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Dove ad highlights women's distorted self-image

April 17, 2013 at 2:52 PM ET

When it comes to our looks, most of us can quickly rattle off a checklist of flaws: our mouth is too big, our hair color too mousy, our eyes are too close together, our cheekbones nonexistent.

In its latest “real beauty” campaign, Dove harnesses the voice of that harsh internal critic to literally illustrate how distorted these perceptions can be when it comes to a woman’s actual appearance.

In a recently released short film, Real Beauty Sketches, Dove conducted a social experiment involving seven women, a handful of strangers and Gil Zamora, an FBI-trained forensic artist who’s produced over 3,000 sketches during his career. Each woman was asked to enter a room and answer questions about her appearance to Zamora (a curtain separated the two), while he produced a sketch based on her answers. Afterward, he produced a second sketch with the aid of a stranger who’d spent a few minutes with the woman.

The results are dramatic. Sketches based on the women’s own descriptions show them with wrinkles, shaggy eyebrows, puffy cheeks and dark eye circles. Sketches based on the stranger’s descriptions, however, are much more flattering – and much more accurate.

“We’re scared of having a member of the Manson family here,” Hoda Kotb joked earlier this week on TODAY, referring to a sketch based on the self-description provided by Florence McLaughlin, one of the participants. “Look at the picture on the left. Honestly, you do not see yourself that way.”

“No, I don’t,” said McLaughlin, who is much more recognizable in the sketch created by a stranger’s description than by her own. “If I had it to do over again, that’s not how I would describe myself. I was just trying to give him the details so he could get it right. But clearly, I learned that I have a microscope up to my face and it’s just not necessary.”

Renee Engeln, senior psychology lecturer and founder of the Body and Media lab at Northwestern University, said the new campaign has definitely touched a nerve in her community.

“At least 20 of my students have sent me a link to the Dove video and want to know what I think,” she said. “Clearly there are a lot of people, women and men, interested in thinking in a different way about beauty.”

Unfortunately, many women – and men – are trapped in a bad body image loop.

“Many women see their bodies as a compilation of unacceptable features – thighs that are too big, arms that jiggle, cheekbones that aren’t high enough, lips that are too thin,” she said. “They’re sensitive to every minor deviation from the ideal and can’t see anything but those ‘flaws’ when they look in the mirror. But this type of intense scrutiny doesn’t capture the way other people see us.”

Fernando Machado, vice president of Dove Skin, said the campaign was created as a way to help women feel more beautiful about themselves.

“Dove is committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety and are saddened that only 4 percent of women find themselves beautiful,” he said via email. “The Real Beauty Sketches campaign was a social experiment … created to evoke conversation and help women see the beauty in themselves as others do.”

According to Machado, neither the participants nor the sketch artist knew that they were participating in a social experiment. Dove hosted an open casting for the women in the film. Seven were selected to be featured in the film.

As for response, he said, so far it’s been “incredibly positive.”

Engeln said she’s all for the new campaign and the “meaningful conversation” it’s started about body image and self-esteem, but pointed out that it’s also “smart marketing.”

“We should remember that its primary goal is to build brand loyalty and sell products,” she said. “But if we’re going to have marketing for beauty products, I’d much rather see this type of campaign. Any campaign that encourages women to feel more beautiful is better than yet another campaign focused on women’s flaws and vulnerabilities.”

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