Sunday, April 21, 2013

Viral "Dove Real Beauty Sketches" Ad a Manipulative Disservice

"Jenise" in self- & stranger-described drawings from Dove ad
The "Dove Real Beauty Sketches" ad that's gone viral on YouTube is one of those sappy, group-hug efforts that supposedly aims to bolster women's self esteem--perhaps too much.

A forensic sketch artist sits behind a curtain and draws the faces of women from descriptions he hears on the other side. His first rendering comes from the subject's description of herself, and the second from the observations of someone who talked with her for a few minutes. The emotional moment when the subject compares the two sketches to realize she described herself as less-attractive than the new "friend" did is supposed to teach her to value herself more.

With 13 million views and counting, plus news articles and Facebook re-posts, Dove has a publicity hit, so I applaud its advertising success--but I have big problems with its message.

Set aside its manipulative emotionalism, too-close camerawork, weird massage-room background muzak and tedious length, and look at its goal, to elevate women's self-esteem by showing them they're more beautiful than they believe. Sounds good--but what if that goal were achieved? What if the subjects bragged like the men in this excellent parody by New Feelings Time? Stuff like:

"Everyone says my eyes sparkle and light up a room."

"I'm so lucky my nose is cute, the kind people pay big bucks to plastic surgeons for."

"My teeth are straight from orthodontia and really white because I bleach them."

"Men tell me my lips are really kissable."

What kind of woman would that be? Even if she were accurate, we'd think her a narcissist. Humility and modesty are a good thing, and portraying oneself as less attractive than you are to a stranger would be the healthy response to the situation.

Same guy, self- & stranger-described, from parody on male real beauty

Of course, the male parody's guys are more boastful than 95% of men would be. Men, like their female counterparts, would likely downplay their good features. And a large swath of men don't evaluate their faces much at all, other than what they need to know to avoid slicing off their noses when they shave.

An article about the campaign in the New York Times says the Unilever-owned Dove based the concept on its research showing only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful. They say they want to "create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety." Sounds laudable, but how about a world where values and achievements are a source of confidence, and beauty isn't the first and foremost means by which women are judged?

What about the useful maxim, "beauty is only skin-deep?" Kindness, now that's something to promote as a source of well-being.

The problem is that everybody's getting older, and sooner or later, everyone gets ugly. That is, if you judge the person on her externals. Admittedly, I'm as vain and caught up in our society's responses to physicality as most women are. But creams and even Dove soap are less able to freshen my appearance as the years mount. Will I be "more beautiful than I think" at age 80, as the tag line of the ad suggests? Women judged beautiful at 80 are no longer held to the standard of smooth skin, lithe muscles or model-esque features.  The wise ones step back and see their lives in the context of those they touched and their accomplishments. Most of us step back and still feel inside like we're the same children we always were, insecure and striving to please.

But our looks are just part of a much larger picture of self-esteem. Ask all the actresses and models, whose desperation to compete in a hopelessly perfect realm drives them to plastic surgery, eating disorders and psychological frenzy. "Who is wealthy?" asks a famous Jewish traditional source. The query might as well be, "who is a beautiful woman?" because the same answer applies to both questions: "She who rejoices in her portion." In other words, the woman counting her blessings, grateful that she's alive--or, after the heartbreaking events in Boston--grateful that she has two legs upon which to walk has the wealth of a beautiful world, whether or not her face meets some societal standard.

I wonder how the sketches would have turned out had the women been told what was happening. "We're going to draw a sketch based on your description of yourself, which you'll compare with one based on a new acquaintance's description." The women were sketched by a police artist, after all, someone whose work is usually a composite of witnesses' recollections with the caption, "wanted for bank robbery."
"Maria" drawn from self and stranger descriptions in the Dove ad

Are women often too hard on themselves? Do they frequently fret needlessly over details of their looks? Of course. Do they need to hear that their outward appearances are perceived by somebody they barely know as better than they verbalize? Don't think so.

