Unpacking the myth of self-esteem: ‘Our relationship with brands is toxic. They tell you to love yourself, but they sell you something unreachable.’ | Society

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A collage by Ana Regina Garcia
A collage by Ana Regina Garcia

Rosalind Gill, professor of social and cultural analysis in City, University of London, and her colleague Shani Orgad, professor of communication in the London School of Economics and Political Science, have for some time observed that something wasn’t working in the messages that mass media sends to women. Those messages showed that the key to success in any sphere of a woman’s life could be found simply in her own self-esteem and the confidence she managed to have in herself. Fed up with what they define as a “hoax,” and after researching dozens of self-help manuals with tips to become successful and hundreds of ads with slogans about self-love, they decided to write Confidence Cult(ure). In the book, edited by Duke University Press, they analyze how this cult of confidence takes structural problems out of the equation of life to put all the responsibility on the usual scapegoat: women.

Why is our culture so obsessed with self-confidence?

Rosalind Gill: We believe that this sort of turn towards confidence is owed, in part, to new interest in feminism and as a result, the topic of women’s confidence has entered onto the agenda. But it’s also due to the growing movement of self-help and attention to wellness that we see on all social media. I suppose that our critique of this phenomenon is that it encourages women to see themselves defined by their own internal deficits, by what they lack, instead of sharing the responsibility with a patriarchal society, which is still quite unjust.

In your book Confidence Cult(ure) you insinuate that confidence can also be a good thing. When is confidence in oneself something positive?

Shani Orgad: It’s really important that we make clear that we are not against confidence. Of course, we would like for women to prosper. We would like for everyone, every type of woman, to be confident in herself. And the direct response to your question is that confidence is never bad in itself. But, again, our critique is of what it has become. The problem is when this confidence is used as a solution to problems that in reality are structural. It’s complicated because we’re told that the solution to inequality and injustice resides in our confidence, that these are personal problems that require personal solutions. Only through structural changes that support women, that empower women –not only as individuals but rather as a collective as well– will we achieve the positive changes that are so sought after.

Rosalind Gill: It’s crucial for us to not suggest that we are somehow asking women to lack confidence or become insecure. That is absolutely not what we are saying. But we are very worried because the whole weight of these problems become women’s responsibility. As women, we should feel better in our own skin, be more secure, more assertive, love ourselves a lot, and so on and so forth, without analyzing what are often the patriarchal structures chipping away at that confidence. And without changing those structural problems, we’ll have difficult advancing on our own terms.

The pressure to be confident in oneself is very high, while at the same time the beauty industry and its standards are very unrealistic.

Rosalind Gill: Fashion and beauty brands, through their slogans and marketing, are trying to persuade us by saying that everything works in tandem with being comfortable in your own skin. It’s about feeling good, being happy and having confidence and self-esteem. But, at the same time, they send us messages with their beauty standards, which are more and more severe and intense. So there’s a contradictory situation. It’s a real tension, and women have to struggle with it, in thrall to all these ideals which are very difficult to achieve. It’s pretty toxic because they say to you “C’mon, you have to feel good about yourself,” and, nevertheless, they sell you something unreachable.

Is confidence culture harsher on women?

Rosalind Gill: Definitely. We’ve seen some examples of confidence messaging targeted toward men, and it’s pretty different. That’s to say, it exists, but it’s pretty different. So for example, in one of the chapters, we examine messaging about intimate relationships that men receive and we focus on the type of orientation given to them. Everything has to do with being successful and getting more dates and that sort of thing. It’s framed in terms of performance and achievement and what one should get for being secure in oneself. Meanwhile for women, it’s a lot more about a kind of internal psychological change. To correct something that isn’t working for us. The work that’s demanded of us is of a much deeper dimension. It doesn’t just have to do with external presentation. It also has to do with really looking forward and working on oneself. And it’s that work that seems to have added an extra burden to women’s lives.

Shani Orgad: I’d like to add that in men’s case the pressure is temporary. It seems like they should work on their confidence, improve their performance, acquire these skills and achieve their objective. While for us as women, it’s a continuous effort and an endless journey. We never reach the objective. It’s a moving target and one always has to keep working. Including if you’ve supposedly reached a certain level of confidence, there’s always a warning that comes with it that says that you should be careful because it’s something that can run out very quickly. So for us it’s deep, psychological work, and pretty intimate with the body, the psyche, with everything, with how we breathe, how we sleep, how we hold ourselves, how we think, how we feel. In some aspect, it’s never over.

