Aesthetic labour, beauty politics and neoliberalism: An interview with Rosalind Gill

Image: Daily Mail

Rosalind Gill is Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City, University of London, and is Co-Editor of the new book ‘Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism’, published this year by Palgrave MacMillan. In this interview Ian Sinclair speaks to Professor Gill about the relationship between beauty politics, aesthetic labour and neoliberalism, the role of social media and the impact all this has on women.

Ian Sinclair: What has happened to beauty politics since the turn to neoliberalism in the Western world from the late 1970s onwards?

Rosalind Gill: Over the past two decades we have seen an extraordinary intensification of beauty pressures that are connected to a variety of changes – some of them social, cultural, economic and technological. In terms of technological change, for example, the ubiquity of camera phones with very high capacities for magnification has led to a new and unprecedented surveillance of women’s bodies. It is a truism to say that this is the age of the image, of the photograph – 24 billion selfies were taken in 2016 alone. No previous generation has ever been the subject or object of so much visual attention. This was bound to have an impact on beauty pressures. When you add to it the mainstreaming and normalisation of cosmetic procedures – both surgical interventions and nonsurgical beauty treatments such as Botox, liposuction, skin peels and fillers, promoted as  ‘everyday’ even ‘lunch hour’ interventions, you can see that even at the level of technological change there has been a growing impetus to focus on appearance. Yet on top of that there are key social and cultural changes, and the vast economic growth of the cosmetics industry too, blurring and hybridising into surgical and pharmaceutical industries. Now, more than ever before, it really makes sense to speak of a ‘beauty industrial complex’.

One of the ways that this is connected to neoliberalism is through the emphasis upon the body as a project – something to be worked on, and something which is thought about as our own individual capital. This idea has been around in social theory for some considerable time now, linked to theorisations of late modernity in which we are all held to be responsible for the design of our own bodies. Interestingly a lot of this writing has been quite general, even universalising, in tone – but I think what we are seeing much more now are attempts to ground this in specificities – for example in terms of gender or race or disability. While it is clear that there is a broad imperative around the symbolic value of the body, it matters whether you are cis or trans, whether you have a normative body or are fat, and still – I think – whether you are male or female.

“Now, more than ever before, it really makes sense to speak of a ‘beauty industrial complex’”

Allied to neoliberalism there have been a series of shifts that have come to be understood in terms of a ‘postfeminist’ sensibility circulating in contemporary culture. One of the key features of this sensibility is the emphasis on the body as the locus of womanhood and the core site of women’s value. This has displaced earlier – equally problematic – constructions of femininity, which placed emphasis on motherhood or on particular psychological capacities such as caring. Today, the requirement to work on and perfect the body has reached such an intensity for women that it has become – in Alison Winch’s words – ‘her asset, her product, her brand and her gateway to freedom and empowerment in a neoliberal market economy’, even though it must also always be presented as freely chosen, not the result of any coercion or even influence. A beauty imperative has gained more and more traction, with the idea that sexual attractiveness is the measure of success for a woman – whatever else she is she must also strive for beauty and perfection. Depressingly, you don’t have to look far to see instances of this in popular culture. Even our female politicians are subject to this as we saw graphically in the notorious ‘LEGS-IT’ headline a few months ago, comparing and rating Theresa May’s and Nicola Sturgeon’s legs.

“A beauty imperative has gained more and more traction, with the idea that sexual attractiveness is the measure of success for a woman”

When I make this kind of argument the first responses is usually for someone to say ‘men are under pressure too’. And this is undeniably true. I’ve done a lot of work over my career on changing representations of male bodies – from the ‘sixpack’, to the trend for removing body hair, to the promotion of skincare products targeted at men. For me it is absolutely clear that the beauty industry is moving in on men, big time; they represent an enormous potential market – and it is especially clear this year as we see cosmetics companies begin aggressively to market make up to men. Cover Girl’s first male/gender fluid ‘ambassador’, James Charles, is simply the most visible example. It seems to me that there is a relentless market-driven pressure being brought to bear on men – especially young men. Having said that, the pressure and scrutiny that women are under is still far greater, has a different history, and greater significance and centrality in women’s lives.

IS: In the book you refer to ‘aesthetic labour’ and ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’. Citing some examples, can you explain what you mean by these terms?

