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Cruel Attachments and Cruelly Optimistic Vigilance

An attachment to a state such as feminine beauty or to a putatively beautifying object like high heels is cruel if this state or object ‘contributes to the attrition of the very thriving that is supposed to be made possible in the work of attachment in the first place’ (Berlant 2006, p. 21). According to Lauren Berlant, such an attachment is therefore also ‘cruelly optimistic’ because it draws the subject repeatedly back to the desired state or object and its putative promises. Cruel optimism keeps the subject ‘in proximity to the scene of desire/attrition’ (Berlant 2006, p. 21). It keeps women like Sharon and Alero dressing up and stepping out in their painful heels over and over again, as heard above. It leads them to push through and rationalise the pain rather than try to avoid it, by wearing comfortable shoes, say. More cruelly optimistic in my hearing of the research participants was their attachment to the beauty technologies of hair weaves, false eyelashes and acrylic nails. Repeatedly, the women expressed a knowledge or recognition that these technologies were ‘not good’ for their own hair, eyelashes and nails, respectively, some instances of which I have cited above. At times speaking from personal experience, other times commenting more generally, they explained that wearing weaves could cause one’s hair to thin or fall out; that in the process of removing false lashes, one’s real lashes could be lost too; that acrylic could cause one’s own nails to weaken and break.

Yet in most cases where the women noted such risks, they did not talk of therefore rejecting or resisting the beauty technology in question. Instead, knowing the risk, their predominant practice was to anticipate and manage it. Their predominant practice was one of risk-management, in short. Risk-management is a core entrepreneurial logic and value, and thus it is a core mentality and practice of the ideal responsibilised, calculating and enterprising neoliberal subject (Binkley 2006; Leve et al. 2012; Rose 1998). The inflection of such a neoliberal mentality with postfeminist beauty standards, or what we can understand as the growing imperative for women to be aesthetic entrepreneurs, meant, for those in my research, engaging in a strategic ‘on-off beauty practice. The women’s practice was to give oneself occasional reprieve from the hyper-feminine beauty technologies viewed or experienced as risky, to enable one’s relative recovery from them, so as to better withstand the subsequent redeployment of the very same technologies. In the interviews this on-off practice was often expressed in terms of allowing one or another part of one’s body, and sometimes one’s mind, to ‘breathe’ or ‘rest’.

Consider Ima who said that she kept her false nails on for about a month and then after taking them off: ‘I would let my [own] nails breathe for like maybe two weeks or another month and do it again’. Folake similarly explained why she had recently taken off her false eyelashes:

cause I wanted my natural lashes to breathe and you know the longer you do them [that is, false eyelashes], the more you do them, it weakens your natural lashes ... So I just, I was just like let me take a break, take a break you know and not do it too much. [1]

than physical or surface labour, because it entails keeping a reflexive and watchful eye on one’s attachment to and consumption of cruel hyperfeminine technologies, as well as scheduling and juggling periods of what I call ‘aesthetic rest’. The aim of this labour is to forestall the renouncement of the cruel beauty technologies by pre-empting or minimising the embodied and/or psychic loss that they may engender. Aesthetic vigilance is a cruelly optimistic practice, then, because its aim and intended effect is to sustain cruel feminine attachments.

To put the point conversely, aesthetic vigilance and its constitutive rationalities work to forestall resistance. Detailing how she wore makeup every working day for her television show and then most weekends when ‘you have somewhere to go’, Tobi welcomed the odd day that her face could have ‘off:

Sometimes I don’t go out on Saturday. I loooove the fact that on days like that my face can rest. I’m not wearing any makeup. Cause I mean I feel, I feel that once I give my face that rest, once I put it on again, I’ll be looking too fine!

Berlant notes that ‘the return to the scene where the [cruel] object hovers in its potentialities’ may not always ‘feel optimistic’ (2006, p. 20, original emphasis). The surrender to one’s cruel attachments may be tinged with dread or ambivalence or disappointment in one’s self, for instance. But a happily optimistic affect is clearly palpable in Tobi’s remarks above. This followed from her reasoning, maybe experience too, that for having had brief respite from makeup she would look even better with it subsequently. I asked Tobi if one day was ‘rest enough’ for her face:

Tobi: It’s not but what can I do?

Simidele: Eh how much rest would you need ideally, to now be back to- Tobi: Cause I’ve been putting on—like maybe if I can do, if I can do two days without makeup I will be happy, I will be happy.

Tobi returned to an implicit logic of ‘necessary feminine evil’ to account for her resignation to the fact that although one makeup-free day did not really suffice as aesthetic rest, it was all she tended to have.

The necessary evil here was the normative requirement to wear makeup in both her professional and social lives, a norm that she left completely unquestioned, again as the logic of ‘necessity’ encourages. In Tobi’s comments above, the said necessity of makeup had the further governmental and depoliticising effect of constructing aesthetic vigilance as also necessity, the reasonable and indeed fortunate ‘solution’ to her beauty dilemma. Tobi’s logic distilled to the following: because it was necessary for her to wear makeup virtually every day, what was also necessary was to find some time and space to give her face a breather. She depicted the breather as empowered though brief. Aesthetic rest constituted a certain ‘me-time,’ that is to say a postfeminist, putatively indulgent break from the very demands of postfeminism itself (Lazar 2009). The rest was framed as further empowering, moreover, because further beautifying.

