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What Dove's latest body image campaign gets right and wrong about boosting self-esteem
No Caption - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Dove's latest attempt to raise the self-esteem of women worldwide comes in the form of a pair of doors.

A new campaign video, released in mid-April, shows women choosing to walk through entries labeled "beautiful" or "average" and then reflecting on their choice.

"Am I choosing because of what's constantly bombarded at me, what I'm being told that I should accept? Or am I choosing because that's what I really believe?" says one woman who walked through the "average" door holding her young son.

The video has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube and discussed widely on the #ChooseBeautiful Twitter hashtag, but this broad engagement will likely only superficially impact the women and girls the campaign is designed to serve, according to self-esteem experts. Building a healthier body image is hard work, and "choosing beautiful" is just one step on a long journey.

"If every woman tries to believe she fits society's definition of 'beautiful,' it's going to be a very fragile belief. It keeps the focus on what you look like, instead of what you feel like," said Christine Logel, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Waterloo.

She and other researchers who've studied body image agreed that Dove's video helpfully captures the confusion and anxiety many women feel about their physical appearance. However, the experts said, it could have done more to support a more complete kind of self-esteem that acknowledges beauty as just one aspect of a woman's strengths.

The campaign's shortcomings

Dove's video and self-esteem campaign deserve recognition in an overwhelmingly negative advertising space, but that doesn't mean they are free of flaws, Logel said.

She emphasized the problematic choice between "beautiful" and "average," which presented looking average as the lesser of the two options.

"It makes women think that maybe there's something wrong with them if they don't see themselves as physically beautiful," Logel said. "But, in reality, most of us are average. That's kind of what average means."

Additionally, the "choose beautiful" strategy, at least on the surface, appears to present a self-affirmation practice, like chanting "I am confident" before a big presentation. While those type of behaviors might work for self-assured people who just need an extra boost every once in a while, research has shown that self-affirmations don't work for those with low self-esteem, said Tara Cousineau, a clinical psychologist.

"People have to be very self-aware about (how they use) affirmations, figuring out if it's something they're suited for," she added.

But perhaps the most troubling takeaway from the commercial is the message that choosing beautiful will be easy, said Michelle Lelwica, a professor in and chair of the religion department at Concordia College in Moorehead, Minnesota. Dove's video implies that the women who walked through the "average" door have seen the error of their ways and learned to be more mindful about their bodies in a single exercise, replacing their inhibitions with self-love.

Realistically, the path to body positivity is a difficult road. It takes a "tremendous amount of practice" to ignore the many ways the world feeds insecurity, according to Lelwica.

"Becoming more aware and mindful is like walking the wrong direction on one of those moving walkways in the airport," she said. "Unless you're intentionally walking against the grain, you're going to get carried away."

American beauty

Although the video is flawed, psychologists said it does effectively illustrate the complicated relationship women have with beauty and the way that relationship affects emotional health.

According to Logel, the company seemed focused on responsibly employing psychological research. The video captures how difficult it is for many women to avoid buying into social beauty norms, then offers a strategy to build self-esteem.

The key theme of the campaign is choice, and by showing women who are confused or unsatisfied with the door they chose, Dove captures an important side effect of life in a media-rich culture, Logel said. Personal beauty choices, and, in turn, self-esteem, are greatly influenced by other people. Magazine covers, red-carpet coverage and popular movies all change the way women feel about their bodies.

The upshot is a widespread feeling of inadequacy, Logel said, and women who feel like they have to look over their shoulder to see who's watching before choosing the "beautiful" or "average" door.

Lelwica said the anxiety Dove discovered when it quizzed women about their door choice is a natural result of the pressure women feel to be fit, fashionable and beautiful.

"We believe the voice in our head (reinforcing beauty norms) is normal and natural. We don't realize it's been socially programmed into us," said Lelwica, who researches the way spirituality influences body image.

The realization that you have no clear reason for choosing the door that you did or for feeling the way that you do is unsettling, she added, because you start to realize how you've internalized societal norms.

Cousineau echoed Lelwica's sense that Dove's campaign hinges on helping women realize that they're often on autopilot when it comes to making decisions about their appearance and body.

"I thought the (video) was an opportunity to build awareness about how we think about ourselves and learning to be curious about the choices we make," she said.

The bigger choice

"Choosing beautiful" will never be as simple as walking through a door, but Dove's campaign is a valuable introduction to a difficult concept, said Cousineau, who serves as one of 12 members of the Dove Self-Esteem Project's global advisory board.

"When I saw the 'Choose Beautiful' film, I was really delighted as a psychologist. I thought it pointed out that every moment of the day we make a choice, deciding what to do, who to talk to and how to respond," she said.

Cousineau hopes the video inspires women to be more mindful of their relationship to their appearance, helping them become more aware of the way subtle negativity adds up over time and, alternatively, how even the simplest acts of self-love can boost self-esteem.

She and fellow advisory board member Nancy Etcoff, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, created a short activity guide titled "Mindful Me: A Woman's Guide to Body Confidence," which was released in conjunction with Dove's video. Presenting "mini-meditations" and other mindfulness practices, the guide emphasizes that body confidence is the result of many small decisions that gradually lead to results.

"I like to use the word 'cultivating,'" Cousineau said. "It's like cultivating a garden, planting seeds and letting the seeds grow. You learn small, simple things to do for yourself."

The process requires commitment and optimism. It likely also involves a network of support, Lelwica said, noting how important it is for people to have friends who support their efforts to build a better relationship with themselves.

Her suggestion echoed one of the clips in Dove's video, in which a mother pulls her teenage daughter through the "Beautiful" door, recognizing instinctively that the girl felt too awkward to go through on her own.

In the end, the path to high self-esteem is not as much about "choosing beautiful" as it is about choosing to let go of the messages that tell you you're not, Lelwica said.

"You could repeat the message, 'I am beautiful. I am beautiful. I am beautiful,' but it would be more helpful in the long run to notice the different messages coming your way" from advertisers, websites or loved ones, Lelwica said. "You can become more discerning about what words are healthy for you to take in and which ones are not."