Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dove and the Gift of Fault Finding

The concept is irresistible. An FBI-trained forensic artist, Gil Zamora, has random people come into his studio. Two sketches are done for each person. He doesn’t see them. They don’t see him.

The subject sits behind a curtain, unaware she is being sketched, but after several questions, the light dawns. “Tell me about your chin,” Zamora will ask, or, “What’s your most prominent feature?”

Next, the subject of the sketch is told to become friendly with another participant in the project. That participant then describes the original subject to the sketch artist which results in the second sketch.

The two sketches are hung side by side and the subject is brought in to see two vastly different sketches.

Invariably, the subject becomes emotional. The sketch depicting the subject’s self-description tends to be grim and somewhat malformed. The sketch that results from a new friend’s description shows an attractive, happy face. Confronted with the disparity between the two sketches, the subject is forced to confront two ideas:
  1. She has a low self-opinion and finds fault with her appearance
  2. Others find her a pleasant and attractive companion

This social experiment was brought to you by Dove. The soap company has had a good run with its campaign for improving the self-worth and self-image of women everywhere. You can’t help but like these well-designed clips and the important message they impart. And I do like them, especially when they manage to help me procrastinate about that piece I’m writing for Kars4Kids, when the deadline is nigh.

But something bugged me about this clip. Remember that song, One of These Things is Not Like the Others? From Sesame Street?

As it happens, I’ve always had a knack for that game. I can always see what’s different or out of place. I see it as a gift.

I can glance at a piece of text, or my living room, or at the way a child is dressed, with an eye toward what needs attention, what needs fixing. My eyes find, of their own volition, a single typo in a blog, a milk mustache on a child getting ready for school, or a painting hanging crooked on the wall.

My kids tell me I see things with the back of my head or in my sleep.

And here’s where things go south with my blessing: I have been told I’m too critical—that I always find fault—that I never see the good in things.

But this thing I have, this gift or curse, has always been about wanting to make things better, to improve them.

I was left feeling disturbed by the sadness evident in the self-description sketches in the Dove clip. Especially in comparison with the bright and happy countenances so apparent in the sketches based on the outsiders’ descriptions. I was uncomfortable with the idea that seeing our imperfections is a sign of self-loathing.

Because I do this, too. I look in the mirror and judge.

I do it because I know my face better than anyone else. I do it because I know my perceptions will be keener and more honest than a friend’s. So I will note my pretty eyes, at the same time registering the fact that they are too small and need to be played up with makeup. I will note the signs of aging in my neck and recognize that I photograph best in profile.

And that’s okay. It’s absolutely, perfectly acceptable. It’s NORMAL.  It doesn’t cause me grief. I don’t suffer from depression.

Fault-finding isn’t necessarily evil, bad, or depressing. Which makes me suspicious of the findings of this film. It’s possible to recognize one’s faults and still have a great opinion of one’s self.

Heck. I LIKE myself.

The small size of my eyes doesn’t depress me or make me cry. It’s something about me I observe and store away for future reference. It’s something I keep in mind. It doesn’t RULE me.

And by the way, I’m also BLOWN away by things that are perfectly exquisite. I can get high in the Dutch Masters room at the Chicago Art Institute. I swoon when listening to Rubinstein play Chopin’s Berceuse.

But wanting to make things better?

That's okay, too. In fact, it’s MORE than okay.

It’s a gift.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


  1. I can see your (perfectly shaped) chin thrust defiantly forward as you write this.

    We share that eye for the out-of-place, so I hear you. I also like myself, though I would draw me prettier than G-d did, than too many Israeli pastries and ice creams and beers did.

    But I think you and I agree that we and our daughters grew up in a world too judgmental about physical beauty. The reminder that our friends find us more lovely than we do is very comforting. Even if we think them fooled.

    It's also a reminder about other kinds of debilitating judgments: "You can't carry a tune in a bucket," said to a child in "fun," can forever cripple a potentially lovely voice. "Okay, somebody step up and show how the exercise is really supposed to be done," said by a coach accompanied by peals of laughter, can convince a child that he is not capable athletically. And so on.

