Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Onslaught

A new commercial from Dove that I think is pretty powerful:



Last week, I went to my dermatologist for a follow up visit. I've been seeing her about clearing up a bout of acne. In a moment of spontaneity, I decided to Botox my frown lines, the ones between my eyebrows (known as the "elevens" for the vertical lines they create) and the horizontal line at the ridge of my nose. The injections were painless and over the course of a week, my ability to create these lines lessened and now that area is very smooth. I look rejuvenated. I look great.

But why did I do it? I'm not apologizing for getting this done and the reasons are varied, contradicting and complex so I want to write about it here instead of throwing out the "because I felt like it" answer. What are some of the reasons behind my choice?

I did it because I wanted to try it and view it as a temporary, relatively benign cosmetic procedure. I just started to develop a faint crease on the ridge of my nose and Botox can prevent that line from getting deeper. If you can't make the line, that wrinkle can't get any worse. I did it because this little line is an indication of getting older. I like hearing from strangers that they think I'm 27. I like their surprise when I tell them I'm 34. I value looking younger than I really am. I'm scared of getting and looking older, of becoming invisible.

I did it because I like gadgets, new technology, cutting edge shit. It's crazy to get a toxin injected, to paralyze your face to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. I love the show, Dr. 90210. I confess that I wanted to experience that world, to do something that people with means can afford to do, that's outrageous and extravagant and totally unnecessary. I still feel a thrill thinking that I got my face Botoxed! Just like those crazy rich people and celebrities! I'm having a lot of fun with it. One of my favorite facial expressions is an arched brow and I could barely do it, my entire face had to scrunch to get my right eyebrow to raise a tiny bit, and the effect was one of goofiness instead of wit and elegance. Now, I can isolate my right brow and raise it! Whee!

I did it because no matter how much I say that it doesn't matter what you look like, I know it really does. I know I'm considered to be a pretty gal. I know this is valued by my family and my culture. I know that for a woman, being pretty is a source of power. While I try and not let myself be defined by an external standard of beauty, I want to be considered beautiful. I won't go to any length to obtain it, but I'll exercise, buy nice clothes, wear makeup, moisturize, wax, and now inject my forehead with a toxin for it.

I did it because while I never feel thin enough at least I have a pretty face. After years of thinking I was ugly, I started to realize in my mid-twenties that I was pretty. I don't want to lose that. Not yet.

How does it fit into my feminist point of view? Tough question. There's a conflict here between cultural standards of beauty, personal choices and feminist beliefs. I believe that I do examine the beauty mandate and my own rituals. I understand how the patriarchy affects my decisions and behaviors. Even though I'm a smart woman, I am still susceptible to its messages. How much of my decision is based on my own standards of beauty? How much of it is influenced by cultural messages? And doesn't one influence the other?

7 comments:

Major Generalist said...

Great post. First off, some thoughts about the Dove commercial. It’s a great commercial and does a great job of showing just how much media is thrown at us about body image. But there are a few things that are problematic—the first is that it’s sponsored by a corporation, and that corporation exists to sell us beauty products. It’s like Altria sponsoring anti-smoking campaigns. I think these corporations mean for us to always stay in conflict with ourselves so they can stay in business.

That doesn’t mean the campaign is without merit—it shows just how multi-layered and complex our world is and how sophisticated we have to be in order to interpret what’s going on around us. On the upside, it is a global campaign, so at least the positive aspects of the message are being disseminated worldwide. But, it’s just one tiny message in the sea of PhotoShopped beauty.

The other thing I have trouble with is that the commercial ends by exhorting mothers to talk to their daughters “before the beauty industry does.” Sure, that’s fine, but I don’t think talking about body image has nearly as much impact as the daily barrage of imagery that constantly reinforces thinner, younger, prettier. Still, stemming the media tide has to begin somewhere, and discussion is a good place to start; however a discussion here and there is not adequate to truly combat body image issues. It requires consistent work, reflection and assessment.

