Last week, Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” ad went seriously viral across the web. And by viral we’re talking millions of YouTube views, a New York Times article and a parody within the span of a few days. Regardless of your opinion on the ad, it’s clear it has struck a nerve and contributed to a necessary conversation.
But there is one particular strand of this conversation which seems especially worth further investigation. Whether it was in TIME’s twitter feed or in individual’s Facebook posts, many have used some variation of this phrase in relation to the commercial: “women are their own worst critics when it comes to how they look.”
It seems innocuous enough (probably because we’ve heard it before) but when we think about it some more, there’s definitely something a little off about that statement.
Many people do lack self-confidence, and there is certainly more pressure on women to be conscious of their own appearance than men, but is it really the case that women are more critical of that appearance than everyone else?
First of all, the whole entire world is critical of the way women look. Whether you are a supermodel, a teenager or even Secretary of State, if you’re a female, there are people all around you ready to tell you how bad your body looks. Secondly, the idea that women are valuable only for their beauty permeates nearly every facet of modern society, from the billboards we walk past to the social media we use daily. And this idea that women should be reduced to their appearance originated almost entirely in the minds and actions of men. And it is still largely perpetuated today by men – who run over 90% of our media.
So to say women are their own “worst critics” when it comes to beauty puts the blame on women for a beauty-obsessed, body-shaming and misogynistic world created and maintained largely by dudes.
Of course women should be encouraged to defy this worldview and fight the media’s impossible beauty ideal. And perhaps the sheer number of times a woman looks in the mirror is greater than the number of times a man walks by and harasses her (though, I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it). And you probably do know more about the shape of your own nose than anyone else does. But you know who almost certainly judges women’s appearance more harshly than women? These guys:
And teenage boys like those in the horrific Steubenville video.
And all the men called-out daily by Everyday Sexism:
All the guys who create and frequent Facebook’s plethora of misogynistic pages devoted to degrading, objectifying and/or celebrating sexual violence directed at women express far more viscerally demeaning thoughts about female appearance than most women ever do. As do those men on the seemingly endless threads of hatred on reddit.
All the men in the world who feel entitled to women’s bodies, and feel entitled to have an opinion about those bodies, and sometimes even feel entitled to touch and hurt those bodies – they are the worst critics of women’s beauty. They are the ones who most often turn criticism into objectification, dehumanization and even violence.
We can all strive to be more confident and to value ourselves more, and clearly that is the intention of this Dove-inspired conversation around women’s self-image and beauty. But it’s not helpful for us to so dramatically overstate the role women play in a negative culture of judgement created and maintained largely by men. In a world where we are all constantly pummeled with images of the hypersexualized hyperfeminine thin female ideal, it is not so surprising that some women have distorted self-images.
So, women are not their own worst critics when it comes to beauty. And instead of saying they are over and over, let’s question the larger cultural environment in which we are all taught – regardless of gender – to value women first for their looks, and second for what they say or do. Let’s also not let those who objectify women, who harass women online and off, or who profit from industries exploiting the beauty ideal, off the hook.
If we really want women (and everyone else) to feel better about themselves then we should also be challenging these men and boys to take a second look at how they talk about women and women’s bodies – and the negative impact it is having on our world.
Imagine a video where a few men have a curtain lifted, and suddenly they recognize the role they play in perpetuating rape culture. Now that would be something truly shocking to watch.
Imran is the Social Media and Communications Director at MissRepresentation.org. Follow him on Twitter @imransiddiquee