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Thursday, April 18, 2013

About that Dove Beauty thing

High school self-portrait from life by Zeyuan Chen, now a graduate student at UC Davis.

My newsfeed is full of comments about Dove Real Beauty Sketches. I tried to watch it, but couldn’t get past the first three seconds. A woman with impossibly thin thighs—automatically triggering envy in 99.9% of female viewers—was whining about wanting fuller lips. It isn’t exactly a news flash that some women have lousy self-images, or that society tends to reward beauty (or whatever it is that we designate as such).

Every painting student of mine will eventually be asked to paint or draw a self-portrait. No working from photographs here: I will plop you in front of a mirror and insist you draw yourself. That's pretty raw self-analysis, and so I’ve seen countless examples of how people perceive themselves.

High school self-portrait from life by Sandy Quang, now a graduate student at Hunter College.
A very few of their self-portraits have come close in self-abnegation to those Dove “real beauty” sketches. I’ve come to think the problem might actually be that hyper-attention to distressing detail is a stand-in for something more profound. There is something about their inner selves that dissatisfies them, but they express that through the superficial.

Not a portfolio piece, but a self-portrait by my former model, Gail Kellogg Hope.

But the vast majority of self-portraits look an awful lot like the artists who did them. Neither excessively flattering nor excessively grotesque, they record their own real looks to the best of their abilities. Does this mean that artists have better self-images than most people, or does it mean that the Dove campaign is built on a lie?

High school self-portrait from life by Sam Horowitz, now an undergraduate at RIT.

Ethereally beautiful models who don’t like their own looks tend to live in places like New York. It is a city of fa├žades, necessary because of its high concentration of population. “I was on the subway, and there was a gang on the train,” one of my kids told me recently. “Two children put their hands over their ears trying to not hear the racist profanity being spitted out. The mother told them to put their hands down. She was afraid they would draw attention to themselves and it would be dangerous.” That’s an extreme example of the kind of protective coloration assumed all the time in a city, but it has a distorting effect on what one perceives and what is real.
High school self-portrait from life by Matt Menzies, now an undergraduate at RISD.

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SqUaNg said...

I think that each self portrait shows our "thoughts" so to speak, because we have a the ability to choose what to put into our self portrait. They reflect our personality, but also what we thought were important to us. Of course we are our harshest critic, I notice that the way we inhabit space says a lot about us. For me- It's not necessarily self appearance- so much as how much we could fill and take up space, where as Zee's and Gail's work has a lighthearted visual aesthetic to it. That, and Sam's portrait is dominating the page. The drivers for us are different. Even Zee and Gail's lightheartedness feels different.

Gail Kellogg Hope said...

A couple of things I should mention about this self-portrait:
1: It's from a photo, but since this was a year or two past the school assignment phase I wasn't worried about that.
2: I wasn't focused on ME there. I was focused on the toddler in my arms. It's not a self-referential portrait, it's a relating-to-people portrait.
My happiness in her discovering the drinking fountain comes through there.