Real Beauty Campaigns: Postfeminism or Clever Marketing?


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Will women feel freer to reject unrealistic beauty standards? Image by earl53.

Is the relationship between women and beauty products changing?

The popularity of the song Try by Colbie Caillat raises questions about women’s attitudes toward natural beauty and toward companies selling makeup and other “beauty products.”

In the video, women wearing little or no make-up are featured as the artist sings “You don’t have to try so hard.”

The footage for the video was supplied by Raw Beauty Talks, which states its mission: “Help women find a deeper level of confidence, self-love, and acceptance so we can shift our focus from the superficial to accomplishing the unimaginable.”

The site includes make-up free photos of individuals, some of which work in the fashion industry.

Feminism and Objectification

The feminist concept of objectification refers to treating a person as an object.  By 1985, Martha Nussbaum in an article titled “Objectification” in Philosophy and Public Affairs stated the concept “has by now passed into people’s daily lives.”

In 2014, Italian researcher Antonios Dakanalis published the results of research involving 408 undergraduate women. The aim was to determine if objectification theory explained eating disorders.

His conclusion: “Consistent with objectification theory and our hypothesis, the endorsement and acceptance of appearance of media ideals lead women to become hyperaware of how their body looks and to evaluate themselves in terms of physical appearance, which leads to body shame…

The Italian research is in line with past research on the general public’s understanding of the relationship of feminism and beauty.   In 2007, Laurie Rudman and Kimberly Fairchild summarize the findings of their research on the relationship of feminism to beauty and romance: “beauty is perceived to be at odds with feminism, for both genders.” In other words, the research showed that feminists reject popular beauty standards.

S. T. Watson of the University of Massachusetts explains current beauty standards are especially burdensome for black women in her PhD Dissertation, accepted this year: “American beauty standards are based on idealized depictions of White women’s physical features (e.g., fair skin, long straight hair, thin lips, small nose) which can be difficult and almost impossible to attain for many Black women.” 

Perhaps not surprisingly, she found, “Black feminist consciousness significantly predicted body satisfaction and self-ideal discrepancy above and beyond ethnic identity...” Additionally, she reports that lighter-skinned black women had “higher self-attractiveness ratings.”

Entering a Postfeminist Era

What message about beauty are we sending young girls? Image by kakisky.

Are younger women operating in a postfeminist framework?  For some, using beauty products may represent a choice rather than an expectation.

Avelie Stuart of Murdoch University, Australia, writes “young Australian women position themselves as freely choosing and able to throw off oppression.”  Oppression in this instance, being “crushingly cruel beauty images.”

Dove soap’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” began in 2004, according to its website.  Dove states, “The campaign started a global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty after the study proved the hypothesis that the definition of beauty had become limiting and unattainable.”

In 2010 the company updated the campaign to look at self-esteem.  In 2011 Dove released a study finding “only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful, and that anxiety about looks begins at an early age.”

You Don’t Have to Try So Hard Message Resonates

The response to the Calliat video, which had over 250,000 views at the time of this writing, is telling.  Dove, Raw Beauty Talks and Calliat have hit a nerve. Whether the intent is to attract market share or change consciousness may not matter to the girls and young women who feel empowered by the message.

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