A few weekends ago I found myself lounging among a group of women, pondering over where our friendships had gone wrong and discussing the stress and frustration we’d struggled with this past year. At one point the conversation redirected to a round of compliments and affirmations for each other, particularly in terms of each person’s beauty and style. The dialogue ended on a positive note, and I didn’t think too much about it until one of my friends, L, brought up some internal conflicts that she had felt
“…[A]ll the insecurities of the essentialized category of “women” really came to light…we spent so much time talking about body and body image,” L texted me.
I asked a rhetorical question in response: what else do you think this group of girls could talk about? In my mind, it made sense. We were a racially, academically, socially diverse group who had little in common besides the fact that we were all cis women, although many of us were East Asian and/or immigrants, so the power dynamic and conversation definitely shifted to accommodate that. Our experiences and qualities made us perceive life differently, but we shared similar political beliefs and embraced feminism and body positivity. And yet — what we all seemed to share was a collective insecurity about our bodies.
Where did this insecurity come from? Why did this group of such different women bond over something that I assumed was a given in most women? I thought about it for a while, and rereading part of Meeta Rani Jha’s text The Global Beauty Industry gave me some ideas of where the bonding is rooted from.
Jha introduced the term false consciousness, derived from Marxist theory, to explain how women perceive themselves incorrectly. Specifically, she wrote, “…[J]ust as capitalism alienates workers from the products of their own labor – which go to make profits for the ruling class – so women are alienated from their true selves, and instead they come to define themselves through the myths and stereotypes of femininity, myths which serve the interests of men and patriarchal power.” (18-19) This explains why we could critique each other for succumbing to Eurocentric beauty ideals but were still subject to defining ourselves within that same realm. The emphasis on beauty and racial capital pervades so many of our thoughts and actions, and it’s only on other bodies that we recognize how deeply ingrained this false consciousness is. Part of the success of capitalism is some sort of ultimate reward (which isn’t really a reward, because in the end we are only reinforcing the structures of capitalism and neoliberalism), and in our case the reward was affirmation for the work and effort that we put into ourselves.
During the group conversation, one of my friends tried to identify a defining similarity among us: “I think we’re all just too critical of ourselves.” This statement reminded me of Jha’s point: “America seemingly values multicultural diversity and individualism, while the social reality of discrimination and institutionalized oppression remain untouched.” (5) The individualistic nature of American society causes us to unconsciously perform governmental neoliberal femininity, where we regulate our bodies and our beauty as a form of agency in response to the definition of femininity.
For this group of women with varying degrees of knowledge about neoliberalism and the fashion-beauty complex, it was easier to internalize the influx of beauty ideals and propaganda than question society for instilling unhealthy mindsets in us. As women from different backgrounds, we faced different racial, social, economic troubles but we could all bond over this sense of alienation from heteropatriarchal norms (fitting the white, middle-class beauty standard). Therefore, even though I felt the nature of the conversation was problematic, I also couldn’t blame us for bonding over these insecurities.
Meeta Rani Jha, The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body. (Routledge, 2016).