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I Aesthetic Labouring

Aesthetic Labour: Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism

Ana Elias, Rosalind Gill, and Christina Scharff


In 2015 the Australian teenager Essena O’Neill quit Instagram and became headline news around the world. O’Neill, who had more than 600,000 followers on Instagram, earned ‘thousands of dollars’ from marketers for each post, she said, but could no longer tolerate the shameless manipulation of her images and the painful costs of ‘self-promotion’. ‘Resigning’ from the site, she deleted 2000 posts and ‘re-captioned’ the remaining 96 to draw attention to the artifice involved in their production—not just the (notorious) use of filters and ‘retouching’, much discussed in relation to magazine and advertising imagery, but also the poses, the happy and carefree attitude, and the fake intimacy involved.

Ana Elias • Christina Scharff (*)

Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, King’s College London, London, UK

Rosalind Gill (*)

Department of Sociology, City, University of London, London, UK © The Author(s) 2017

A.S. Elias et al. (eds.), Aesthetic Labour,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-47765-1_1

Of one image she wrote: ‘see how relatable my captions were - stomach sucked in, strategic pose, pushed up boobs. I just want younger girls to know this isn’t candid life, or cool or inspirational. It’s contrived perfection made to get attention’.

Much could be written about O’Neill’s decision, her micro-celebrity status, the alternate trolling and celebration she received, and the way she became propelled from a teen Instagram fan base to an international news actor whose decision went viral. Her story highlights the breakdown of stable distinctions between private and public as well as trends towards ‘authentic’ forms of celebrity in which the commodification of youthful beauty nevertheless still plays a huge part. We open with her experience because it foregrounds many of the questions discussed in this book, including the perennial emphasis upon female attractiveness, and with it the pressures to live up to particular appearance norms at whatever cost to the self—whether that involves merely ‘stomach sucked in’ and ‘pushed up boobs’ or surgical procedures. It also points to the increasing entanglements of forms of visual appearing with rapidly changing digital technologies and social media—in a world in which increasing numbers of images of women are digitally altered in various ways. Alongside this, it demonstrates the proliferating experiences of surveillance to which many women feel subject when ‘managing the body is.. .the means by which women acquire and display their cultural capital’ (Winch 2015, p. 233). Above all, it highlights the multiple labours involved in ‘looking good’—labours that are simultaneously physical, cultural, technological and also psychological. As O’Neill made clear, the marketability of her posts was not only about her ‘perfect’ body but also the appeal of her captioned opinions, signalling as they did a warm and accessible level of cool, and a ‘beautiful on the inside’ philosophy. This was put to work very successfully by O’Neill as her own personal brand and capitalised upon by many different companies whose clothes or products she promoted in the familiar post/anti/native advertising style of contemporary marketing. O’Neill’s story, then, pulls together themes of beauty, authenticity, labour and entrepreneurial endeavour in a way that resonates with many of the concerns of this book.

The aim of this collection is to mark out a new intellectual terrain in beauty studies by examining the intersections between postfeminism, neoliberalism and subjectivity, through a sustained focus on what we are calling ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’. We argue that the politics of beauty remains a key set of issues and debates for feminism but one that frequently seems to be stuck in an impasse between polarised positions, stressing—for example—oppression by beauty norms versus pleasure and playfulness, female agency versus cultural domination, entrenched suspicion of the beauty-industrial complex versus hopefulness about women’s capacity to resist. There has been a resurgence of interest in beauty among feminists in the last decade, and we want to build on this important work to open up new questions and theoretical avenues. Our contributions are three-fold: first, we situate the continuing focus on appearance within a distinctive cultural moment, characterised by neoliberalism, with its relentless exhortation to be active, entrepreneurial, self-optimising subjects. The force of neoliberalism in shaping experiences and practices related to beauty needs urgently to be understood. Secondly, we want to push at questions concerned with embodied beauty and to link them in a novel way with a growing literature focused on work or labour. The ‘turn to labour’ in sociology and cultural studies, we argue, has much to offer contemporary feminist engagements with beauty, highlighting the different forms of work that are involved in presenting the self. We engage with notions of ‘affective labour’ and ‘emotional labour’, and also with the newer ideas of ‘glamour labour’ (Wissinger 2015). We want to develop these ideas beyond their application to particular kinds of aestheticised cultural work and instead argue that they are wider-scale processes that have relevance across social life. Neoliberalism makes us all ‘aesthetic entrepreneurs’—not simply those who are models or working in fashion or design. Finally, our collection points up the importance of subjectivity and the need to think about the ‘psychic life’ of neoliberalism and postfeminism. This means that we pursue a psychosocial perspective in relation to beauty, that is interested in the relationship between culture and subjectivity, in complicated and ambivalent subjective experiences, and also in the way that contemporary injunctions to look good require not only physical labours and transformations but also the makeover of psychic life to embrace qualities such as confidence, happiness and authenticity.

This introductory chapter is designed to offer a guide and a map to the ideas discussed in the collection as a whole, contextualising them in wider debates. The chapter is divided into two broad parts, each containing sub-sections. The first part—titled Beauty is a feminist issue—looks briefly at the feminist history of debates about beauty, before turning to the key contributions of current research which we see as including: the turn to affect within feminist beauty studies; the growing body of work on decol- onising beauty; feminist research on surveillance of women’s appearance; and the affirmative turn in beauty studies. The second part introduces aspects of our perspective, notably our critique of neoliberalism and postfeminism, the need to think about labour and our psychosocial approach. We argue that the current moment has seen an intensification of beauty pressures on women, consonant with Angela McRobbie’s (2015) notion of ‘the perfect’; that these pressures have also extensified leaving few spaces ‘outside’ their force field; and that there has been a quasi-feminist transformation such that subjectivity and interiority are now also subject to requirements for (self)transformation.

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