Fat is an advertising issue

When O&M called Susie Orbach to ask her advice on Dove's campaign for real beauty, she jumped at the chance to turn advertising's often destructive relationship with women's body image on its head.

More than one million hits on the "campaign for real beauty" website; pictures of women on billboards all over the UK that make you smile inside; a programme to deconstruct beauty ads going into secondary schools; a fund to raise girls' and women's self-esteem; mother-and-daughter workshops on self-image; a mission to change negative feelings women can have towards their bodies ... and all this from a soap-cum-beauty company?

In January two years ago, Mel White of Ogilvy & Mather rang me. "I'd like to book an hour of your time. Some of us working on the Dove brand have been worrying that beauty advertising has been damaging to women. We want to make sure we understand how, and what we might to do to change it."

White was the global brand and category partner at O&M. She was part of a team spearheading an attempt to make a positive contribution to women's lives. "We all - at Dove and the agency - are women of a certain seniority," she said. "We think we can make a difference, a positive impact on women's lives. Dove has never sold products on the basis of stoking up insecurity. But maybe we can go further. Can you help?"

Could I help? To hear that creative teams were now interested in investing their energy in strengthening women was extraordinary. Years of banging on the doors of clothing manufacturers, government, the food industry and advertising, to persuade them that by making fashion funkier and food more interesting they would increase sales, made this a dream meeting. I never thought the beauty industry would come asking. I was delighted. I was intrigued.

Could White be serious? Was this a bit of ethical window-dressing or a sincere endeavour? Could they change the grammar of beauty in an industry that had been so instrumental in promoting exclusivity? Was Dove really up for a genuinely radical transformation of the representation of women?

Would the creatives actually hear the dissatisfaction emanating from girls and women about the absolutely torturous standards of beauty they had either wittingly or unwittingly foisted on them? Could the art directors come up with some way to meet that dissatisfaction and make difference sexy, something the fashionistas could resonate with?

The first step was to persuade Unilever. Such a retool was going to take a lot of money and steady commitment. If the executives there could understand the difficulties their wives, mothers, lovers, sisters and daughters had with their own physical appearance, then maybe we had a chance. The change that the Dove team were advocating would require consciousness-raising throughout the agency and the business. The 400 or so people working on Dove would have to be behind it. This was not just a whoopee new campaign like any other.

On the advertising side, O&M assembled creative teams that knew the Dove brand and had done some of their best work on it. They also brought on board teams who did not know Dove, but who had previously done outstanding work on other accounts across the world.

The film O&M made for one of their first internal pitches featured the daughters of executives talking about their own bodies and the cute noses, freckles, hair and tummies they wanted to do away with or change. The poignancy of these little (and big) girls showing their dissatisfactions and their wish to be free of some of the most quintessentially adorable aspects of themselves was completely compelling. It's not possible to watch that three-minute DVD without reaching for a tissue. It was a testimony to the hurt and damage we were unintentionally doing to our daughters.

The film hinted at the longing these lovely girls had to be acceptable, to be pretty, to feel good about themselves.

That DVD and others made for internal Unilever and O&M purposes provided the opening through which I, as a psychotherapist, academic and political activist in the area of women's psychology, body image and eating problems, could now deliver the relevant clinical evidence. My writing, public speaking and research experience with thousands of women could provide the backbone to the Dove initiative, an initiative that had the potential to turn around the grief and distress that lurked inside so many girls' and women's physical experience of themselves.

I told Dove that the Harvard psychiatrist and anthropologist Anne Becker had found that three years after the introduction of TV into Fiji in 1995, 11.9 per cent of adolescent girls were puking into the toilet bowl trying to change their Fijian build into one that resembled the Western images they were imbibing via their TV sets.

I told Unilever that just half-an-hour looking at a magazine could lower youngsters' self-esteem significantly. I told them that one in four college females has a serious eating problem and that most women wake up and feel their tummies to check how good or bad they've been the day before. Before they've even brushed their teeth, their critical selves are planning how punishing to be today.

I told them that without intending to, mums were passing on negative attitudes about their own bodies towards their infant girls, and that their daughters were now absorbing a shaky body sense that made them vulnerable to the blandishments of the market that purported to meet this distress while actually reinforcing it.

The women working on Dove knew how women's magazines had discreet cosmetic surgery ads in the back long before TV shows such as The Swan and Extreme Makeover came along. However expectant you felt before reading Vogue, Glamour, Cosmo or Marie Claire, you felt coshed by a mood depressant after it. And all the Dove women knew they weren't just victims of the image industries. In a sense, all of us women are complicit in these unrealistic representations of femaleness. In order not to feel entirely powerless inside a visually dominating landscape that represents beauty so narrowly, we play out our own beauty scripts inside it: not questioning it, but trying to meet it.