Now isn't the time to foster narcissism. We've got Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and a whole app store of means to shout out how important we are. The Dove campaign platform is, after all, a website called YOU Tube. You. Or, just as often, "I." Are the iPhone, iPad, iTunes named for generosity and thinking of others? Um, no.

How about a campaign showing some selfless women? Women who care for an aging relative, or a spouse with dementia? Women who work ceaselessly at their kids' schools, or mentor a younger colleague professionally? How about some exemplary women who are obese, truly unconventional-looking, or have scarred skin? Why not apply the same tag line: "You're more beautiful than you think"--because then we could define beauty beyond skincare. Oh yeah, but it wouldn't sell nearly as much soap.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How to scare off a ducky duo??

These are not our ducks, but they could be.
The news of the Boston Marathon terrorism is engrossing and horrifying. Still, it's springtime, and events marking the season continue as a backdrop. For us, a frustrating minor distraction quacks.

When we bought our home in the Northwest 16 years ago, we had but a single day to make a choice, due to my husband's immediate new employment. We flew up from LA and our efficient realtor showed us homes in the order they met our criteria. We ended up purchasing the first one we saw. The only drawback: it happened to have a swimming pool.

We're not swimmers, and there's absolutely no need in the Northwest to have a pool, given that there's just three months--at best--of decent weather. Our hole in the ground has caused one in our wallet. I think the expense of each dip comes to something like $500.

We really should have filled in the pool years ago, but aside from the enormous expense, we had the erroneous fantasy that when our kids became teens, the pool would be a friend-magnet. The three times each one brought guests wasn't worth the ongoing need for maintenance and repairs that our pool-dominated yard required.

One pair of lovebirds, however, has greatly enjoyed our swimming pool, despite our crying fowl: mallard ducks that arrive every March or April to make themselves at home in and next to our pool, pooping and molting where they please for two or three months.

Our usual line of defense is to scare them off when we see them, which is whenever we look outside. We throw fir cones shed by our trees, though it takes really accurate pitches to convince them to flap away. They circle around in the air, before our eyes, and wait for us to go back inside, at which time they return to languishing in or near our pool.

We talk a lot about Duck a la Orange and making soup, though we obviously couldn't kill them in a way that's kosher. Our handyman, however, has brought out his bow and arrow and slingshot. The pair are unimpressed.

There's something almost human about the couple. They're clearly married, after all. I've never seen any ducklings, but if they have a nest, it's likely closer to the lake; we're their vacation home. They like to sleep by the concrete pool edge in the afternoons, just a couple feet from each other. I hadn't known that when ducks snooze, they kind of wad themselves up, tucking their heads and wings into a neat little one-legged ball.

One time my thrown fir cone scared them; the male flew above our deck railing but the female didn't quite make it and slammed into the wood. I felt badly; though part of me wanted to kill her, I didn't want to see her hurt. After all, she was in a romance, and I wouldn't want my hurling cone to create a mourning widower.

We usually try to put a plastic floating "solar cover" on the unheated pool, to make it less alluring, as soon as the ducks return. But last year's cover disintegrated; we better buy a new one, fast.

In the meantime, my son is developing his pitching arm, I run outside flailing and screaming at the haughty birds several times a day, and our pool is becoming less appealing for human use. If anyone has a nicely natural, non-toxic way to deter our part-time residents, please let me know.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Bread Flour for Profit, and the President's "War on Independence"

Just made my weekly challah bread for Shabbat (recipe in the previous post), and happened to see something on the King Arthur bread flour bag that excited me: "The business is based on three pillars: people, planet and profit. We do what's right for our customers, for ourselves, and for our environment..."

If I didn't have their product all over my hands, I would've run right to my computer to post my kudos that they openly state their pursuit of profit, and list "ourselves," the employee-owners, among the three "pillars" of the company.

