A recent online marketing video by Dove shows a forensic artist making sketches of women he has not seen; first by asking the women to describe themselves from behind a curtain, then by having a stranger describe them. The two sketches are then compared and, apparently, the women felt that they looked far prettier in the pictures made using the strangers’ descriptions than their own. The ad’s punch line goes, ‘You are more beautiful than you think you are.’
The promo created a buzz on social media, and not necessarily the kind Dove would have intended. While many viewers were touched and wondered why women were so self-critical, other less-gullible viewers questioned Dove’s underlying message – why were people of colour shown only over 10 seconds over the six-minute video? Why must descriptors of beauty include ‘thin, fair, blue eyes’? Why were negatives always to do with age or overweight? And does this mean, asked one blogger, that women were not valuable without beauty?
At the FICCI Ladies Organisation annual awards held in Delhi last month, actor Preity Zinta, on her way to Mohali for an IPL match, stopped by to receive her award for Woman in Cinema. In her acceptance speech, she commented sweetly about another winner, Mithali Raj, who had just taken the award for Woman in Sport: “I must say, this is the first time I have met a pretty cricketer.” Despite all her struggles and successes in a competitive world, I found it disconcerting that the one quality Zinta chose to highlight in a fellow achiever was not her grit or her hard work or her talent. But her looks.
It reminded me of US President Barack Obama’s similarly well-intentioned but subliminally sexist comment on Kamala Harris; while introducing her at a fundraiser, Obama had said she was the best-looking attorney general in the country. When media watchers kicked up a storm over it, he apologised, clarifying that it was said in jest as Harris was a good friend; she too said she’d only taken it in a positive spirit.
But Harris should be worried. Two April studies by Name It, Change It, a US project that monitors media coverage of female political figures, revealed that “when the media focuses on a woman candidate’s appearance, she pays a price in the polls.” Further, sexist media coverage “diminishes her vote and the perception that she is qualified.” So with every light-hearted comment made about her beauty, a woman political candidate loses a few serious brownie points in public perception.
American poet and public speaker Katie Makkai made an impassioned ‘slam’ in 2002, which she ended with a mock dialogue with her future daughter: “When you approach me, already stung-stayed with insecurity, begging, ‘Mom, will I be pretty? Will I be pretty?’ I will wipe that question from your mouth like cheap lipstick and answer, ‘No! The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine will be contained in five letters. You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing. But you will never be merely… pretty.’” The last word is flung with venom.
While I respect and enjoy beauty as much as the next person, I do believe that we need to evolve out of outdated terminology. Whatever the old, patriarchal reasons for restricting a woman’s qualities to her physical attributes, it’s time now for a new vocabulary on feminine beauty. Pretty just got pretty interesting.
First published in the May 2013 issue of Atelier Diva