The psychoanalyst in me could try to explain how women's relationship to the beauty industry perfectly encapsulates the psychological essence of the abused. The victim, shunning that awful feeling of being exploited and to gain some self-respect, rejects the idea she is being used. Instead, she makes the job of appearing beautiful her own personal project. She is not being compelled to bind her feet, she does it willingly. It's the only way to be. She will involve herself in trying to look younger, skinnier, taller, bigger-breasted, smaller-breasted and making sure every surface is coiffed, painted, plucked, waxed, perfumed, moisturised, conditioned or dyed. Taking the job on for herself is her response to being targeted.

It is her refusal to, as it were, be done to.

That this can't bring women satisfaction works in the interest of the beauty industry. Having set up this relationship of insecurity, there is always another area to work on - and even if all enemies were banished, ageing would be waiting just around the corner.

Dove's mission was to reformulate this warped and damaging engagement with beauty and offer in its place something based not on impossibility, but on possibility. Daring and innovative, so far. But could they take the campaign through their company and into the public domain?

In May 1999, work coming out of the Women's Unit at the Cabinet Office showed eating problems and concern about the body was the number one issue for girls and women aged between 11 and 80. The UK Government held a Body Image Summit, under the leadership of Tessa Jowell and Margaret Jay. Research showed that the promotion of images of ever-skinnier, wan-looking but apparently need-free women who shoved attitude into the camera lens was creating serious (health and mental health) problems in the lives of girls and women.

The Body Image Summit included influential magazine editors, fashion designers and buyers who could have changed our narrow visual culture.

But the Summit programme collapsed at the first whiff of contempt in the media. The Government showed itself to be entirely pusillanimous, back-pedalling and equivocating at its own subsequent press conferences.

After my experience as a consultant to and keynote speaker at the Summit, I was now interested to see what the commercial sector could do. I didn't expect the same kind of inertia and collapse from business when the first criticism came along. But I also hadn't quite understood how considerable are the resources the business community can call on when it is serious.

I'd known that a significant part of a product's cost was spent on marketing and advertising, but I hadn't appreciated how much time, labour and money could go into the development of a brand. As my work with Dove developed, I began to feel increasingly hopeful about how we might begin to challenge the negative aspects of what I'd come to call the visual musak - the ersatz femininity - around us and to include diverse, vibrant, pleasing and sexy images of women of all sizes, ages and physical types.

One of my key objectives was to get across the idea that recent times have seen a widening, a democratising, of the idea that everyone could be beautiful. Triggered by Twiggy and then fully realised by the Kate Moss generation (as much because of their class backgrounds as their skinniness), beauty had moved from being the interest of the few to the aspiration of all girls and women. This was pretty positive stuff in itself. But the terms and the expansion of beauty faltered on a paradox. The industry was simultaneously promoting an anti-democratic ideal of beauty that was narrow (literally) and excluding. Everyone had to be thin, thinner, thinnest.

If Dove was going to turn around the limited, destructive aspects of the beauty and dieting industries, then it was going to have to produce bold, startling, appealing images of women in all their sumptuous variety that would swagger in and dent the visual field. Dove would have to find a way to meet women where they had trained their eyes to be - on those images of skinny, untouchable and yet needy sexy women - and touch them deeply and humorously enough bring them to where I knew from my clinical practice they wanted to be: appreciated for their magnificent differences, their uniqueness, not their sameness.

Women have had enough of not finding themselves in the ads they look at. If Dove could get it right, other companies would be playing catch-up. And, of course, they did. Within months of the launch of the "campaign for real beauty", Revlon hired Susan Sarandon as one of its faces. It was a vindication that not only had Dove and Ogilvy caught the zeitgeist, but others would follow and the aims of the campaign would be met not just by women flocking to their brand, but also by their competitors.

What impressed the most and continues to impress me is the commitment of the leadership team at Dove - Silvia Lagnado, Alessandro Manfredi, Erin Iles and Daryl Fielding and, of course, White. They're making the campaign work. Everyone doing Dove business now asks the questions I was brought in to help them confront in order to make the campaign effective. How does this marketing help women's and girls' self esteem? In what ways could it harm them? How does this product affect me? How do I want it to affect my daughter, my niece, my sister, my wife? How can I make a positive impact and turn the scourge of body hatred around? How can I be a global player in the beauty industry spreading good feelings about women's bodies rather than promoting insecurity?

How can I give girls and women a chance to enter into a new, contented relationship with their bodies?

These are deep, painful and complex issues. That's why they called in the shrink. But, as their performance so far shows, it is a really good start.

- Susie Orbach has written many books on women's psychology, including Fat is a Feminist Issue. She has been a consultant to the World Bank and the NHS. She is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, and convenor of www.any-body.org.

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