To be honest, I think the Dove ads are a bit of a breath of fresh air; even though they're selling something like everyone else, at least they're using people to sell it who aren't at one very extreme end of the spectrum. But it's still problematic. By using the term "Real Beauty", they're still suggesting that there is a particular type of body that is beautiful and one that is not. They're still postulating a divide between objectively beautiful and objectively non-beautiful, and the fact that their presented concept of "real" beauty covers a different bit of the spectrum than other advertisers do, and probably includes somewhat more women, does not make it any less troublesome. The suggestion, as it always is in advertising that uses female beauty as a lure, is that if you resemble these people, you're beautiful; if you don't, you're not. And hell, Dove's actually come out and said it.
Not to mention the fact that they've put up ads which have a checkbox so that passersby can vote on whether the model is beautiful, and included things like freckles, which are indelible. Way to place women into a subaltern subject-position, presenting them openly for public judgment...
okay, maybe I have more problems with that campaign than I thought I did.
Notice, also, that "beauty" almost always correlates to "body size" in these arguments. Not health, not facial structure or good hair, not even body shape. For women, at least, the amount of space one takes up in the world determines one's level of beauty: the less, the better. It's an interesting, insidious form of anti-feminism, in a way. Women are still pushed by male fashion designers and male-owned media - and even some other women - to take up as little space as possible, literally rather than metaphorically. And the sway that beauty holds in our society means that too often, to many, the words coming out of a woman's mouth are not as important as the size of her body.
I wonder if part of the reason I've decided to become an academic is that it seems like the only place where beauty or lack thereof is, if not of no consequence, of less consequence than one's intellectual production.