Home Political science Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism
Attached to Beauty, Consenting to Risk
In terms of their hyper-feminine dress practice, the women in my research positioned themselves as agentic and individualised subjects who freely and actively chose their style. Furthermore, they emphasised that the choice was above all to see and please themselves. For instance, one participant, Adaeze,1 explained her love of dressing up in spectacular style with the comment: ‘even if I’m at home, I wanna look a certain way, it’s not even about, it’s not about how other people perceive me, it’s for me. It’s like looking good makes me feel good’. Looking good, being pretty, beauty in a word, was the central motivation for and desired effect of the women’s dress practice. Women often experience or envision beauty as unattainable or elusive, a perfect state that is rarely if ever present (for example, Coleman and Figueroa 2010; Evans and Riley 2013). But not so for those in my research. From their weaves to their pedicures, the myriad constituent elements of the women’s dress promised to compliment, accentuate, conceal, transform and so on. Beauty was now thoroughly technologised and commodified, hence with sufficient effort, skill and disposable income, beauty was attainable, albeit iteratively. 
Diane, for example, explained her love of wearing weaves and her accumulation of about N1 million (roughly $7000) worth of the femi?nine commodity in terms of her love of ‘looking good’. Stating that she was ‘into makeup a lot,’ another woman, Ima, remarked that she felt ‘prettier’ with it, as did Alero who described a daily process of applying and perfecting her makeup, on which she spent up to an hour. Bisi, conversely, reported that she was not really into makeup. Detailing that she wore ‘white powder, fake eyelashes, eyeliner and clear lipgloss or red lipstick,’ Bisi explained that it was because she considered her makeup regimen light and her face otherwise relatively bare that she always wore false lashes, to get the additional effect that she evocatively called ‘the oomph’. As Bisi and other participants variously elaborated it, the ‘oomph’ was a certain lift. It was an interiorised and embodied sense of self-confidence and empowerment that beauty promised. Bisi subscribed strongly to such postfeminist promises. She believed that ‘looking good’ enabled a woman to face and take on the world. She was insistent that a woman should always dress for herself therefore:
not even for your boyfriend, not for your husband, for your self. Cause if you wear something and you don’t feel you look good, other people will automatically, they’ll feel that vibe about you ... When I dress up, I feel like I glow and I’m happy and I’m comfortable and I’m confident. Wherever I go, nobody can put me down.
Although insisting on such self-pleasing, self-regarding and self- empowering postfeminist discursive positions, in the course of their interviews the women also revealed a range of disciplinary norms and external considerations and pressures that governed or guided their ‘choice’ of style. Here I will highlight examples that implicated some of the style’s risks. Sade, who worked in the Nigerian media industry, cited and naturalised the ‘standard’ of appearing on local television in a weave. She recounted that having duly worn the hairstyle for work, she had suffered the loss of some of her own hair due to the friction and pulling of the weave on her scalp. Hair loss was a risk, a possible adverse outcome, of wearing weaves. Another participant, Misan, shared that she did not like to wear acrylic nails. She later described the accoutrement as ‘really terrible’ because ‘after you take it [off] your [own] nails get really weak’. However, Misan, an entrepreneur in the local fashion and beauty sector, explained that due to pressure and advice from her female clients to dress like she was ‘earning some money,’ to look like a modern and upwardly mobile career girl in other words, one of her new year’s resolutions had been to more regularly affix false nails. Tobi, a presenter on local television, spoke of having worn false nails for years before stopping because she was experiencing the kind of bodily damage to which Misan was referring. Yet she was now back to the beauty technology, she explained, because: ‘One day I was on TV and my friend says, she sends me a message that “babe, fix your nails, they look horrible” (laughs)’.
I asked Tobi if she worried about the risks involved in her renewed consumption of acrylic nails. Her reply: ‘Yes I do ... but you know what these are necessary evils, ugh! (putting on a falsetto voice) A girl has to be a girl! The very notion and language of ‘necessity’ is a governmental rationality of power. It works to pre-empt critical questioning or resistance and instead invite and naturalise the subject’s compliance. In this case the necessity of which Tobi spoke was to be ‘appropriately’ subjected, embodied and thereby recognised and recognisable. The necessity was to ‘“cite” the norm in order to qualify and remain a viable [gendered] subject’ (Butler 2011, p. 177). Alero also spoke in terms of gendered necessity, normativity and therein belonging, in her case with regard to the wearing of high heels. Referring to the potential physical pain of such shoes, which was yet another risk of the research participants’ spectacularly feminine style, she said: ‘Some heels are comfortable but even when they are not comfortable and you go out, you just have to manage, just, yeah, swallow the pain’. She further justified the logic and ostensible reasonability of swallowing the pain of high heels by claiming that it was a shared feminine experience: ‘I am not the only one suffering with that. It’s a group thing ... everyone has to just (pauses), it’s just, I mean like they say “beauty is pain.”’ In this formulation, stepping into a feminine community of pain was not only something that a woman did, it was constitutive of being or becoming a woman. Thus, painful shoes were constructed as a feminine inevitability.
Sharon also cited the notion that beauty is pain, a notion that I would insist is a patriarchal rationality. She named herself as a ‘lover of heels,’ happily adding ‘the higher the better’. To my question about the comfort of such style, Sharon reflected that ‘of course’ one’s feet would eventually begin to hurt ‘but it’s worth it, it’s totally worth it so I don’t think— “beauty is pain ’ they say’. Sharon’s view that the reward or promise of beauty was ‘totally worth’ the price of pain, and her consequent practice of paying the price, vividly illustrates the poststructuralist theoretical insight that a key modality of power is to work through rather than against desire (Butler 1997; Davies et al. 2002; Petersen 2008). ‘[D] iscursive constructions take hold—take hold of the body, take hold of desire ... rigidly colonizing the flesh’ (Petersen 2008, pp. 55-56). Indeed, inciting the subject’s desires and inviting its psychic attachments renders power all the more effective or stubborn. In what follows, I argue that my research participants’ consenting to the risky technologies and practices of spectacular postfeminist beauty rendered their attachment to this style of beauty ‘cruel’ because it meant attaching and consenting to ‘compromised conditions of possibility’ (Berlant 2006, p. 21).
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