Faking It

Her body language says “Power”

“Beauty” has a reputation of being misleading. So much historical and imaginative treatment of beauty relates the fear beauty’s power has over its subjects. And it’s not that different now – there are a plethora of ads and web videos peeling away all the layers of photo retouching to get to the reality of the model’s face and body – to not be swayed, intimidated, or shamed by the impossible perfection of the finished “product.”

We love beauty but are afraid of being fooled by its power. And no wonder: none of us, especially in a society that values independent, strong-willed achievers, wants to seem stupid enough to fall for what should be obvious ruses: overuse of makeup, photo retouching, instant weight-loss schemes.

But we do: whatever our individual insecurities are, there is some company creating a new miracle product to fix it. We can be insecure about our weight, our limp hair, our aging skin, or our sex drives. And most of us, in some way, will try “something” to improve ourselves, even if its just drinking a green smoothie.

The RB-X Beauty Patch

Into this arena comes Dove, and their “Beauty Patch” experiment. Casting non-actresses for an “undisclosed documentary”, Dove recruited a psychologist specializing in women’s self-esteem give them Dove’s new RB-X Beauty Patch, which they were told would give them more confidence in their looks over time as they wore it.

The women wore the patches and recorded video diaries about how they felt. Not that much really happened – one woman related that she can show her arms in public now, and another noted that people are telling her she looks pretty. All of this is attributed to the patch, which is revealed to contain a very special ingredient (watch or scroll down…):

The patch contained nothing at all. And the women were revealed to be embarrassed by their involvement in the scam. After all, shouldn’t they have known better? Dove wraps the whole thing up by stating that Dove thinks we’re really beautiful, no matter what we think in our measly brains. Now go buy some products….

If you look at the comments below the YouTube video, there’s a telling assortment of projective comments:

Women have no logic.
Clearly there is a problem with women and self-esteem.
Americans will buy anything.
You people don’t need soap, you need therapy.
Everyone’s an idiot in their own way

And a very few comments mention the placebo effect.

The Placebo Effect: When Fakes Work

Ok, so the video is an (offensive) advertising gimmick, but its real failure is that it doesn’t mention a very genuine phenomenon: when a doctor tells a patient that an inert treatment will help their illness, the patient will often get better. And the effect isn’t limited to sugar pills: studies on the placebo effect done by Harvard University reveal that the style of treatment also has an effect on a patient’s wellness. The more attention the patients received, the more nurturing that attention was, and the more “information” they received about the “treatment”, the better the patients felt after the treatments. So should we judge the women in the video if they feel more confident about their looks? After all, a “distinguished psychologist from Columbia University” counseled them and told them they would…

The specifics of the placebo effect are still being studied, but the phenomenon has a measurable effect in about 30% of test cases. Which is a lot. If approximately one third of people feel medically better because they’ve been told they will, what effect does buying a beauty product have?

Fake It Till You Make It

There’s another world of faking it – deliberately trying to appear as other than how we really look or feel. This is the realm of cosmetic beauty that receives the most scorn: the Wonderbras giving us extra lift, the facelifts making us (maybe) look younger, the bump-its in our hair. Women in the middle ages were even threatened with witchcraft accusations if they embellished themselves with too much paint or padding (and their new husbands felt cheated).

I will protest here that cosmetic “faking it” isn’t all bad: in high school, I devised my own “cure” for the common cold: I’d spend a little extra time doing my makeup. It didn’t do anything for whatever bug was running rampant in my body, but when I looked in the mirror, I’d think, “You don’t LOOK too bad, how sick could you be?” And I’d recover quickly. Lots of people made fun of me, but hey, I was a nascent makeup artist, so my belief in the power of paint was strong. And maybe the few extra minutes I spent – plus my belief in its efficacy – created physiological changes that allowed me to get better faster. What woman hasn’t dabbed an extra bright shade of lipstick or swished on another coat of mascara when knowing she’d face a tough day? Maybe it’s a postmodern version of “girding our loins”….

And there is another kind of faking it: body language. I may be the twenty-millionth person to watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on body language, but what she reveals is still amazing: by spending a few minutes in a “power pose” (the “Wonder Woman” is the most memorable), test subjects’ power hormones (testosterone) rose, and their stress hormones (cortisol) fell. They were also overwhelmingly favored by third party observers of their body language in a later job interview. That’s it – by simply expanding our physical presence for a few minutes, we can actually change our emotional and mental state, and that change communicates itself to others. And the opposite is true as well: when we minimize our physical presences – cross our legs, fold our hands in our lap, hunch over, we communicate a submissive body language to others – and to ourselves:

It’s interesting how the power poses – and physically expansive body language in general – are more part of what we consider “male” behavior than “female”. How many women are told to cross their legs and fold their hands in their lap? Yet what we consider demure femininity in body language might be very much at odds with what we want – and are expected – to achieve in real life.

What do we do with all this information? Walk around posing like Wonder Woman all the time? Go slap a “Hope” label on every jar in our bathrooms? Maybe not judging ourselves for seemingly nonsensical things like wearing padded bras is a start (and yes, Dove, we know that it won’t really make our breasts grow bigger – you don’t need to make a video about that). In the end, everybody has to fake something, even if it’s pretending to be nice to an least favorite coworker or boss. At least there are ways of faking it that are fun, and maybe even helpful.

What’s your favorite way of faking it?

Photo from PinupPassion.com.

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