“Feminist Consumerism and Fat Activists: A Comparative Study of Grassroots Activism and the Dove Real Beauty Campaign”


“Both the Dove Real Beauty Campaign and PPPO [Pretty, Porky, and Pissed Off] claim to challenge hegemonic beauty codes that articulate a virtually unachievable conception of physical beauty. Given the extent to which these images of models affect women’s self-perceptions, it may come as little surprise that only 2% of women describe themselves as beautiful. In response, Dove has committed itself to changing this statistic through its provocative billboard campaign, which partially disrupts the ideology of feminine beauty by publicly portraying women not conventionally seen as beautiful and hence not normally depicted on billboards advertising beauty products. Slate advertising columnist Seth Stevenson said that the Dove models on giant billboards challenged his gendered beauty ideals in a positive way: “When I first saw one of these smiley, husky gals on the side of a building, my brain hiccupped. . . . Here I was, staring at a ‘big-boned’ woman in her underwear, but this wasn’t an Adam Sandler movie, and I wasn’t supposed to laugh at her. It felt almost revolutionary”.

Campaign for Real Beauty

“[However, t]he Dove campaign, while it contests narrow beauty codes, works within a hegemonic ideology of gendered beauty by refusing to challenge the idea that beauty is an essential part of a woman’s identity, personhood, and social success and by legitimizing the notion that every woman should feel beautiful. [W]ithin the Dove campaign, the social imperative for women to be and feel beautiful is not up for negotiation. Even though the social understanding of beauty is contested, the importance of beauty as a paramount value for women is reproduced and legitimized by the campaign’s explicit and unceasing focus on beauty. Women’s acceptance of their bodies as beautiful is demanded, rather than recognized as an inherently complex, fraught, and contradictory endeavor—particularly in the context of the mass media, the beauty industry, the weight-loss industry, and the industrial food complex—or in relation to what women accomplish apart from looking pretty.”

Image result for dove real beauty

“In this sense, Dove’s attempt to democratize beauty is deeply disingenuous. It is illogical in that it denies the hierarchical nature of beauty standards, and it is ideological in that it obscures the multiple sites where hegemonic beauty ideals tend to cluster (with thin, white, privileged women finding it easier to achieve hegemonic beauty ideals). Furthermore, the democratic ethos underlying the campaign (e.g., voting on whether a woman is fat or fabulous) suggests that challenging unhealthy, Eurocentric beauty norms is optional, a consumer choice—not an urgent necessity for social change in a world where beauty ideals and social respect are linked to inequalities based on sex, race, class, and body size.”

Image result for dove real beauty

“The Dove Campaign itself relies on the heteronormative foundations of gendered beauty ideals, as presence of the male gaze is an assumption running through the Dove campaign. One of the inspirational articles featured on the Dove Real Beauty Web site is a faux-blog titled “A Day without Makeup.” When the fictitious blogger is challenged by the prospect of meeting her friends for drinks after work, after a moment of self-doubt, she thinks of her husband: “I remember my husband’s look at lunch, and hear his words again: ‘You look pretty.’” By replaying and internalizing these words, she is able to face the situation with confidence: “I stand a little straighter and toss my hair back. I look at my friends, smiling and laughing, all gorgeous in their own way. . . . Just like me”. The male gaze assuages the woman’s doubts; she gains an inner confidence that acknowledges and legitimizes her physical appearance as an important prelude to her social confidence in the public sphere.”

[An interesting article (you can click here or the link at the bottom to access it), the authors draw on “neo-Gramsician concepts of hegemony and counterhegemony, which avoid economic determinist accounts of social change and recognize the importance of cultural politics and everyday beliefs in struggles for social justice”. As such the authors use a “post-structuralist” theoretical grounding in their comparative study, a theory that does not conceptualize feminine agency as entirely voluntary, nor does it believe in beauty ideology as something entirely fixed. In other words, the authors analyse “how hegemonic beauty standards dominate and oppress, while simultaneously recognizing the agency present in beauty practices“.]

Johnston, Josee and Judith Taylor. 2008. “Feminist Consumerism and Fat Activists: A Comparitve Study of Grassroots Activism and the Dove Real Beauty Campaign.” Signs 33(4):941-966. [The Wikipedia hyperlinks are not in the original, but the rest are, in the endnotes. The pictures are all from the Dove “Real Beauty” Campaign and were not in the original article, and the italics are also mine.]

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