The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty made national news over the past few weeks for its survey finding that only 4 percent of women consider themselves beautiful. The statistic was discussed in conjunction with a viral video about a sketch artist depicting how women describe themselves versus how others describe them.

The fact that only 4 percent of women consider themselves beautiful has been discussed as symbolizing most women’s tragic low self-esteem, and a powerful message to women that they’re more beautiful than they realize.

The campaign has been both widely lauded for drawing attention to the issue and criticized for focusing on women’s beauty instead of other features. It’s an ad for Dove, after all.

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Most journalists and news reports took the 4 percent statistic at face value (no pun intended), assuming it indeed reflects what most people claim it does: women’s poor self-image and low self-esteem. But a closer look at the survey suggests a different conclusion.

The results were based on Dove’s “Real Truth About Beauty” report, which was first published in September 2004 and revised in 2011. A spokeswoman said that the updated report was not publicly available, however the original report is available and offers some insight into the statistic.

While it’s true that the global survey of 3,200 women 18-64 found that 4 percent of them consider themselves beautiful, the study also found that most women say they are, in fact, satisfied with their beauty and consider themselves of average attractiveness.

Surprisingly the report also found that instead of most women being unhappy with their bodies, the majority of American women surveyed (55 percent) reported that they were satisfied with their body shape and weight.

How do we reconcile the Dove report’s findings that only 4 percent of women consider themselves beautiful with the fact that most of those same women are satisfied with their beauty?

Polling Questions

The issue lies in the way that the survey questions were asked. It’s a common issue in polling and psychology called response bias: How you ask a question can have a powerful impact on what kind of answers you get.

Poll questions must be very carefully phrased to avoid pushing respondents toward (or away from) a given answer to get a valid response. In this case, the survey’s use of the word “beautiful” likely biased the women away from that response.

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The fact that so few women would claim to be “beautiful” might suggest simply that women wish to avoid appearing vain when being asked by someone about their attractiveness, not necessarily that most women are inherently insecure about their beauty.

As a piece in New York magazine pointed out, “what if that woman had said to the sketch artist, “Well, first off, I’m really pretty.” Imagine the response on the Internet. Indeed, one of the campaign’s participants says, “There’s a stigma around the word ‘beautiful,’ feeling confident, and using that word about yourself.”

The Beauty Bell Curve

Human characteristics fall along what scientists and statisticians refer to as a bell curve. This reflects a normal distribution of variation in a given population. For most human characteristics you can think of, most of us are average.

Take height, for example: in the general population there are relatively few people who are either very short or very tall. The vast majority of us fall somewhere in the middle, and most of us are of about average height. The same goes for beauty: Though beauty is somewhat subjective, plenty of research shows that humans have a strong general — and, some would argue, innate — agreement on who is beautiful and who is not.

While many people may not agree with People magazine’s recent declaration that Gwyneth Paltrow is the world’s most beautiful woman, few people would claim that she is truly unattractive or ugly.

Several characteristics have been found to be correlated with unusually attractive men and women, including facial symmetry. The fact that some people are objectively described as more beautiful than others — by both men and women — is not an insult against the less-than-perfect majority, but merely a self-evident fact, the result of a combination of genetics, environment and of course beauty products. (For more on this, see Dr. Nancy Etcoff’s book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty; Etcoff is also a lead author of the Dove report.)

Only in Garrison Keillor’s fictional home of Lake Wobegon are the children all above average. The simple statistical fact is that the vast majority of us are, well, average or within a range of average (one standard deviation from the mean, for you statistics geeks). There are very few of us who are extraordinarily intelligent (or stupid), short (or tall) and beautiful (or ugly).

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It should not come as a surprise that 72 percent of women describe themselves as “average” instead of beautiful. The “beautiful” adjective lies at the extreme tail end of a bell curve, and therefore it’s likely to get a low response, like asking someone if they are ugly or brilliant. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the question was faulty — it’s a valid question to ask — just that the results need to be understood in context.

When most women in the Dove study report being of average attractiveness — and very few of them claim to be beautiful — they are conforming exactly to what statisticians would expect from a normal sample of the population. It reflects the real world, not necessarily women believing they’re unattractive.

In fact if the majority of women in the survey had claimed they were beautiful, that would be a red flag to the researchers that something was seriously wrong with study.

Other findings in the Dove study support that interpretation, including that only 10 percent of women were “very or somewhat” dissatisfied with their beauty, with the vast majority (71 percent) saying they were indeed satisfied with their beauty (p. 19). Only 13 percent of women see themselves as less attractive than other women.

Many women do indeed have body image and self-esteem issues, but the 4 percent statistic being discussed is not an accurate reflection of that. No one is suggesting that Dove or anyone else intended to mislead the public with this statistic, but as Mark Twain (may have) said, there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Image: YouTube screen capture