It kind of reminds me of the coming out process for being gay—so much of culture tells a person that being gay is wrong, bad, ugly, a sin, etc. It takes a lot of time and energy in actively engaging and exploring one’s feelings about being gay to finally come to one’s own conclusions about self-worth and to build up one’s own sense of self-esteem. The Pride Parade exists because queer people needed to create a celebration of self because there weren’t any positive depictions of gay people in the larger culture. Of course, now “Pride” is a party brought to you by Absolut Vodka and AT&T, which problematically connects commerce to self-image. Still, maybe as a culture, we need to have regularly scheduled events and happenings around body image and self-worth to continue to expose how deeply influenced we are by the mass media. We may need to fight fire with fire and visibly repeat messages about the value of physical diversity.

As with anything, it’s about balance. Of course, who can say what that balance is? It’s as subjective as each of our internal thresholds. I might scoff at someone who thinks they need breast implants, but is that really different from my own manifestations of vanity? For example, one of these days my front tooth is going to disintegrate, and I plan to spend any amount of money to replace it because missing teeth and poor dental work are markers of the lower classes, and hell if I’m going to walk around toothless. It looks like shit. And I don’t want to look like shit. That does matters to me. So, vanity is a question of degree.

The beauty industry is an industry ready to “help” us achieve whatever degree of vanity we’d like to manifest. It exists to take away our cash. It doesn’t care if we find ourselves bankrupt in old age as long as our tummies are tucked. And therein is perhaps one measure of the problem—if a person can afford to undertake cosmetic enhancements, is there any crime? Something still tugs at my heart saying yes, but I’m not sure where the line is between acceptable self-enhancement and the sense that physical self-improvement could be an indicator of self-loathing. As I age, I have no idea how tempted I might be to improve my looks. A person does feel better about themselves when they look good.

Looks matter. It’s how we immediately judge each other. Yet, vanity is supposedly a sin. There’s a paradox there—we should look good, but not too good. There’s a reason why painters have depicted “vanitas” several hundred years ago—it’s to remind us that beauty is fleeting. Ultimately, vanity is a reminder of the transience of life, and our clinging to beauty is the manifestation of our cultural fear of death. That’s so human. It makes me want to hug the world and be hugged back knowing that life, even in death, is going to be all right.

vivzan said...

Hey MG, Thank you for a thoughtful response and analysis.

I really like what Dove is attempting to accomplish. They are a company trying to sell and advertise in a less harmful way. There's a market for the products they provide and they found that they're able to make money and have some ethics at the same time. That's a pretty good balance. Even if it's a campaign designed by "Mad Men," it's a campaign that isn't about making women feel badly about themselves. I'd like to see this become the norm instead of the "Thinner! Younger! Prettier!" mantra of beauty ads.

I agree with you on regarding the exhortation that mothers talk to their daughters. I'll add to that: Why is the responsibility squarely on us as women? Why aren't we asking men why this is expected of us. The barrage of images within that commercial are the way men want us to look like. Why aren't there messages to men asking them why they want us to look this way?

Have you heard about the "Mom Job?" Plastic surgery that's marketed to mothers (tummy tuck, lipo, breast implants).
http://tinyurl.com/2rawec

Major Generalist said...

Hello again,
Good point that Dove is trying to achieve balance in their advertising. It's hard for me not to immediately take a cynical stance with regard to corporations, but maybe there is a happy medium where a company can sell products but not be damaging to our psyches. There shouldn't be anything wrong with trying to achieve a certain level of looking one's best. Maybe, culturally, the emphasis should be on doing the most with what you have rather than having the focus be on what's "wrong" with our bodies.

And you're making a DAMN good point about the lack of male input. Where are they in this discussion? Body image issues affect them too, AND I'd also like to hear from them about how pornography, for example, might influence their perceptions of the female body, and how that might translate into expectations for their partners. I'm sure the same issues affect gay men as well--just look at the insane level of grooming of Chelsea boys.

I hadn't seen that article on the "Mom Job." I just read it. Fascinating! I worry that women are being marketed to for unnecessary surgery, yet I can also imagine how it's hard to go from having your body be one way prior to pregnancy to something much more unexpected afterwards.

Prior to this whole discussion, I felt a lot more ill will towards those who undertake extensive surgery, but I'm also seeing the complexity of it, and can understand why someone would have surgical procedures. This will be an ongoing internal dialog for me--there are no easy answers when it comes to beauty....

vivzan said...

