Space & Innovation

Is Dove Beauty Campaign Based on Bad Data?

A widely reported survey found that 4 percent of women consider themselves beautiful, but what does that really mean? Continue reading →

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

Nefertiti, 1330-1370 BC

April 12, 2012 -

When the face of a movie star appearing "puffy" can spark a media frenzy, the focus on female beauty seems to have reached an all-time high. A recent piece by actress Ashley Judd in the Daily Beast calls out the media for their concentration on women's bodies and looks. After widespread speculation that the actress had plastic surgery she calls the conversation about beauty "nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women...endure every day." Here, we look at what that conversation has looked like through the years -- from Nefertiti to Michelle Obama. This representation of the pharaoh's wife, Nefertiti, is thought to be the most beautiful by both modern and ancient Egyptian standards, says Joann Fletcher, an honorary research fellow at the University of York, who has studied Nefertiti extensively. Nefertiti lived from about 1330-1370 BC. "While its specific facial proportions are almost completely symmetrical, again conforming to this notion of beauty, the sculpted face is further enhanced by the artist's very skilful use of color to suggest the application of a black eye paint and red lip color, creating the idealized form of beauty we see in other representations of ancient Egyptian women," she said. "In other representations of women at this time, the hair can sometimes tend to obscure their facial features, since it frames the face in a curtain-like mass of braids and plaits, the hair being another attribute of beauty associated with Hathor, goddess of beauty, who was also hailed as 'She of the Beautiful Hair' and 'Lady of the Lock'."

Venus and Adonis by Peter Paul Rubens, 1635 Today, "Rubenesque" is a polite way to say "big" or "plus-sized." Peter Paul Rubens painted portraits of full-figured women in the early 1600s, inspired by his second wife, 16-year-old Hélène Fourment.

Gibson Girl, 1897 "In the late 19th century, the emphasis was really on women’s facial features," said Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a historian who wrote "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls." "The bosom was noticed in the 19th century but not with too much cleavage." Women wore corsets, and the Gibson Girls showed off slender waists. Ankles, also, were highly sexualized. Photo: Von Charles Dana Gibson: Aus dem Jahre

Flapper Girls, 1929 Around World War I, with the advent of movies, the body begins to be emphasized as much, or more, than the face. "Fashion has changed so that a slim silhouette in a chemise is ideal, and matronly seems old fashioned. Women are dancing and doing sports, and they are no longer infatuated with the Victorian ideal of being frail and sickly,” Brumberg said.

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Marilyn Monroe, 1955 After WWII, technology started changing the way beauty was perceived: bathrooms with electric lights and mirrors highlighted concerns about acne and formerly overlooked details, Brumberg said. Corsets replace girdles, and bra cups became extremely pointed. Actress Marilyn Monroe was perceived as the epitome of beauty in the 50s. There's been much speculation about her size and weight. Was she really a plus-sized beauty, asks this piece in Jezebel which dug up the actress's actual dress size numbers. Photo: Actress Marilyn Monroe on the set of "The Seven Year Itch," directed by Billy Wilder in 1955.

Betty Page, 1955 In 1955, Betty Page won the title "Miss Pinup Girl of the World." She was known as "The Queen of Curves" and "The Dark Angel."

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Twiggy, 1966 “It wasn’t just feminists who burned bras,” Brumberg said. “Bras and underwear changed. The body becomes something for you to control from the inside, through diet and exercise, instead of exterior control through the corset. Different body parts get attention in different ways.” Model and actress Twiggy personified the swinging 60s mod culture in London. Twiggy was known for her androgynous looks, large eyes and short hair. In 1966, she was named "The Face of 1966" by the Daily Express and voted British Woman of the Year.

Christie Brinkley, 1987 When Allure magazine conducted a poll on beauty in 1990, Christie Brinkley embodied the all-American look, landing her on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition three times. When Allure did a similar survey in 2010, attitudes had changed: 69 percent of respondents no longer believed in a single "all-American" look. Women and men picked a Latina model as most attractive among pictures of different races and ethnicities. Photo: Christie Brinkley Sighting in London - July 12, 1987

Michelle Obama, 2012 "Michelle Obama is very much about health and mobility and activity and strength,” Brumberg said. “People may say she looks hot, but really they’re saying she’s an icon for the women’s health movement.” Obama’s body suggests healthy eating, she notes, whereas today's fashion magazines still portray more emaciated bodies.

Ashley Judd, 2012 Ashley Judd's piece in the Daily Beast asks everyone to try to change the conversation about beauty. "If this conversation about me is going to be had, I will do my part to insist that it is a feminist one, because it has been misogynistic from the start. " "Why was a puffy face cause for such a conversation in the first place? How, and why, did people participate? If not in the conversation about me, in parallel ones about women in your sphere? What is the gloating about? What is the condemnation about? What is the self-righteous alleged 'all knowing' stance of the media about? How does this symbolize constraints on girls and women, and encroach on our right to be simply as we are, at any given moment?”

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