Dove’s Latest Body Positivity Failure

Is Dove encouraging an obsession with the shape of women’s bodies?

Posted Jun 15, 2017

It seems like only yesterday that Pepsi endeavored to sell soft drinks via an ill-advised riff on the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet here we are again, facing another top brand’s laughable attempt to sell consumer goods using the rhetoric of empowerment. This time, the fury is aimed at Dove. In the latest incarnation of their “Real Beauty” campaign, Dove announced the production of six new bottles of body wash meant to mimic the shapes of women’s bodies. The press release tells us the bottles are meant as a reminder “that beauty is diverse and diversity is beautiful.” But that’s not the message women seemed to hear, based on the range of angry and incredulous reactions to these bottles. There’s something wildly off-mark about this latest attempt to sell beauty products under the veneer of body positivity. A body of scientific work can help explain why this campaign was so poorly received.

Source: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay/CC0

Both activists and researchers have long bemoaned the objectification of women’s bodies in advertisements. When women’s bodies are presented as objects (most frequently beer bottles or pieces of furniture), these images serve as a reminder of how often women are valued only for their appearance. The imagery adds to the stream of messages emphasizing women’s body shape over who women are, what women do, or what they have to say.

Exposure to objectified images of women has well-documented psychological consequences. For example, a study of young women in Australia found that viewing ads featuring objectified images of women’s bodies increased women’s weight-related appearance anxiety, body dissatisfaction, and negative mood. But even more important, seeing these images caused the women to view themselves in a more objectified way. A study of British women found that even when objectified images of women’s bodies are accompanied by text emphasizing women’s confidence, viewing the images still makes women more likely to see themselves as objects. This self-objectification is linked with higher rates of depression and eating disorders in women.

Self-objectification is marked by chronic monitoring of one’s own appearance. These body-shaped bottles represent just one of Dove’s many “Real Beauty” approaches with the potential to increase this type of body monitoring in women. For example, Dove’s recent “Choose Beautiful” campaign put women in a position where they had to make a decision between walking through a door labeled “beautiful” or a door labeled “average.” How could making that choice not divert women’s attention to their looks?

Encouraging women to think more about how they look is unlikely to leave them feeling confident and empowered. Instead, anything that primes a woman to focus on her body shape is much more likely to distract her from other tasks and leave her feeling dissatisfied with her appearance. In a set of studies published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers drew women’s attention to their appearance by asking them to try on a bathing suit (in private). Even though no one saw the women in the bathing suits, simply trying one on increased women’s body shame, likely because that act shifted the women’s thoughts to their appearance. A different research group replicated this finding for body shame, but also found that even after re-dressing in street clothes, women’s thoughts continued to be focused on their bodies if they had tried on a bathing suit earlier. It’s not a stretch to imagine that reaching for a deliberately body-shaped bottle when you’re naked in the shower might have similar effects.

On top of serving as 3-dimensional objectified models of women’s bodies, it’s worth noting that these special edition Dove bottles are technically headless as well. Several decades ago, researchers noted widespread evidence of “face-ism” – the tendency for images of men to have more facial prominence than images of women. This trend shows up in a broad variety of media, including magazines, newspapers, artwork, television programs, and even social media profile pictures. The website “Headless Women of Hollywood” catalogs a seemingly endless train of film posters featuring only the bodies of women, but both the faces and bodies of male actors. The message of this visual bias isn’t subtle: All we need to know about a woman can be determined by seeing her body. Forget everything from the neck up. Thanks to Dove, we now have the novel addition of body wash bottles to add to this trend.

Source: Pexels/CC0

If Dove’s bottles could speak, they’d blend right into the chorus of voices encouraging women to take an objectified perspective on their own bodies. Just glance at the bottles and find your body match. You’re a pear, you’re a square, you’re an apple, you’re an hourglass. You’re a thing. There are already too many cultural forces pushing women toward an obsession with body shape. We don’t need Dove’s help in this endeavor.