I'm tired of the drippy altruism of most big enterprises who present themselves as solely concerned with helping their communities, the third-world workers who fabricate or grow their products, and the environment--and exclude profit as a central goal. I don't disparage the real benefits from businesses eager to be good citizens of the world, but a primary motivator of their contributions is positive public opinion that translates into more customers.

Hooray for King Arthur flour, not just because it makes my weekly challah fluffier than other brands (it does), not just because they run their company fairly, contribute to their communities and are environmentally sensitive, but because they're honest that financial success is something they seek, and their own welfare is worthy of pursuing.

With that in mind, I also applaud a very important editorial in today's Wall Street Journal, "Now He's After Your 401(k)." It's a cleverly-written expose of the real reasons Pres. Obama wants to cap the amount of money workers can save for their retirements without first being taxed for it. Here's the crux: "The Administration's political motive here is two-fold: First, it's a redistributionist play and a revenue grab. But for many on the left it's also about reducing the ability of individuals to make themselves independent of the state."

In other words, it's part of what I term "The War on Independence."  The goal of that war: Undermining personal choice and power in favor of channelling people collectively "in socially responsible ways" (by the government) to minimize human effect on the planet and "for the good of society."

Redistribution of wealth is central: Joe the Plumber made Obama slip that "when you spread the wealth around it's good for everybody." Our president has determined that about $250,000 per year is all anyone should have to live on, before exorbitant taxes kick in. He seems to think $3 million in savings should do for the years from retirement until death; anything else you sacrifice to save should have your tax bracket's percentage taken off first. Government knows best what it's "fair" to live on; individuals who worked hard and chose to prudently put aside money for retirement could have "substantially more than is needed to fund reasonable levels of retirement saving," warns the POTUS.

Similarly, policies crucial to The War on Independence seek to herd people onto mass transit, especially light rail that forces them onto fixed routes, and out of their personally-empowering automobiles.  They want to curb Second Amendment guarantees to self-protection, and make the public reliant on governmentally-funded police and military. They believe obesity can't be addressed individually (despite research that overweight and Grade I obese people live longest, as well as that obesity is often something one can't influence) and want laws that limit the size of soft drinks, or put calorie counts of restaurant food on all menus. Generals in The War on Independence prefer children eating their meals in schools, and recruit their parents to take food stamps. Even sustenance becomes less personal and more dependent on government.

Read the Wall Street Journal editorial and weep: you're losing control of your freedom. That's why we need to support businesses like King Arthur Flour who say outright that they support free enterprise and that profit is to be pursued. And we need to fight policies that thwart frugality, creativity and industriousness "for the good of society" by curtailing our personal independence in favor of government.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Challah Bread, Tiny Houses, and Appreciating "Stuff"

Jews like me just completed the annual holiday of Passover, when we avoid anything leavened, like--especially--bread. One explanation is that at the commemoration of the creation of Jewish people-hood, we shouldn't get "puffed up," like risen dough, with our own sense of self-importance. We shouldn't be arrogant because God decided we were His people, or because individually, it's too easy, with Facebook posts and Instagram and Twitter, to think the world revolves around us. Not us: Me.

So with that recent reminder, it seems we ought to laud the folk who are smiling from the front pages of our newspapers and magazines because they've divested all their personal effects and decided to live in a 250-square-foot box. Downsizing to the ridiculous is now a fad, the "Tiny House Movement," perfect for anyone on the no-carbon-footprint bandwagon. Still, I respect those with small aspirations. In an engrossing documentary by Kirsten Dirksen on tiny homes, Stephen Marshall, who builds wee buildings in California, (quoting Michael Janzen, from the Tiny House Design blog) repeats the trendsetters' slogan: "Tiny houses are not a fad; it's McMansions that are the fad."

Not that people choosing small spaces are selfless. But generally, they are passionate that a life with minimal material goods is not just good; it's better for the planet and the soul.

