In Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s 2011 Sundance Film Festival entry “MissRepresentation,” many of the high-profile interviewees suggested that the portrayal of women in the media—provocative magazine covers, violent video games, demeaning advertising—was not helping their image in society, or more specifically in positions of power in circles of leadership and influence. A sampling of the film’s more telling statistics on women’s self-esteem includes:

  • about 25 percent of girls will experience teen dating violence
  • among youth 18 and younger, liposuctions nearly quadrupled between 1997and 2007
  • breast augmentations increased nearly six-fold in the same 10-year period
  • 65 percent of American women and girls report disordered eating behaviors

Inspired by statistics showing that only four percent of women around the world believe they are beautiful, Unilever, the manufacturer of the Dove line of personal care products, this month turned that lens inward. It aired two new installments of its “Real Beauty” campaign on YouTube and they went viral. The spots feature a police sketch artist who draws portraits of women sitting beside him, and who can’t see him, based upon their descriptions of themselves. Then he draws them based on the descriptions of strangers who have observed them only briefly.

Side by side, the portraits make a dramatic contrast. Those drawn according to self-description are dour and even dark while those drawn based upon the details provided by strangers are softer and brighter. When they are invited to view the sketches the women seem both shocked and saddened. The exercise prompts the question of whether women themselves are equal parties in downgrading their appearance—and in lowering their self-esteem.

But as New York Times columnist David Brooks asked in his column, how much does a negative self-image measurably affect confidence and performance in the workplace? And does being self-critical perhaps amount to a secret asset that leads to better decision-making? Does an awareness of one’s shortcomings result in caution and admirable behavior?

While the ads have caught flak for failing to choose an ethnically or racially diverse group of women and for focusing too much on physical appearance as the sole measure of one’s character, for women—and men—the questions are worth thinking about.

For entertainment, check out the parody of the campaign by new Feelings Time Comedy, that asked the question of men, who tend to see themselves in a flattering light. As portrayed in the spoof, the results were quite different.