Porn definitely affects their perception on the female body. In regards to grooming habits, according to this week's issue of Time Out New York, 34% of straight men like it when a woman leaves just a landing strip, 31% like it when a woman waxes off every last hair, 28% like it when it's kept tidy (i.e. attends to the bikini line and trims the rest" and 7% likes it when a girl grows it wild. That is totally influenced by pornography.

Time Out also asked straight women what their grooming habits are. 55% attend to their bikini line only while 21% get a Brazilian, 14% waxes it all and 10% lets it grow wild.

There's definitely a difference between expectation and reality here.

Rational Answers said...

Allow me to provide a male perspective on some of this. I can only speculate that if you show a woman an ad featuring a thin, young, pretty girl, she is likely to interpret it as a "how-to" guide to being perceived as attractive. I can say from personal experience that if you show that same ad to a man, he is more likely to see a centerfold wearing too many items of clothing (in the most obvious example, consider a typical Victoria’s Secret ad).

It goes without saying that the asymmetry in what such ads communicate to each gender ("look like this if you want to be attractive" versus "you want to have sex with women who look like this") is exploitive of women. But where the ads incline their target audiences on both sides of this asymmetry to be positively disposed towards the product, the desired effect is what the advertisers get.

Just so you know men want thinner, younger, prettier girls because we generally perceive them as relatively easy, yet visually stimulating, potential sexual conquests. A typical man is not interested in an LTR with an anorexic, empty-headed Barbie doll, but he’d probably like to "hit that".

It is as we tire of such low hanging fruit that men begin to consider more challenging women with brains, character and valid, alternate points of view. As men get older we tend to see such a woman’s wrinkles, gray hair and cellulite as signs of having lived an interesting life (unlike the thin, young, pretty girls). Note how ED drugs are being marketed to such a man as a form of tribute to the woman in his life ("she is in incredible woman and thus you don't want to disappoint her"). As men enter this stage we, not coincidently, also leave the advertisers’ most desirable male demographic.

I am not much of a porn consumer so I can only provide the negative example of how it influences male expectations of our partners. My preference for female grooming is tidy because I enjoy being able to see her equipment (the typical male visual stimulation fixation), but too hairless seems unsuitably prepubescent to me. I believe my outlook supports your point about pornography shaping male preferences in female grooming (and most likely in many other areas as well).

Having a 12 year-old daughter has definitely sensitized me to the messages being marketed to girls/women. I can honestly say that I have done everything in my power to communicate to her that what makes her special is her intellect, compassion, strength and innate sense of self. The fact that she is thin, young and pretty makes it easier to focus on what is really important. I am hoping (against hope?) that she can continue to see these cosmetic traits as non-factors in her judgment of her worth as a person.

Major Generalist said...

Vivzan, thanks for posting those stats from Time Out. It's a concrete example of just how influenced we are by what we see, and how it does shape people's expectations about bodies.

Rational Answers, I'm glad to hear a male perspective on this topic. And, it's good to know that some men, with maturity, actually desire women who are also mature in age and experience. I'm glad you mentioned that men at some point also fall out of the target demographic. I often think about the invisibility of women as we age, but I don't think as much about the problems of men as they get older and face issues such as ED, and how they too become less culturally desirable (although apparently men with a lot of cash can withstand just about anything ;) As for the ED example, a small segment of advertising has found a way to address that demographic, but it's not done in a mature fashion--it's either done in a joking tone or only alluded to, and never directly addressed. Dancing around core issues seems to be what gives advertising it's greatest power. I suspect that if we addressed issues of bodies and beauty and aging, Madison Avenue would have a much harder time selling us "fixes" to the problems we fail to come to terms with due to lack of discussion.

I think your final point about your daughter is the most important take-away--that our focus should be on our inherent intellect, compassion and inner-strength. Those are the qualities that last all our lives. Still, the allure of beauty is hard to deny and will always remain a potent motivator as long as our culture makes it so easy to spend our disposable income.

Major Generalist said...

WOW! Your post remains eminently relevant! On 30 Rock this Thursday (Episode 202, Jack Gets in the Game, 10/11/07), the entire episode is devoted to body image issues. Tina Fey's character Liz Lemon says, "You just can't be a real woman in this country, God! It's like those Dove commercials never even happened."

We are in the thick of a cultural moment ;)