RG: The term ‘aesthetic labour’ had been around for some time, especially used by sociologists of work. It has been part of a toolkit of terms designed to unpick the different forms of labouring involved in various occupations – emotional labour, affective labour, venture labour, and so on. A body of work by scholars including Irene Grugulis and Chris Warhurst has been interested in how soft skills are increasingly called upon, including the need for workers to ‘look good and sound right’ in workplaces such as coffee shops. More recently Elizabeth Wissinger has also developed the notion of ‘glamour labour’ to talk about the work of models and fashion industry insiders. A particularly valuable feature of this is the way it shows that this labour isn’t just about the physical body but also involves attention to qualities like ‘cool quotient’ – which involves relationships, social media use and style or reputation.

With our intervention we wanted to build on these really interesting bodies of work to argue that these practices of what we see as aesthetic entrepreneurship are not bounded by the workplace, but rather are much more widespread in contemporary societies that are dominated by new forms of visibility, appearance and looking. The requirement to curate an appealing self is not only a work requirement; it is a growing social and cultural imperative. Secondly we also wanted to highlight the psychosocial dimensions of this, with an emphasis on the fact that in today’s makeover culture it is not just the body that is reinvented but the whole self, the making of a beautiful subjectivity.  And finally by using the term ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’ we wanted to draw links to neoliberalism more broadly – that is to this idea of selves as enterprising, calculating, reflexive, and so on.

One of the things this does for us is to break the impasse in feminist beauty studies – an impasse in which some talk of women as autonomous and creative agents, and others talk of passive and docile subjects. Our intervention – and shown through the chapters in the book – is to argue that women are both subjected and creative. A chapter in the book by Simidele Dosekun illustrates this beautifully. The affluent, fashionable Nigerian women she interviews are shown to be operating in a beauty regime in which particular features are highly valued and others disparaged – in this sense their aesthetic labour is culturally compelled. Yet far from being ‘passive dopes’ Simi shows that these fashionistas are knowing and sophisticated consumers, investing in notions of vigilance and rest – e.g. giving their skin time to breathe, their nails ‘time out’ from gel add-ons, and so on – practising aesthetic entrepreneurship to mitigate risks.

IS: How have the changes you have set out been influenced by the increasing popularity of social media?

RG: Social media are so ubiquitous now that they are hard to disentangle from other influences. One of the things that interests me greatly, though, is the impact of social media on our ways of seeing. A lot of writers have tried to engage with this in some way – Terri Senft has talked about ‘the grab’ of social media, whilst Malcolm Gladwell famously talks of ‘the blink’ as our current modality of engagement. Personally I am really interested in current attempts to think about surveillance beyond the metaphor of the Panopticon. Of course there is loads to be said about big data and surveillance which is hugely important. But my focus has been on something slightly different: the idea that our ways of seeing are literally transforming. I notice with my students that they pore over and really scrutinise images on their phones – whether this is of celebrities, their friends or themselves. It involves the kind of forensic form of looking in which magnification is to the fore. This is producing all kinds of new visual literacies, particularly of the face, and they are literacies in which I am not competent. As someone who believes thoroughly in the idea that we are socially and culturally shaped, I can recognise that my own visual habits and competencies have been formed in another era: when I look at an image on social media I simply do not ‘see’ what my students (often 30 years younger) see. I am constantly astonished by the detailed and forensic quality of their ways of seeing, as well as the way they are often framed through a ‘pedagogy of defect’ (to use Susan Bordo’s famous phrase) in which minute flaws and imperfections are itemised. Compared with this I feel my own ways of seeing are almost akin to a blur or at best a casual glance – and mostly more benign.

These new visual literacies have been engendered and taught not simply through Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat but also through the vast proliferation of beauty apps that I have been writing about with Ana Elias.  Some of these are filters: ‘swipe to erase blemishes, whiten teeth, brighten dark circles and even reshape your facial structure’ (Face Tune) or ‘to look 5, 10 or 15 lbs. skinnier’ (SkinneePix). As we have argued, many of these filters encode deeply troubling ideas about race as well as gender – with skin ‘lightening’ a common feature, and recourse to problematic ideas from evolutionary psychology. Aesthetic ‘benchmarking’ apps are another huge category allowing users to get a score on ‘how hot am I?’ or ‘how old do I look?’ or get rated by the ‘ugly meter’. These apps call on users to upload a selfie – after which they will be given a ‘score’. Claiming to tell you things your friends wouldn’t, the apps trade on a certain algorithmic authority and may also highlight which features need to be changed, with ‘helpful’ hints about treatments or surgeries that would elicit a higher score. As such they shade into another type of app we discuss – namely the cosmetic surgery try-out apps that allow you to ‘visualize a new you’ with whiter teeth, or larger breasts or a remodelled nose. As Ana and I argue in an article that has just come out in European Journal of Cultural Studies, these kinds of apps (and others we discuss) not only generate new visual literacies but also bring the cosmetic surgeon’s gaze out of the clinic and into our most intimate moments, via the smartphone. We argue that they are part of the shifting of meaning-making about surgery and other interventions – made more seductive through the gamified features of these apps.