Do you know of any concrete examples of how confidence culture makes us responsible for problems that we can’t change?

Shani Orgad: Maybe I can give you an example from the workplace. When we researched the book, we focused a lot on how confidence in one’s work materializes and we analyzed some best sellers that advise women about how to be more successful and progress in their careers. All those books have good intentions, at least they are framed as feminist and they speak to you as if you were their friend. In fact, in one of the examples we looked at, Rachel Hollis’s Girl, Stop Apologizing she says “I’m your friend.” So you interpret it as friendly advice. And nevertheless, these books, these book are full of advice, examples and metaphors that have to do with the interiorization of the idea that there’s something wrong with us. Another example we use is the book Confidence Code, written by two journalists, Patty Kay and Claire Shipman. Again this book is framed as a manual to help women. But it once again insinuates that what we don’t achieve in the workplace is our fault, that there’s something wrong with us, it’s not the system but rather we who should be surer in ourselves.

Rosalind Gill: I’ll give another example, also from the workplace. And it has to do with how in many businesses, women don’t show up to ask for a pay raise. And now, instead of blaming the business or holding it responsible for not permitting that women flourish in their workplaces and encouraging them to ascend the career ladder, to be better-paid, women are blamed for not having sufficient confidence to have the assertiveness necessary to ask for a pay raise. They’re really awful. They come at you saying that this is your fault, you failed at this, and that’s why you’re earning less. It’s very worrisome that all the responsibility falls to us. It’s the same thing with not getting rich and not breaking the glass ceiling.

You talk about Lizzo as an example of a famous singer who gives a good example of self confidence.

Shani Orgad: I think that Lizzo is effectively a really interesting example. And we felt that, in the first place, we couldn’t write a nook about confidence culture without her because she’s the queen of self-love. Of course, she also participates in and reproduces a lot of the issues we critique and examine in the book, it’s impossible to escape everything. But there are some things that are really interesting about Lizzo. She’s made the work behind visible confidence. She very explicitly on her Instagram, in interviews says: “I’m working on it, I’m in therapy.” She puts the work it implies on the table. Secondly, maybe more obviously, in a contrast with the dominant elements in confidence culture –which continues to adjust to pretty strict heteronormative standards of body image, beauty, heterosexuality, whiteness, middle-classness– Lizzo is a revolution. A radical revolution in her way of being and her personhood. I think that the third thing that we find really interesting about her is that she’s part of celebrity culture, but she also constantly underlines the fact that she’s not alone and she depends a lot of the support of her family. A thing that’s pretty unique about Lizzo is that on all of her tours her friend and family accompany her, which is not very common for famous people. And she really makes an effort to say that she couldn’t survive without this support, that one doesn’t get these victories alone. And this, up to a certain point, goes against the highly individualistic culture of confidence.

As parents, how can we teach our children to have a positive relationship with confidence and self-esteem?

Shani Orgad: I think that the main message should be encouraging our children to feel good about themselves, but also thinking in collective and structural terms. To make clear that confidence isn’t something that should just be cultivated on individual, competitive terms. A lot of what we discovered while researching is that kids are often educated in a pretty competitive context, competitive between parents and competitive between the kids as well. The type of thinking that we hope comes out of the book is that the educational system should structurally nurture an environment where kids feel supported and empowered, but not within the strict, competitive and individualistic terms that come with contemporary neoliberal culture.

Rosalind Gill: In the book we also analyze what we call the double punch of confidence culture with respect to maternity, in which women are responsible for their own confidence, but they also have to be responsible for their children’s confidence, especially for their daughters. And it becomes another job, another site of potential failure and we really wanted to unpack that and give it a critical look.

What would you say to someone that repeats the mantra “All your dreams are possible, you just have to believe in yourself and that you can achieve them?”

We’d say that it’s very, it’s very good to believe in oneself and believe that there are possibilities open for you. But what’s not useful is to believe that all the obstacles you encounter, that all the challenges you’re facing are just yours as an individual. There are structural forces and systemic inequalities that operate in all our lives. It could be that they aren’t as visible as the way that you feel internally in terms of your confidence, but they’re really there and they’re important. Not everything depends on you.

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