that’s acceptable is halfhearted: “Don’t worry, I don’t think I’m pretty, but I’ve been told I’m wrong, so maybe I am a little.”
What do I agree with here? The idea that it's okay to honestly like your own face and body. Why wouldn't you? God makes good things.

Where I'm Coming From 
(ETA: this is the boring, personal context part. Skip to "The four loves - or at least two of them" if you want to get right to the meat of this article.)

It's hard for me to talk about feminine beauty without getting personal, and I know my experience isn't every woman's. Still, my first reaction to this ad was very personal, and it was, "Unless you caught me on a pretty bad day, I don't think I'd be describing an ugly woman to that sketch artist."

Here's the really personal and particular: I've been describing myself to myself - and that favorably - since I was a teenager. I've been writing fiction all my life, and like most writers I started out with very Mary-Sue-ish heroines who resembled no one so much as me. (Me-as-a-space-princess, but still me.) Narcissistic and immature? Yes. But it did teach me to see the good that was there. Later, my focus broadened, and I started describing the good in everyone else, too. Now it's habit.

Then, in adulthood, I've lived with a husband who smiles whenever he sees me. That's a grace that makes it hard to hate myself.

And I guess there's a third piece of it: I like my body for what it can do. In my twenties, I managed to break both my arms at once, and got a small taste of what it's like to rely on someone else for every daily need. Competence is probably a fleeting part of my physicality, but I surely do appreciate it at the moment, even if it may be gone in a few more decades. I know part of my self-image is formed on the fact that I've been lucky so far. That's probably young and immature and I wouldn't be surprised if it changes. (Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if a LOT of what I talk about in this entry changes; I'm not all that old and wise and virtuous yet. So - if you do read on, please do it with a grain of salt, yeah?)

None of these things are general though. I'm just giving them as context for where I'm coming from on the subject.

A Christian view of beauty? at least in marriage? (okay, maybe this is only sort-of-general . . .)
Here's the not-so-personal part, though: I couldn't help but think of the Song of Songs as I looked at that video and read that critique.

In the Song of Songs, the woman knows she's beautiful. Her lover praises her, but she praises herself, too: "Dark am I, but lovely."

And in poems like Christina Rossetti's "A Birthday", you see the beloved triumphing, trumpeting, insisting on her own glory: "Raise me a daïs . . ."

And even if the woman in the Song of Songs was a queen and deserved a throne, well, isn't this rejoicing of the beloved in her lover's rejoicing at her beauty sort of a universal experience in romance? I think in That Hideous Strength there's a moment where someone reads a passage about something similar. Argh - can't find it at the moment. But, anyway, beauty is a good thing; God made women beautiful. Delighting in beauty isn't inappropriate, especially not in the context of love. It seems like a natural part of the whole deal, in that context.

But is beauty the most important thing about us? No, not even close. And we're not to rely on it and it's important to nurture our virtues and not our vanity. But there's a difference between acknowledging something and paying inordinate attention to it. (Is vanity paying inordinate attention to your own beauty? I think it might be. Hmm, have to ponder that one some more - this blog entry might have a sequel.)

The four loves - or at least two of them
But even aside from romantic love, I think there's a proper place for caring for your body and a proper reason to avoid false humility.

Let's start with the last first: false humility is bad. Why? Because lying's bad. And honestly, that's really all I mean by that; nothing more. Lying does bad things to your soul. Don't be the pretty lady telling the sketch artist you're ugly. (Be more like Cordelia Vorkosigan: "It was a good face, suitable for all practical purposes . . .")

But what's the love you should have for yourself? Well mostly, firstly, I think it's storge. It's affectionate love, it's fondness. Your body is familiar, your face is familiar. Be easy with your appearance like you're easy with every other homey, normal, everyday good. Like you love that well-seasoned frying pan that lives on the corner of your stovetop, like you smile at your aunt's familiar jokes, like you feel comfort when you curl up under that old knitted blanket you keep folded up on the couch. Your body is not just a good thing God has given you, it is part of you, and He's given you stewardship over yourself. Treat your body well, use it properly, and be grateful for it. Your body is a good thing.

(This is St. Francis' "brother ass" bit: the body as a good, stubborn, sometimes-frustrating beast of burden.)

Appearance and Community
But there is some good in that video, though you have to reach to get to it, and it's this: your face brings joy to the people around you.

Know that. Believe that. To the people you love, your face is one of the most beautiful things in the world. AND THEY AREN'T WRONG TO THINK THAT. Even if you're not objectively gorgeous. No kidding, seriously, I mean it. People are their bodies but they are also MORE than their bodies, and our bodies are the weakest, most mutable part of us. The loved is beautiful both because it is loved AND because it is beautiful, and those two don't cancel each other out, they build on each other and seriously, really, really, yes, seriously, really.

