April 15, 2013

Dove Beauty Sketch: Why is it Convincing?

First, watch this film and check out this article.

The video is composed, shot, and presented effectively. It presents an opinion about feminine psychology compellingly and with pathos. If you asked me, I'd probably agree with their opinion, which, stated simply, is as follows: women (specifically, women in United States culture) tend to underestimate their own physical attractiveness. I'm sure it is very important that women realize this, and that it will help them in their subjective journey through life if they realize that they are beautiful. That being said, I would also like to make a statement about the nature of the argument in the video, as it is presented.

This video does not present an incontrovertible conclusion in any form. (While it is possible that the methods described in the video were not actually the methods used, and that all of the women were paid actresses, etc., etc., I'll assume that the video is honest for the sake of argument) Although claims have been made that this is a "social experiment" which offers "undeniable proof," the methods used to reach such "proof" are far from scientifically rigorous. First, the sample size is ludicrously small. I count only five or six women, where hundreds or thousands of subjects would be necessary to make a verifiable psychological claim. Second, there are no controls in the experiment to isolate a cause for the difference between the two pictures. Maybe the artist drew one picture uglier intentionally (more about this later), maybe the women chosen happened to randomly have low self-esteem, or any other number of causes could have impacted the difference between the two pictures. Third, there is no data to analyze or draw conclusions from. At best, we have five or six personal testimonies, all of which use different terms. Because of these reasons, it doesn't seem like this video offers any sort of "undeniable proof." It does, however, present a compelling argument, despite its scientific deficiencies.

Why is the argument compelling? Well, the dramatic story-telling, lighting, background music, and dialogue aside, the picture comparison is probably the biggest "sell." The comparison of the, frankly, ugly "self-described" portraits against the much more pleasant "other-described" portraits makes a strong emotional statement. It is a direct, visual representation of the opinion: you see it, and you know instantly what they are talking about. However, there are some striking similarities between the self-described portraits. Let me demonstrate...

Although it's not apparent in the video (even in hi-def, the portraits are fuzzy or not in focus in many of the shots containing them), each self-described portrait contains the same proportional errors. The red lines that I've added clearly show these: the self-described faces feature more closely-set eyes, a longer chin, and less smooth curvature of the jaw. These are basic proportioning problems: if you were to consult a textbook on how to draw an ugly face, you would be given those instructions.

What does that mean? Well, there are a number of possibilities. The artist could have intentionally skewed the self-described portraits to achieve the desired effect. Or, the women chosen for this "experiment" happened to think of or describe themselves as not-beautiful in the exact same way. Or, the cultural trends in current US conceptions of beauty feature these same points, causing each woman to have the same subconscious bias. In fact, there are probably some other possibilities to account for this similarity between the self-described portraits. However, the problems with this "experiment's" rigor leave us with no way to tell what, exactly, is the cause. So, while this advertisement makes a convincing statement, and it might do some good, it is not really a "social experiment," and thus does not provide "undeniable proof." I hope that we can, in this matter as always, be careful about how we form our opinions. ~Ambrose


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