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The Confidence 'Movement' and Empowerment Initiatives

In 2013, Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, published her feminist ode and self-help guide for women, Lean In, and it has remained a bestseller ever since, spawning a range of ‘Lean In’ franchises, such as the Lean In Foundation, the #BanBossy campaign, and others. The argument in the book suggests that women feel that their accomplishments are not as great as those around them (especially men), and this then becomes a barrier to a successful career trajectory (Sandberg 2013). Sandberg’s advice is for women to overcome this ‘confidence gap’ (Kay and Shipman 2014) by being more assertive in their careers and to develop the self-confidence in order to do so. And, according to her, self-confidence is the key to success.

As I have written elsewhere, the ‘confidence gap’ is a signifier of what is understood as a general emergence (since the 1990s) of a particular ‘crisis in girls’ (Banet-Weiser 2015; Hains 2012; Gill and Orgad 2015). This crisis is ostensibly evidenced by widespread exclusion of girls from math and science programmes in schools, rising numbers of white, middle- class girls with eating disorders and other body-image issues, and reports of general low self-confidence that is seen to emerge from media representations of hyper-sexuality (Hains 2012; Projansky 2014). This is the conversation that Sandberg is attempting to join; the efforts to encourage younger girls to be more confident will presumably address the confidence gap that Sandberg identifies in the corporate environment.

So, alongside the efforts to empower girls through external mechanisms such as policy and education, there has also been a mandate to ‘empower oneself’. Empowering oneself as an individual is a key logic within neoliberal capitalism, which privileges the individual entrepreneur as a primary subjectivity (Cruikshank 1999; McRobbie 2009). This neoliberal focus on the individual is the crux of efforts to build confidence in girls and women. While the focus on building confidence for adult women typically addresses lack of ambition and expressiveness in the workplace, for girls and young women, the confidence issue is located squarely on the body and in one’s self-image. In response to the confidence gap, a range of cultural organisations and corporate and non-profit campaigns have emerged with the goal of encouraging girls to be more confident in their bodies and self-image.

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