    I saw the tears in the commercial as springing from hearing yet again the "mental recordings" that caused the poor self-impressions. Dove reminded me that we are all victims of negative assessments -- and it takes strong character to rise above them, and to not lay them on our own kids.

    1. I like your points, all of them. You persuaded me, to a point. But I don't get why all those self-described portraits looked DEPRESSED and GRIM. Were these subjects cherry-picked for this clip? Something is off with that.

      I can totally see saying to Gil, "I have pretty eyes, but they're small."

      Would he draw me with a sad look on my face? Would he equate an honest assessment with discomfort? Would he read something into my words that isn't there?

    2. Imagery. That is the key. And that is the difference.

      You know yourself completely, therefore, using imagery is a bit redundant on a psychological level.

      People don't know YOU, except for the parts that you show. If you were told to get friendly with someone, both of you would put your best face forward for better impressions.

      And that plays into the portrait itself. I watched the video. And I watched all the spoofs and parodies (Which were hilarious) but I have to disagree a bit.

      The artist did nothing but be a gateway to the participants realizations. They realized that they were truly beautiful -- It told them to stop worrying about appearances.

      Because people view you just fine. :)
      I look at myself in the mirror everyday, and try to put my own best face forward. Because that is what I was taught.

      Fault-finding IS a gift. On some levels. But it is not always called for. . . . . The real gift in fault-finding, is helping people in subtle ways, and not in their face.

      Because in the end, if frank honesty is not requested, then it will be rejected. Then there will only be 3 things that come from it:
      1) The person then views themselves quite badly.
      2) They will reject any help whatsoever.
      3) They will reject YOU.

      Sucks, don't it?
      But friends, in an honest and caring way, will help you without seeming to criticize. Because they see you as a beautiful person who doesn't need to change.
      Fault-finding is a gift. "But with great power comes great responsibility." -Stan Lee, Uncle Ben/Spiderman.
      (Or maybe FDR. . . . .)

    3. Oh gosh. Now I'll have to go and look up all those parodies and spoofs. Those have got to be hilarious!

      I think that what both of us are missing is bias. The bias of the forensic artist and the bias of those who describe to him a new acquaintance. People aren't going to want to say, "She could stand to lose a few pounds," because that will make them look like they are, um, FAULT FINDING.

      So they say nice things. Platitudes.

      There is also the bias of the forensic artist who hears what may be just an honest description and turns it into a gloomy, ugly sketch.

      As a teenager, I had a best friend. The thing I liked most about our friendship is that she COULD say, "Those jeans make your backside look fat," and I would nod and put them back on the shelf.

      She kept me from looking foolish by being honest.

      Yes, it was only her opinion. But it was honest and I appreciated her courage and returned it in kind. It was a rare commodity, that type of honesty in a friend.

  2. More good points. A true girlfriend never lets a girlfriend leave the restaurant with broccoli stuck in her teeth.

    In fairness, after we study all the good that can come of such commercials, I agree with you. Think of the weight-loss ads we see everywhere: the "before" photo clearly has the fellow sticking out his belly as far as possible, while the "after" photo shows him using every core muscle he possesses. Same with anti-aging creams: the 60-something lady is frowning... but she is smiling when the cream magically makes her look 45. I suspect some of that was at work here, too. But I still like the good thoughts the commercial gives me. We all suspend our disbelief a bit, don't we? We play along with the advertiser.

    1. Yes, absolutely. We believe what we see when it's wrapped up in a slick package. We have to be careful to be critical (there I go, fault-finding again), because we may end up nodding our heads like sheeple, when what we see on our screens is not the whole truth.

      What happened here was that I LIKED the clip. But there was a nagging voice. I traced it back to those sad self-description sketches. Something there wasn't quite right,

      There is truth in the clip, but maybe not the whole truth.