Dove’s new packaging raises a number of questions: Do all the bottles have the same amount of product? Are you supposed to buy the one that looks like you? Are you allowed to buy the ones that don’t look like you? Are we gearing up for a “Divergent”–style dystopia in which society is divided according to soap format? But the most important question is: What, exactly, is the point supposed to be?
“Real beauty breaks moulds,” declares the ad (in British spelling), over visuals of bottles being manufactured and sorted. “Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.” The accompanying PR statement reads, in part, “Recent research from the Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report revealed that one in two women feels social media puts pressure on them to look a certain way. Thankfully, many women are fighting with us to spread beauty confidence.” All right, but these are objects being made in a factory; that’s literally the factory there in the ad. Dove is congratulating itself for sending a “body-positive message” using six injection-molded plastic shells. (They’re also, not for nothing, all white. I’m only kind of joking.)
This is hardly the first time Dove has embarked on a dippy, self-congratulatory, ultimately condescending quest to commodify a kind of toothless Instagram-hashtag empowerment. In 2014, for instance, it had women wear “beauty-enhancing” patches, then filmed them talking about how much more attractive they felt — before being told that the patches were a placebo. Surprise! The beauty was in you all along. Buy more soap. If the company’s advertising has never reached Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad heights of phony wokeness, it’s only because the stakes aren’t quite as high; Dove’s flaccid pandering revolves around the way our culture treats women’s looks and bodies, rather than the way our militarized police force targets black lives. But the project — bogus activism as branding — is the same.
Granted, there are more directly, overtly dangerous things to worry about these days than how a multibillion-dollar corporate juggernaut co-opts social justice movements. But advertising is the language of a capitalist society, and even when the end result seems stupid — a model drinking pop, a weirdly-shaped bottle of soap — it’s important to think about the way that language is used. It’s important because the way we frame issues is important, both to how we think about them and to what we actually do.
The Pepsi ad is a good example: It asked audiences to imagine a world in which the real problem is that we don’t share enough refreshing soda with cops. A recent Heineken ad, touted by some as the antidote to the Pepsi fiasco, is more subtle but not any better. In that ad, people with fundamentally opposing views — a misogynist and a woman, a climate denier and a person who knows anything — are forced together to talk, cooperate and drink a beer. In other words, the ad frames the problem of ignorance and bigotry as one where people of different and equally valid creeds mutually fail to sit and break bread together. This framing matters.
And Dove’s newest, goofiest effort matters, too — because the problem with women’s self-image has never, ever been that our bottles of soap are not shaped enough like our bodies. In fact, isn’t part of the problem that our bodies are treated like objects? Perhaps making our objects look more like our bodies is not the way to go.
These bottles are the answer to a question nobody asked, the solution to a spurious problem — and worse, the solution to a spurious problem that is actually a distorted version of something real and devastating. Dove isn’t wrong that most women hate their bodies; it’s just wrong about why (“social media pressure” is an incredibly shallow understanding of the source and operation of stringent beauty standards) and about what can be done. (“Hi, I know you’re less likely to hire me, pay me fairly or give me adequate medical care because you think I’m too fat, but have you seen this bottle of soap?”) And while shadowboxing with this issue in effigy and calling it a win, Dove actually contributes to the problem.
The ways that we talk about women’s body shapes have always seemed designed to dodge the actual reality of bodies. The most common approach to classifying body types makes us sound like a sort of Renaissance memento mori still life: the apple, the pear, the hourglass. Other times we’re reduced to simple geometric forms, like diamond and triangle. Some clothing companies develop their own cute taxonomies; Lane Bryant, for instance, used to sort waist-to-hip ratios into red, yellow and blue. Often they congratulate themselves for acknowledging that women come in as many as six or eight shapes.
In fact, about 3.7 billion women are in the world, which means women come in about 3.7 billion shapes — maybe 1.8 billion if we assume nearly everyone grows up to look just like her mother. But increasing the number of geometric shapes, colors, fruits or whatever reductio ad absurdum you’re using to simplify these myriad embodiments won’t actually get to the heart of the problem, which is this: Women are messy, fleshy human animals with sweat and hair and body fat, and nobody wants to say so. We’re not apples and pears, and we’re certainly not gently undulating white plastic bottles. And when we talk about “body positivity,” what we’re actually calling for, at our most starry-eyed and utopian, is peace — or at least detente — between the physical reality of our bodies and a culture that would prefer we pretend not to have them. Equating us with a parade of injection-molded, quality-checked plastic packages, no matter how diverse and varied, is never going to move us toward that vision.
By all means, contemplate your body in the shower. Contemplate the heck out of it — but not because you see it reflected in your bottle of soap. Confusing human women for shapely bits of plastic is actually the trouble, not the cure.