“These new visual literacies have been engendered and taught not simply through Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat but also through the vast proliferation of beauty apps”

IS: How have women been impacted by the ‘intensity of beauty norms’ pushed by what you call the ‘beauty-industrial complex’ and wider culture?

RG: It’s quite hard to answer this question. It seems strange doesn’t it – yet there really is a paucity of research around these issues – at least outside of psychology. Psychology and the ‘effects tradition’ has the upper hand in this field with lots of studies correlating social media use or posting of selfies etc. with poor body image, mental health issues, greater propensity to undergo cosmetic surgery and so on. This is all valid of course, but tends to be focussed in a narrow effects tradition with all the problems that are well documented. The lack of sociological studies makes it feel as if we lack a sense of the way feelings and practices and everyday reasoning around appearance are actually part of the texture of everyday life. On the other hand when we do have more ethnographic studies they often seem invested in a particular perspective – for example the claim that young people are robust, resilient, critical users of media and there isn’t really a problem. I don’t find either perspective particularly illuminating.

I have to admit that the main insights I get come from my own students’ discussions of these issues in my courses on media. Some are scathing and critical and may claim their engagement with beauty culture is always mediated by ‘having a laugh’. Others tell of painful struggle with weight or skin conditions, or experiences of untagging themselves from multiple photos in which they don’t think they look good, or of trying to score higher on some attractiveness-rating app. I think it’s fair to say that none of us exist outside of the rapidly intensifying and extensifying beauty industrial complex. I say extensifying as well as intensifying because what is striking is how beauty pressures are also spreading out – across new domains (facial symmetry measurements, thigh gap) and new parts of life – childhood, old age, pregnancy etc.

IS: I was interested to see you discuss Dove’s ‘Love Your Body’-style Campaign for Real Beauty, which was launched in 2004. Though it has been widely celebrated, you have some criticisms of it?

RG: Love Your Body (LYB) advertising has really taken off over the last decade or so with brands like Dove, Always, Weightwatchers and Special K queueing up to spread the self-love and body confidence message to women. I feel deeply ambivalent about this. On the one hand these exhortations to self belief, body love and confidence are genuinely a welcome interruption to a stream of commercial communications that have focussed on body hate and pointing out what was wrong with us and how we could do better. Yet against this it is hard not to feel cynical when it is the exact same companies that sold us HYB (Hate Your Body) that are now preaching a quasi-feminist empowerment. Special K telling us to “shut down fat talk”?! Come on! Even the Daily Mail called it ironic. And clicking through on that very ‘positive’ campaign takes you straight to the company’s BMI calculator…

Some other relatively obvious criticisms of LYB are about its fakeness – it uses the exact techniques  it claims to repudiate: hiring ‘non-model models’, using photoshop, etc; it’s pseudo diversity – try comparing a Dove advert with an image from Fat Activism and see how ‘diverse’ it really looks; and its ‘re-citing’ of hate talk – when Special K told us to shut down fat talk it obviously had to spend most of the advert reminding us just what those hostile messages were (obvs!). But more than all this I’m very critical of LYB – and what Shani Orgad and I have called ‘confidence cult’ discourses more generally – for some more profound reasons. First because they blame women for their own lack of confidence, and exculpate patriarchal capitalism by implying that low self-esteem or body insecurity are things that women do to themselves (try watching Dove’s ‘Patches’ if you don’t believe me). And secondly because I believe that this new culture of confidence actually represents a new form of regulation: one that seeks to regulate not simply the physical body but also the self and one’s feelings and relation to oneself and others. Body love and self-confidence have become compulsory dispositions. It is not enough to work on and discipline one’s body, but one also has to have the correct, upgraded, body-positive subjectivity. Insecurity and vulnerability have become toxic states – something that links to the wider culture of what I call the ‘femspiration’ industry. Be afraid. Be very afraid. This is about the affective life of neoliberalism: how it not only shapes our economic and political formations, and our subjectivities, but also colonises our feelings.

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