Twitter and Dove have teamed up in a new campaign to combat criticisms of women’s bodies on social media. The #SpeakBeautiful campaign, which kicked off with a short video (shown above) during the pre-show of this year’s Academy Awards, cites the staggering statistic that women produced over 5 million negative body image Tweets last year. The campaign implores women to stop this, to focus on what is beautiful about each of us, and bring our collective beauty to the fore. Set to musical crescendo and the image of falling dominos, this message is both powerful and persuasive.
Sadly, it gets feminism and women’s empowerment fundamentally wrong. Women’s bodies have historically been sites of objectification and critique. They still are. From politicians to athletes, women are continually required to account for their bodies. I have yet to receive end of semester student evaluations that didn’t comment on my attire and appearance (did you know leggings aren’t pants!?) The work of feminism is to do away with such objectification; to reject the equation of beauty with human value. #SpeakBeautiful not only fails in this endeavor, but actively reaffirms women’s positions as—first and foremost—beautiful objects.
In its very name, #SpeakBeautiful centers physical attractiveness as the proper metric with which to measure women’s value. Rather than decenter or reject this metric, it asks women to give one another high scores. Broadening the standards of beauty does nothing to abolish the requirement that women be beautiful. I repeat: broadening the standards of beauty does nothing to abolish the requirement that women be beautiful (I’m talking to you, Strong is the New Skinny).
Of course, it is in Dove’s interest to maintain the requirement to be beautiful. They sell beauty products, after all. It is not, however, in women’s interests. Yet it is women who Dove recruits to give voice to their campaign. Indeed, this campaign of objectification only works if women—lots of women—actively participate.
I realize it may seem unfair to throw such strong critiques upon a well-meaning campaign, with well-meaning supporters. It’s true that most advertising campaigns offer no feminist agenda. It’s true that many advertising campaigns unapologetically render women mere tools of male sexual pleasure. But these campaigns don’t masquerade as progress.
Cultural products that claim social justice are the very objects we must examine most closely, and call out—loudly—when they get it wrong. #SpeakBeautiful is insidious in its feminist cloak. Its bold rejection of negative body-talk can easily lull us into not only compliance, but active participation in the very structures and logics that make negative body-talk such a painful and effective weapon against women.