I beg to differ. While certainly there's plenty of waste, plenty of hoarding and plenty of consumerism that unfortunately trumps kindness and spirituality, it doesn't have to be that way.  A Jewish approach holds that wealth is a positive, worth pursuing, as long as it's attached to the proper attitude. More money means you can help more people. Beautiful things are a blessing if they're appreciated and cherished.

How do I come upon this topic? I'm often heard saying, "I have more of (fill in the blank) than any human should be allowed to have." I have a collection of lovely paper napkins, each pack with a print that thrills me. They're too good to use, my "save it for the best occasion" self says, and then my smarter self takes over: "But what could be a better occasion? Who better than my friends and family to save it for? How many packs of heart-thrilling printed paper do I really need? There are more exciting napkin designs to be had!"

So I use them, and enjoy them, and frequently re-organize them. A simple pack of paper napkins (always bought at bargain price at Tuesday Morning or Ikea) enriches my day. Do I need 20 packs of paper napkins? No. But just having them reminds me how privileged I am to be able to collect them.

Same with napkin rings. I host Sabbath meals--fancy, formal, religious occasions--for 12 every week. And over 28 years of marriage, I've amassed a large collection of tableware. Table cloths. Cloth napkins. Vases. Drinking glasses. Table runners. If I can use it on a Shabbat table, I have "more than any human should be allowed to have." Occasionally I cull my possessions. Often, I enjoy and admire what I have (since every week, I'm designing another completely new tablescape).

I also have a drawer-ful of socks. More socks than I could wear every day for three months.
These are not my socks, but could be.
In fact, choosing my socks today spurred writing this post. I'm wearing a lavender top (a hand-me-up from a daughter) and could choose from many patterned socks. I recalled when I was in college and scraping by on my part-time minimum-wage earnings that I owned just two pairs of jeans, four tops, and four pair of socks. I owned two very cheap necklaces. It never occurred to me to spend time shopping, or that I needed more.

Now I have dozens of necklaces, selected at craft fairs because I enjoyed them, or gifts from people I love. Am I living an inferior life? No, I'm simply surrounded by more beauty, memories and joy. If I had to live in one of those eensie shoe-boxes, I could, but I'd feel loss when I gave up the necklace my son made in kindergarten or the one my friend bought, the same for each of us.

But as I get older and keep pushing aside the idea that there are only so many days left to use up all those napkins, wear all those pairs of socks or colorful necklaces, I view them all with increased appreciation and urgency. Yes, it's good to purge and even downsize, but it's also good to see something beautiful or useful and enjoy it. I don't have to own everything I appreciate; I certainly don't buy all the clever and gorgeous items I see or even want. But I don't think that people in spacious homes with lots of stuff are necessarily any less responsible than the tiny housers, and I don't think that embracing the bounty of our material world is inferior to eschewing it.

And now, post-Passover, it's once again the eve of Shabbat, the busiest day of the week for me, as I prepare to welcome my brother-in-law from Israel along with two tables-ful of guests, and must immediately make my challah bread dough, so it has enough time to rise.

                                                  Diane Medved's Challah

2 1/2 teaspoons yeast
2 cups warm water
8 1/2 cups King Arthur bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs
2/3 to 3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 beaten egg for glaze

Sprinkle yeast on warm water in measuring cup; set aside for about 10 minutes. In large food processor with dough blade, combine flour, salt and sugar. Add oil and eggs but don't mix. Return to yeast/water and gently make sure all yeast is combined in water and starting to bubble. Flash blend while slowly adding yeast mixture, then process until dough moves as one lump around processor bowl. Remove the clump to a trash bag-sized plastic bag; knead a little and then seal the bag with a twist-tie. Place in a warm place several hours until risen. Line 2 large baking sheets with foil and spray with nonstick spray. Punch down and divide dough into four large pieces. Divide one of the large pieces into three strands and braid onto the baking sheet; repeat so there are two long loaves per baking sheet. Set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush beaten egg on loaves and bake for 16 minutes, til golden. Say a blessing, and enjoy.