In another installment of its positive body image campaign, Dove has released an 8-minute documentary called Selfie that premiered last week as the Sundance Film Festival. For those of you who can’t watch it, the film can be summed up thusly:
Mothers with their teenage daughters talk about their insecurities about their own bodies. One girl reveals that her mother’s urging her to wear cosmetics makes her uneasy.
Cut to a high school gym, where a professional photographer addresses female students, telling them, “I’m here to talk to you about beauty. You have the power to change and redefine what beauty is! … The power is at our fingertips. We can take selfies.”
Cut to her workshop about self-portraiture. “I’m going to ask you to take a risk that could change the way that people define beauty. What if we find a way when you guys are taking your selfies to actually incorporate the things about us that we don’t like?” The girls list what they hate about themselves: braces, glasses, round faces, rosy cheeks.
The photographer points out that mothers often pass on their own insecurities to their daughters, to which one girl vociferously agrees. The girls then are given an assignment to teach their mothers how to take selfies, because “Your mom can redefine beauty just like you can.”
A touching montage of mothers and daughters learning to embrace their least favorite features plays, culminating in an exhibit of the selfies, where visitors leave Post-Its complimenting the girls on their looks. The girls then smile at how good the compliments made them feel. The mothers declare that social media is redefining beauty by putting the creativity in the girls’ hands.
I absolutely love the way the film takes mothers to task, especially in light of this week’s report that parents are googling “Is my daughter ugly?” three times more often than they are posing the question about their sons. We cannot teach our young women that they should not obsess over their looks if we don’t believe it ourselves.
I also like Dove’s idea of promoting the anti-duckface selfie, the least-favorite-traits selfie. This film will do some good. But does it truly redefine beauty for everyone? Does it include everyone?
What about a girl with muscle spatisticity? What about a girl with the physical markers of Down Syndrome? What about a girl with scars, burns or chronic skin discoloration? And, perhaps most importantly, what about that girl who is silently—obsessively—counting and comparing the compliments on her selfie to the compliments on others’ selfies? Hierarchies survive through feelings of competitiveness. What about the girl who ends up with the fewest or the least glowing compliments? Does the project teach these girls how to deal with that, or does it leave them to their own devices?
This is not criticism for the sake of cynicism, but for the sake of empiricism. The Love Your Body movement has been around for over 30 years, yet eating disorders are on the rise and our mainstream standards of “beauty” have not deviated from tradition at all. (Go ahead and google “beauty” right now in an image search and see how diverse the results are.)
As with so many Love Your Body projects, the girls in the video are not beautiful under the sociological definition of “super-normal” (strange and considered exotic), but they are far from the sociological definition of “abnormal” (strange and considered repulsive). Everything they hate about their bodies—cheeks, glasses, eyebrows, braces—still falls smack in the middle of healthy human appearance. It’s the equivalent of adults in the middle-middle class and lower-middle class discussing how “poor” they feel for not having made it into the top 1%. Such insecurities are valid, but repeatedly restricting the discussion to those who only just barely challenge society’s definitions of “success” or “beauty” is safe to the point of almost seeming scared of rocking the boat too hard.
This is not to say that girls with more abnormal looks deserve more sympathy than those closer to average. On the contrary, in my experience low self-esteem does not correlate to appearance. I know many women who, being a few pounds overweight, are far less happy with themselves than other women with severe and rare deformities. Perhaps parents are more dedicated to boosting self-esteem when their daughters more noticeably deviate from the norm.
Or perhaps being excluded from the game from the get-go helps a girl to see how dumb the rules are to begin with. Returning to the analogy of class, researchers have found that wealthier parents often have a harder time handling severely disabled children because they upset their need to be in control (“He breaks things!”), whereas parents living below the poverty line are more accepting of life’s unreliability (“Eh, there’s nothing in this house that wasn’t broken long ago!”) Similarly, girls and the parents of girls whose looks could possibly near the standard of super-normal beauty may be more likely to spend time, money and anxiety trying to reach it than those who give up trying to wow the crowds and instead laugh at the delusional nature of it all.
Either way, I don’t think the Selfie project would be hurt one bit by a truly diverse sample of beauty. (Let’s get some felfies in there, while we’re at it.) Rather than monologuing about our own individual fears and demanding strangers allay them with compliments, we need a dialogue between the girl on the far end of the spectrum who’s been trashed for her looks and whoever it was who gave in to the temptation to trash her. We need a dialogue between those who want to meet an elite standard of beauty and the type of people who support that standard. We need a dialogue between the ugliest person you can imagine and your reasons for deciding they’re ugly.
That would redefine a lot.
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