I talked about the fact that I've been describing myself to myself since I was a kid. But I largely grew out of that narcissistic focus of adolescence, and now I describe everybody to myself. It's habit. I'm an author, and an artist, and it's my job to observe and articulate. That's what I'm for.

And as someone who observes, habitually, the appearance of others (among other things), I can tell you this: people are beautiful. And the most beautiful people? Are my friends. Every one of them. And the longer I know them, the older they get, the more they walk with the Lord, the more heaven shines out of their countenances. The objectively lovely - and many of them are objectively lovely - is suffused with the beauty of their personalities. They're stained glass windows that the light of the Holy Spirit shines through.

(I kind of think we might each have a job of appreciating both beauty in general, but also of appreciating beauty in particular, in our own families, our own friends, our own city, our own home.)

There is such a thing as real, objective beauty. And not everyone has it. I'm not arguing about that. I know people who are ugly, too, everyone does. And I'm ugly sometimes. Everyone is. And I'll get uglier. Everyone does. No one can escape the ugliness of sickness, of stress, of sorrow. The immaterial stresses put lines on material faces and mar and weaken physical bodies. It comes earlier to some than to others, but no one gets to be young forever, no one gets to be well and happy forever, and so no one gets to be perfectly beautiful forever. It's against the laws of the universe. Physical beauty is fleeting, Agar's mother was right about that. And so if you rely on it, well, sorry, you're sunk.

So, appreciate it while it's here. Why not? don't you appreciate the flowers that fade and the grass that withers? Sure you do. It's inhuman to ignore them.

But it's foolish to count on them; it's foolish to value them at more than their worth.

And maybe, in the end, that's what's wrong with that commercial. It pretends not to, but it still makes physical beauty all too important, raises it way, way out of its proper place - and of course it does. For all their disclaimers, Dove is still trying to sell you things that make you feel beautiful. So they're very earnest about it, very intense, and they're LYING, LYING, LYING because they still very, very clearly say that physical beauty matters - and that it matters much more than it actually does. There's something false in that commercial, just because it's pretending so hard to be true, to have pure intentions.

They're right that some women see themselves inaccurately. They're wrong to imply every woman does. They're wrong to imply they're the arbiters of what we see and they're wrong to pretend they have no stake in the definition of what beauty is. And there might be a further, weaker implication that every woman is as objectively beautiful as every other woman and, again, LYING HELPS NO ONE SHUT UP DOVE.

But you can't give beauty, you can't create it, and you can't keep it. Beauty may be virtue in you, but it's not your virtue. It's all gift.

But here, here's what you can do with it: you can give it back, you can give it again, you can hold it with open hands. Here's something better than all, all, all my endless blathering on the subject, and here's where I'm ending it:

The Leaden Echo And The Golden Echo
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
(Maidens' song from St. Winefred's Well)

How to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, ... from vanishing away?
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep,
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
No there 's none, there 's none, O no there 's none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age's evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death's worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there 's none; no no no there 's none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.

There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun's tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth's air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever's prized and passes of us, everything that 's fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's self and beauty's giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.—
Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,


Don said...

I just figured out that Hopkins was the original Flow artist...

But seriously, thank you for this! I, too, felt the Dove spot rang false. And you were right about That Hideous Strength, although I didn't look it up, I do remember—it was like the Song of Songs taken for what it is, not allegory, but a lusty love song, and startling.

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Can I really like your response AND really like the Dove video? Because the thing is, I think you are absolutely right and correct in how we *should* see ourselves and others. Unfortunately, I also think that Dove is right in how we often *actually* see ourselves. Is it healthy? Of course not. But if someone asked me to describe myself to an artist I doubt I'd end up describing someone beautiful, because that is not my default way of thinking of myself. I appreciate that Dove makes the effort to tell women "you ARE beautiful, just the way you are.". And if that makes some people more likely to buy their product, well, why is that a bad thing? Seems a win for everyone.

BillY said...

Thank you, Jess, for your insightful, thoughtful and personal comment on the Dove commercial. I had not seen it but did so thanks to you. Well done and well said.

Jessica Snell said...

Thanks, Fr. Don, and thanks, Bill.

And Em, you can do whatever you like, of course - though I've long though you have no idea how dark and sparkle-y your eyes are when you smile - it's like you have a face made for merriment. :)
And I give you that the ad does a good job at starting the discussion, if nothing else. It's just . . . well, I'm wary of Greeks bearing gifts. There's a post Fr. Don linked to elsewhere that has some other really good points about how this ad dashes down impossible beauty standards only to raise them again, more impenetrable than ever: http://jazzylittledrops.tumblr.com/post/48118645174/why-doves-real-beauty-sketches-video-makes-me
What do you think?

Tony said...

You so nailed this one on the head. Thanks, Jessica.