Other women similarly represented their practice of aesthetic vigilance as recursively empowered and empowering by representing it as the informed, responsible and rational thing to do to continue to achieve their desired look. In this the women further positioned themselves as knowing, agentic and empowered postfeminist consumer subjects. Diane interpellated me as also knowing when, describing her typical routine for getting dressed, she made an aside about her use of an exfoliating face scrub: ‘[I] use my scrub cause I use makeup every day to work—like we all know makeup is not good for the skin, your skin has to breathe, and with the kind of job I do I see people every day so I know I have to look nice every day’. According to Diane, a corporate customer service representative, her face scrub was a tool to risk-manage the potentially adverse effects on her skin of her daily professional need for makeup. Yet it seemed that she also had to risk-manage her use of the scrub! Having first stated that she used it ‘probably like twice or once a week,’ Diane later made an apparent error and said that she used it ‘every morning’. She promptly corrected herself: ‘not every morning cause it’s not good’. From my own feminine consumer subject position, I took it that Diane meant that too-frequent use of an exfoliating face product could be harsh on the skin.

In this example, the commodified ‘solution’ (makeup) to the putative core and foundational feminine problem of ‘inadequate beauty’ could engender a new beauty problem (‘bad skin’) for which there was another commodified solution (exfoliating scrub) which could engender yet other beauty problems, and so on. For this kind of iterative and frankly exhausting feminine beauty dilemma, aesthetic vigilance—watching, gauging, weighing, timing, spacing—became the resolution. Again the possibility of resistance, such as not wearing makeup in the first place, was not so much as mooted. As is quite clear in this example from Diane, the ostensible solution of aesthetic vigilance also relied on considerable class privilege, on having not only an array of beauty commodities but also the time and energy to deploy them.

Adaeze provided another example of a potentially iterative beauty problem that called for both a watchful eye and an extensive wardrobe. To the unstated yet implicit (and of course racialised) problem of ‘inadequate hair,’ she indexed wigs as a second or backup solution to weaves should the latter have proven too cruel. She did so while proposing that there was a psychic aspect to why women might return to feminine technologies like weaves that they deemed risky:

You know it’s addictive though, like the weave for instance. I started wearing wigs because the weave does actually damage your hair so just, you have to change things up. But you get so used to how you look that when you don’t have a weave, you don’t think you don’t look good [sic]. If you don’t have [false] eyelashes, if it’s something you’re used to, you don’t feel you look good.

What Adaeze was suggesting as addictive was beauty and its promises. This suggestion, or what I have theorised in this chapter as the cruelty of being attached to beauty, is utterly crucial. It allows us to not see the women in my research as somehow ‘silly’, or self-destructive, for continuing to use beauty technologies that they actively worried about and recognised or in some cases experienced as potentially harmful. Rather, we see that a certain sense of self and self-recognition was not only founded but also persisted in and through their risky beauty practice. We see that the subject might, as Adaeze put it, ‘get so used to’ looking and feeling a certain way. The concepts of cruel attachments and cruel optimism: allow us to encounter what is incoherent or enigmatic in our attachments, not as confirmation of our irrationality, but as an explanation for our sense of our endurance in the object, insofar as proximity to the object means proximity to the cluster of things that the object promises’ (Berlant 2006, p. 20, original emphasis).

And, indeed, if we understand the subject as dependent on power for its very existence, rendered a subject by power, we understand that to ‘desire the conditions of one’s own subordination is thus required to persist as oneself’ (Butler 1997, p. 9).

Yet as Butler (1997) further argues, the subject founded by power is not determined by it but is rendered agentic by its very subjection, and so able to resist. One participant, Tinu, spoke of having become aware of what she deemed an unhealthy, creeping dependency on her false eyelashes. She vividly described how she sometimes saw herself when she was not wearing the lashes: ‘I feel something is wrong with my face. I look at the mirror, I’ll say “Oh God what is wrong, why am I looking so pale, so ugly and I’m looking sick?”’ Problematising this as a self-alienation and misrecognition, Tinu took up an opposing ‘natural beauty repertoire’ that promised a more authentic and healthy sense of self, saying of her false lashes: ‘I wanna be myself without them. I still wanna be myself and still feel great’. For this reason, she explained, she now ‘deliberately weaned’ herself off the lashes. Unlike aesthetic vigilance, which I have argued bolsters postfeminist disciplinary norms and imperatives by promising the subject an imminent and improved return to them, Tinu was referring to an act of resistance, of trying to sever her cruel attachments.

However, Tinu revealed that her spectacularly feminine dress choices were guided by other imperatives, too. Tinu was an actress in Nollywood, the booming Nigerian film industry. She explained that when she had to appear for public events in her professional capacity, she put her false lashes back on. She described the lashes for this purpose as like her ‘trademark,’ and as enhancing her celebrity ‘packaging’. Here Tinu was speaking of aesthetic labour as it has tended to be conceptualised, namely ‘the embodied work some workers have to do to maintain their bodies for particular forms of employment’ (Entwistle and Wissinger 2006, p. 776, original emphasis). But as heard from her and the other women in my research—and as in this edited collection as a whole—to understand women’s contemporary beauty practices and pressures the conceptual demarcation of paid work as a distinct aesthetic sphere no longer holds. Neoliberalism hails subjects ‘as entrepreneurs of themselves or, more precisely, as investors in themselves, as human capital that wishes to appreciate’ (Feher 2009, pp. 30-31, emphasis added), while postfeminism promises women that their ‘capital’ lies especially in beauty. Thus it is that under conditions of neoliberal postfeminism, women are hailed and guided to be entrepreneurial in their pursuit of beauty.

  • [1] propose to understand this on-off beauty practice as ‘aesthetic vigilance,’a new and specialised postfeminist and neoliberal form of aesthetic labour.As I have begun to outline above, aesthetic vigilance is an entrepreneurial practice of risk-managing one’s spectacularly feminine appearance.It is a labour of vigilance specifically, a mental and interiorised rather
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