Real Soap, “Real” Beauty, “Real” Feminism?

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Dove soap’s Campaign for Real Beauty is very interesting to me. I’ve seen the billboards and I appreciate their attempt to legitimize beauty beyond what we’re brainwashed with in Maxim, Playboy, Baywatch and the like.

But I’m not so sure about Dove. I’m not so sure that even if their soap products, etc. are stupendous that I respect them co-opting a legitimate debate for corporate ends. True, they may be spurring some to expand their sense of beauty, but underlying Maxim, Playboy, Baywatch and Dove is the consumerist necessity of defining for us what we want so we can buy it from one company, as opposed to the other.

So cynically–or perhaps realistically–Dove is merely engaging us in clever market segmentation: they are the soap for people who don’t wish to recognize any legitimacy in stereotyped constructions of beauty. How post-modern of them.

Then there’s the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, that helps “girls all over the world to overcome everyday beauty pressures.” Right. Again, Dove may be god’s gift to women’s dermatological health, but do we really want Dove being in charge of this dialogue? They sure want to be in charge of it. Great viral PR [we’re encouraged to invite friends to the website]. In fact, instead of them actually having to advertise to you about how great they are in funding socially-conscious projects, we end up seeking that information from them. It’ll stick to us better that way because we want to know about them. The cosmetics and health products industries are prime culprits in destroying women’s self-esteem. How ironic–or socially healing?–of Dove to try to rectify this. Either way, they will probably sell more soap.

Happily for Dove, 2 of the 5 items listed as success stories for the Self-Esteem Fund are photo exhibitions they created themselves.

It may be terrible to rub this in, but Dove is even doing market research on us as we navigate their site. In providing information about their motives [thoroughly altruistic sounding, of course–remember, they’re on our side!], they ration the information so that we need to click to further screens for elaboration. They end up with a good sense of just how much each of us is interested in various depths of information. This information about us can be combined with a log of all pages we visit on their site [including the time we spend between clicking through pages] to give them a pretty wonderful sense of how much we care to know. Heck, even I track my access logs to examine reading/clicking habits on my site [anonymously, though, because I collect nothing about yall but IP numbers]; I’ve got to believe Dove does it too. Worse still, if we actually log in and supply demographic data when we create our profile on the site [assuming a certain percentage of those signing up are not lying], they get an even broader sense of us, despite their claim that they only collect navigation data anonymously and in the aggregate. And what is our benefit from all this? Better soap? Better self-esteem through Dove products?

Even more cynically, perhaps, how many of the people taking part in the definition of beauty discussions on that site are Dove lackeys spinning conversation in defined PR areas? If I were running this campaign, I wouldn’t leave the discussion board completely at the mercy of regular normal people without having my branding agents subtly making it all worthwhile.

So then I dug through my hard drive to find the August 1992 update of the soc.feminism faq that defines various flavours of feminism to see which ones would support Dove’s campaign and which ones would condemn it. The updated faq of Different Flavours of Feminism is more useful.

Applying each flavour to Dove’s campaign will require great thought: more than I can accomplish without a few more days/weeks of mental meandering. [Maybe in the meantime I’ll write something in here about the disaster of w.Caesar’s election. Or not]

For now, until you follow the link to the full faq with descriptions of the flavours, here they are, listed:

Amazon Feminism


Cultural Feminism

Erotic Feminism



Feminism and Women of Color

Individualist, or Libertarian Feminism


Liberal Feminism

Marxist and Socialist Feminism

Material Feminism

Moderate Feminism


Radical Feminism


Men’s Movements:

Feminist Men’s Movement

Men’s Liberation Movement

Mythopoetic Men’s Movement

The New Traditionalists

The Father’s Movements


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Stephen Elliott-Buckley

Post-partisan eco-socialist. at Politics, Re-Spun
Stephen Elliott-Buckley is a husband, father, professor, speaker, consultant, former suburban Vancouver high school English and Social Studies teacher who changed careers because the BC Liberal Party has been working hard to ruin public education. He has various English and Political Science degrees and has been writing political, social and economic editorials since November 2002. Stephen is in Twitter, Miro and iTunes, and the email thing, and at his website,

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3 thoughts on “Real Soap, “Real” Beauty, “Real” Feminism?”

  1. You make an interesting point. However, as a man, it is an easy one for you to make. In my opinion it is easy to comment on the economic motive behind something when one’s identity and sense of self is not at stake.

    Like it or not, brands and advertising contribute most significantly to the construction of beauty. Although Dove is doing this to sell their products, I would rather their advertising challenge our thinking about beauty rather than reaffirm what we are already bombarded with. Dove is going to advertise; that’s what all corporations that are trying to sell a product do. I would rather see them promoting an attainable image of what acceptable beauty is than one that no one can hope to achieve. It is brilliant marketing on their part, because many more women will see themselves represented in their advertisements than would in others that show waif-like women with perfect fair and skin and presumably feel empowered enough to buy Dove’ products, the company that is celebrating people like them. What’s wrong with empowering people to feel good about themselves through advertising, irrespective of whether or not there is the potential of financial gain for those engaging in this?

    If a corporation in an industry that constructs women’s notions of what is beautiful and what they should aspire to be in order to be beautiful, as well as men’s notions of what they should consider beautiful and desire wants to adopt a more inclusive, alternative and broader notion of the beauty that is empowering, then I say great. The alternative is corporations promoting images that are unattainable for both men and women of what women should look like which is far more destructive if one accepts the notion that corporations and advertising play any role in shaping our society’s conceptions of beauty.

    Honestly, in terms of buying products, (which we all must do unless people are into making their own soap,) I would much rather buy the products of a company that celebrates the way I look instead of trying to convince me I need to change. And presuming women are merely pawns in the corporate advertising game that are being subconsciously coopted by a corporation that is trying to trick them into feeling good about themselves for financial gain severely under-estimates women’s ability to navigate, shape and participate in the world, as many anti-feminists do….

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