Hands up if you're feeling any less revolting ?

We have finally found out what women want. It's not a penis that women lack, but self-confidence.

We have finally found out what women want. It's not a penis that women lack, but self-confidence.

AFTER all these years of theorising and hypothesising, we have finally found out what women want. It's not a penis that women lack, but self-confidence. Who'd have thought that as complex a phenomenon as sexism had such a simple remedy? Schools are now teaching self-confidence; universities are threatening to run courses in self-confidence; some offer degrees in the theory and practice of self-confidence. Chapter one of Kaz Cooke's 777-page Women's Stuff, published by Penguin Australia (rrp $59.95) is called ''How to be confident''. Chapter two is ''The Body Image Struggle''.

The core tenet of the new post-feminist orthodoxy is that low self-esteem is the cause of all the ills that beset womankind. This low self-esteem is derived from the perception shared by all women that they are not beautiful; according to Cooke, ''It is now normal for us to hate our bodies''. Chapter three teaches the reader ''How to Make Friends with [her] Body'', how to ''escape the scene of the crime, this super-critical culture, in our shiny new confidence-mobile - our very own body''.

Adherents of this creed who proselytise in schools and colleges will begin their sessions by asking anyone in their audience who thinks she is beautiful to put up her hand. When nobody does, they exult that their point is proved. Nobody gets a chance to object that, beauty being in the eye of the beholder, a woman cannot find herself beautiful. When Samantha Brick, who is as nice-looking as most English women of her age and no more, announced that other women gave her a hard time because she was beautiful, she attracted a chorus of derision, which did nothing whatsoever for her self-confidence. Though there is some evidence that encouraging self-congratulation results in students doing worse rather than better, the importance of self-confidence is now gospel truth.

At an event in Amsterdam recently, I was ordered by a woman on the stage to take the hand of the woman next to me, who happened to be 76-year-old Hedy d'Ancona, and tell her she was beautiful. This would be more conducive to her self-esteem, apparently, than reminding her that, having served as a minister under two Dutch governments, as a member of the European Parliament, and as chairman of Dutch Oxfam, she was immensely distinguished and I was honoured to be sitting next to her.

This particular travesty grew out of a marketing campaign by toiletries manufacturer Dove. According to Dove, only 2 per cent of women would describe themselves as beautiful, which is why in 2002 the company embarked on its campaign for ''real beauty''; in 2005 this became the ''self-esteem campaign''. Dove would tell women the truth they already knew, that advertising photographs are Photoshopped and that real women come in all ages, colours, shapes and sizes, begging them to ''imagine a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety''. ''Dove is committed to building positive self-esteem and inspiring all women and girls to reach their full potential'' by ''building a movement in which women everywhere have the tools to take action and inspire each other and the girls in their lives''.

Dove manufactures antiperspirants, deodorants, body washes, beauty bars, lotions, moisturisers, hair care products and facial care products by the copious use of which sweaty, smelly, greasy-haired, dry-skinned, ageing females can make themselves less revolting. Research informed Dove that the vast majority of women thought that their hair looked good only on one day of the week. Dove has the answer: ''Women are only a five-day transformation away from beautiful hair with the Dove Hair Care lines of shampoos, conditioners and treatments, which work hard to protect and repair all types of hair, making hair soft and smooth. This transformation can help women feel more beautiful and confident.''

The Dove self-esteem campaign is a marketing strategy like any other. It works by intensifying women's anxiety and challenging them to make themselves beautiful and (therefore) confident. The cynicism of the exploitation of the female market is the more striking compared with the strategy for promoting the Dove ''Men Care'' range. The original strapline was simply ''Isn't it time for comfortable skin?'' In a deal signed last May, Dove entered a partnership with the Welsh Rugby Union so that the four Tests they played were called the Dove Men Series. Wales lost all of them. Their loss to the Wallabies this month was their seventh on the trot. Winning does more for self-esteem than fortunes spent on Dove products ever could.

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