Seeing how we are

I got rid of TV awhile ago (best decision ever, though only partly voluntary) so pretty much the only time I see commercials anymore is when they get sent around via social media. Usually that means they’re pretty good, or at least interesting, halfway between advertising and entertainment. Advertainment, let’s call it, which seems to be the holy grail of marketers these days.

This Dove ad is advertainment, and while I don’t love this blog being a vehicle for furthering marketer’s messages, there is a point I want to make here. If you don’t have time to watch the video, here’s the short version (spoiler alert!): Dove recruits a bunch of women for an experiment. They arrive at a location and are asked to get to know a stranger. Then they’re led into a room with a curtain, on the other side of which is a forensic artist. The artist asks them to describe themselves and uses this as fodder to create a sketch of each woman. Then the stranger who met that woman is led in, and the artist creates a second sketch of each woman using this description. Hung side-by-side gallery-style, the women view the paired portraits and are asked to take stock of the differences.

It is remarkable how much more attractive the second sketches are, universally. And though this a made-for-TV moment (with the music to match), it struck me as a uniquely tangible example of the power of perception. Anaïs Nin famously said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” If we are warm-hearted, open, and generous, we feel embraced by the world. If we are jealous, bitter, or narrow-minded, we interpret others’ actions harshly, and may be threatened by them. Convinced of our own objectivity, we believe this is how the world really is, while in reality we are attuning our senses to the information that affirms our view of the world. Psychologists call this confirmation bias, where we unconsciously look for evidence that affirms our beliefs about the world. But all of this happens in an amorphous way, so it’s hard to notice when we’ve slipped into some kind of negative way of viewing the world, or ourselves.

I love this experiment because it makes manifest the difference between negativity and positivity in aesthetic terms. Cold eyes, a flat gaze, a tight-lipped frown, odd facial proportions: these distortions are self-perception through a lens of negativity. Interestingly, these are also the facial expressions that correlate to negative emotions like sadness and anger. In his landmark study of facial expressions, Charles Darwin wrote about the faces of people in a state of sadness:

…the face [becomes] pale; the muscles flaccid; the eyelids droop… the lips, cheeks, and lower jaw all sink downwards from their own weight. Hence all the features are lengthened; and the face of a person who hears bad news is said to fall.

In other words, when we view ourselves through a critical lens, we are imagining our faces as though they were in pain. By contrast, a joyful face is inviting, with a bright gaze, good color, and contractions of muscles around the mouth and the eyes that make the whole face seem to smile. The same face under the two conditions is totally different.

We are inherently interested in faces, so much so that we have areas of the brain specifically devoted to processing them — scanning the faces of both strangers and intimates for signals that communicate their familiarity, their health, their disposition, and all the implications these things have for us. We invest a lot of energy in the aesthetics of our own faces. We rouge and pluck and paint and do countless other things to enhance the impressions our faces give to others. But I think so often we forget how much of beauty is in the expression, the temperament that emanates from within. This is a nice illustration of the beauty of not focusing on beauty. When asked to be open to getting to know a stranger, to be friendly, to simply engage with another — that’s when these women were at their most beautiful. Yes, there is a message here about being less hard on ourselves, and this is a point well-taken, but it’s not just about the removal of a negative. It’s about finding ways to lose yourself in things or people that kindle this kind of happiness. Beauty is just an outward signal of some kind of inner joy.

ps: For a critical take on the campaign, with some good points as well, read here.

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2 Comments

  1. it’s a nice message, but please don’t call this an experiment. the artist knew that the second set of pictures were supposed to be more attractive.

  2. Sherry Crowson

    I watched the video and read Jazz’s comments, and I too felt uncomfortable watching that whole thing. I realized it was because I did not see anyone that looked like me there, someone older, white-haired, overweight . . . I noticed all the ladies shown were lovely, anyone would say it. It would have been more meaningful if they could have shown women with more diverse beauty,. I think it’s often hard to be realistic about how you look when you are so close to the subject. Everyone knows what they don’t like about their own face, but it’s often surprising to find out what someone else likes. The stranger who was describing the women I think was responding as much to their emotional impact as to their physical beauty. It’s hard to separate the two aspects, surely you have known some really beautiful women who you cannot seem to connect with, who are distant or judgmental, and some others who while not lovely are warm and inviting and make you feel comfortable. And the reverse, of course, is also true, and you would be hard put to get an accurate description of any of them. One of the things about getting older is . . . you let a lot of that critical aspect go, you are more comfortable in your own skin, even if it’s not perfect. I love my white hair, and the pleasure I have derived from gaining my extra pounds was actually worth it, though my knees would like it if I had a little less pleasure!! Still, the video did show that whatever flaw we perceive is writ larger than any beauty. With Jazz, I did not like the idea of beauty being so important, enough to limit what we choose as a career, or people we might choose as friends. It would be like letting everyone who looks at us have a say in how we live our lives. I don’t want to give anyone that kind of power over me. I would rather choose things by how I feel about them, or what I think, or how I treat the world, than what the world thinks of me. That’s what all children, boys or girls, need to hear, that their life is theirs to choose and one of the best things they can do for themselves is not to let the world tell them more about themselves than they want it to, that how they feel, and what they think, how they are loved and love, is infinitely more important than anything the world can tell them!

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