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Summer of Dove

Even if you haven't seen Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty," you've probably heard about it. The ads promote a new line of skin-firming creams and feature six "regular" women of varying sizes and ethnicities cheerfully posing in plain white underwear. The curvy nonmodel models were introduced by Dove in June, but newspapers across the country are still simmering with dueling diatribes about Dove's selection of women who are neither skinny nor camouflaged in sexy clothes. Everyone seems to have an opinion about whether the women are a revolutionary rejection of the superthin media ideal, or just nice girls who are too chubby to be up on billboards wearing next to nothing.

Dove marketing director Kathy O'Brien says that the company wants the ads to "change the way society views beauty," and "provoke discussion and debate." They have certainly succeeded in provoking people. There is a surprising amount of hostility in some reactions to the ads. Lucio Guerrero, a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who was apparently offended by the sight of the ads on his commute, wrote on July 19: "Really, the only time I want to see a thigh that big is in a bucket with bread crumbs on it." Guerrero may have won himself a spot as the Ann Coulter of ad commentary, but there were also critical remarks by some female writers indignant because Dove had the nerve to sell anti-cellulite potions while saying that women should feel beautiful just the way they are.

With the word fat being used so liberally in national publications (where did political correctness go?), the campaign could also be in danger of creating a backlash that hurts its efforts to change the wafer-thin definition of attractive. After hearing a spate of derisive critiques of these models, will the many women who are the same size as the Dove girls be any more comfortable in a bathing suit? Experts on female body image, like Ann Kearney-Cooke, coauthor of "Change Your Mind, Change Your Body" ( Atria ), say that despite the controversy, the ads are a positive thing. "This is a really courageous move by Dove and I hope it's going to pay off. There might be some strong reactions because they are going against years of this ultrathin image, but I think we have to hang in there."

Meanwhile, Slate.com's Seth Stevenson says that the campaign, noble or not, is bad business because eventually it will doom Dove as the "brand for fat girls." But are these women fat? Or, are we just we so conditioned by Victoria's Secret-style bodies that a size 8 looks big? Dove says their models are in their 20s and range from size 6 to size 12. The average American woman is somewhere between a 12 and 14 according to a 2004 survey by SizeUSA (a project sponsored by Target and JCPenney stores among others). This puts the Dove girls on the smaller side of normal. And certainly, one would assume that no one is calling them "fat" in their other lives as teachers, wives and cafe baristas .

The shock value of Dove's reality ads might have more to do with the way the campaign was shot than the weight of the models. While photographer Ian Rankin may have been going for a refreshing, natural look, the unretouched photos turned out to be the equivalent of full-length passport shots of women in what looks like underwear meant for jogging. One has to ask whether even celebrity beauties like Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce Knowles, or Kate Winslet would inspire the same harsh critiques under those less-than-flattering conditions.

Kearney-Cooke says that the fact that the women are not posed provocatively in alluring pushup bras is precisely why the ads are so good for female self image. "What I love is that these women look like they're having fun. They're connected to each other and they don't look like objects--which is important since objectification can lead to violence against women."

This isn't the first time that we've had a body reality check in the mainstream media. In 2002, More magazine ran a ground-breaking photo shoot with actress Jamie Lee Curtis. Intending to show how little celebrities resemble their glossy images, Curtis, then 43, who was known for her enviable figure, posed without makeup, in unglamorous underwear. Even though the article won acclaim from readers, there hasn't been much promotion of the natural look since then. But Dove, which is a division of Unilever, may have tapped into the same voyeuristic vein that has made reality-TV shows so popular. Even if the ads prompt a few "yikes!" these real women are almost impossible to ignore.

Dove's O'Brien won't comment on the criticism, preferring to draw attention to the flood of grateful calls and e-mails the company has gotten from people who love the real beauty campaign. The company is "walking the talk," she says, and she points to the company's Web site, which hosts discussions about beauty and the company's partnership with the Girl Scouts of the USA's "Uniquely ME!" self-esteem boosting program for girls ages 8 to 17. (Traffic on their Web site has gone from 400 to 4,000 hits a day.)

O'Brien did acknowledge that using unglitzy photos of robust women (whom they recruited after months of scouting the stores and streets of America), was a concept that took some getting used to even among Unilever's staff. "Whenever you have a new idea that seems to be breakthrough, there are people that feel uncomfortable," O'Brien explains. "But sometimes we decide it's the ideas that make us uncomfortable are the ones we should pursue."

Dove says that it created its campaign in response to the results of their 2004 "Real Truth About Beauty" study of women's attitudes toward body image. Commissioned by Unilever in conjunction with researchers from Harvard University and the London School of Economics, the study interviewed 3,200 women ages 18-64 in 10 countries. Only 2 percent of the women they talked to considered themselves "beautiful" and only 13 percent were "very satisfied" with their body weight and shape. "This campaign is rooted in good consumer insight," says O'Brien. "It's what women have been asking for a long time because they are so dissatisfied with the way that [they] are portrayed in the media today."

Kearney-Cooke says that pervasive, unrealistic images of women's bodies may be more than a mental-health problem--they may also be contributing to America's costly obesity problem. "When you have this norm that only 2 to 5 percent of the population can obtain, you're setting up young girls to engage in dangerous yo-yo dieting which, over time, increases the risk of becoming overweight." Kearney-Cooke says that young women do look to magazines to form their self-image and that three quarters of normal-weight teen girls believe they are overweight. (Interestingly, while the Dove study found that 60 percent of the American women they spoke to perceived their weight to be "too high," the real number of American women who are actually obese or overweight is a similar 62 percent. The study, however, did not demonstrate whether the women who are truly overweight are among those who feel overweight.)

Whether they are improving female self esteem or not, Dove might have found a great marketing niche. The campaign got a huge amount of attention in the U.K., where it launched last fall. "It was extremely successful--good enough that we couldn't wait for it to come to the United States," says O'Brien. Dove won't reveal exactly how much the ads have helped their bottom line, but O'Brien did say that the campaign has been beneficial for all their products, not just the firming creams. "We've seen our bar-soap share increase one point per month for the past five months so, yes, we are extremely pleased," she adds.

Eventually, the Dove debate will end, and the media can go back to analyzing actress Lindsay Lohan's weight fluctuations or Angelina Jolie's love life. In the meantime, whether or not Dove eventually succeeds in changing female body image, we can only hope that the scrutiny and harsh words don't daunt the lovely Dove ladies. Otherwise we might be spending next summer talking about TRIMSPA or Slim-Fast diet ads featuring a Dove model who decided that maybe being "real" and in the public eye isn't that much fun after all.