By Trang Le, Master of Communications and Media Studies student
In 2012, Amy Cuddy’s TED talk, ‘Your body language may shape who you are‘, was all the rage. The talk has been viewed more than 48 million times, transcribed to more than 50 languages and become the second-most-popular TED talk in history.
In case you miss what Cuddy presented, her message is simple: ‘power posing’ – standing in a posture of confidence even when you don’t feel so – can boost your feelings of power.
In other words, how we hold our bodies can have an impact on our minds, alter our hehaviour, and potentially improve our chance of success. More notably, Cuddy’s power posing strategy was explicitly addressed to women as she put it, ‘women are much more likely than men to hold powerless postures [and thus] feel chronically less powerful’. Dear ladies, it is as simple as that, change your body position, take up more spaces, ‘fake it until you become it’, and you can change how your life unfolds.
Materialising confidence: from the feminist best seller to ‘femvertising’ trend
Cuddy's influential presentation exemplifies how confidence has gained increasing traction and has become the new gendered imperative in recent years. As Professor Rosalind Gill has observed ‘we see the turn of confidence, everywhere’. Professor Gill recently gave a public lecture: ‘Postfeminism, Body Love and Selling Confidence to Women' at Monash's School of Media, Film and Journalism.
Confidence is precisely the logic that informs the best-selling feminist manifesto of Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. In Lean In, Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, asks women ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ and urges more women to believe in themselves and aspire to lead. Like Amy Cuddy, Sandberg believes there is a problem inherent in women’s psyche that leads to the ‘leadership ambition gap’: women are more likely than men to be susceptible to the so-called impostor syndrome, or the phenomenon of being plagued by self-doubt. Is success just around the corner if women have enough self-confidence to take risks, ask for promotions and demand their partners to do the fair share of housework, as Lean In suggests?
The global campaign of Dove for Real Beauty is premised on the similar logic of confidence. Debuting in 2004, Real Beauty and their various subsequent campaigns to celebrate women’s authentic beauty have positioned Dove as a feminist advocate, relentlessly echoing the message of ‘love your bodies' or ‘feel beautiful at any size'. Dove is among the earliest advertisers that responds to the feminist anger at the narrow definitions of beauty and the promotion of idealised unattainable images of perfection. Dove commits to social transformation by developing a more accessible, easy-to-digest way of being ‘cool’ for women: throwing off your self-doubt, remembering that you are incredible and being grateful for who you are. Is it problematic that the company that has been historically producing the hate speech about women’s bodies and telling women what needs to be changed in their bodies is the one who actively engages in the new trend of self-confidence and body love?
The one-size-fits-all confidence
Professor Gill has pointed to a common pattern among Lean In and other popular feminist manifestos in their addressing exclusively white, middle class and heterosexual women. Similarly, what Professor Gill has observed in Dove’s women empowerment adverts is actually a diversity paradox: women represented hardly deviate from the conventional standard of beauty: they are all slim, young and apparently able-bodied. In focusing on a narrow range of target, both Lean In and Dove’s empowerment ends up being hollow as they do nothing to challenge other issues of women such as racism, homophobia or Islamophobia.
Not only do they address the similar and narrow group of women, their primary message is strikingly consistent: that women can fight gender inequality as long as they break through the psychological barriers that are holding them back. In promoting confidence as a therapeutic one-size-fits-all solution to gender inequality, they trivialise structural, cultural and historical barriers that may hinder women’s success. It is the women’s psyche that makes them less powerful than men, that makes them occupy so fewer leadership positions than men, that makes them feel not beautiful enough, that makes them hate their bodies. And in encouraging women to constantly transform their mindset to fix the problem, they turn away from questioning the sexist culture that may have produced the self-doubt and low confidence in women.
Persistently, women have been told what is wrong and what needs to be changed about their bodies. And now, the confidence discourse adds another layer on top of that. Now, not only your body, but you have to work on your subjectivity, you have to work on your psyche, you have to reproduce yourself as a self-loving empowered woman. Now, it’s up to you to succeed. It’s up to you to feel beautiful. As long as you have self-confidence.
Where is the culture of confidence heading?
With a resilient, positive and upbeat tone, these ideas about self-confidence have spread out far beyond the realm of the aforementioned feminist manifesto and femvertising trend to achieve the status of ‘common sense’ in popular culture. In daily life, we see the proliferation of confidence apps that repeatedly remind us to be mindful and promise to boost our self-esteem. Going to work, we encounter ‘Just Not Sorry', an optional Gmail add-on that helps women communicate more authoritatively by alerting women whenever they use apologetic and self-depreciating language such as “sorry” or “just”. Confidence is also recognised in various policies and programs as an obvious solution to tackle gender inequality: as KPMG asserts in their 2015 Global Report ‘building women’s confidence in the workplace is the top priority’.
If ‘confidence’ is an unquestioned cheer word, then ‘low self-esteem’ becomes an abused term.
If ‘confidence’ is a self-evident good, then we are left with no choice to feel uncertain, insecure and vulnerable.
If all women’s issues are subsumed under the category of ‘individual and psychological improvement’, structural inequality becomes unspeakable.
And this is precisely why the contemporary culture of confidence begs our critical enquiry.