How female confidence became a cult
Self-confidence is the imperative of our time. As women and girls face intense appearance pressures and unrealistic body ideals, the beauty industry heralds that “confidence is the new sexy.” Similarly, as women face deep inequalities at work, some employers offer “confidence training” courses. Meanwhile, female celebrities are advocating self-love in chart-topping songs like Lizzo’s hit “Truth Hurts” and books like Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 Lean In: women, work and the will to lead and Jen Sincero’s 2013 You’re Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living a Great Life topped the bestseller lists. Gender, race and class inequalities persist, but women are called upon to believe only in themselves.
As feminist cultural analysts, we began to notice the rise of these messages in the early 2010s. of international development. We expected the trust to have a while. But several years later, women’s obsession with self-confidence seems to be only getting stronger. Even the Army stepped in: During a recruitment drive in 2020, the British Army approached potential female soldiers, promising that joining the forces would give them genuine and lasting self-esteem – unlike the pseudo – superficial confidence that “can be reapplied every morning”, like makeup or false eyelashes. (Other ads in this campaign targeted men, contrasting the confidence that would come with joining the military against the immediate gratification of pleasures such as a “quick drink.”) Currently, these exhortations are so ubiquitous that they have come to constitute a kind of unquestioned common sense; the obvious value of women’s trust was placed beyond debate.
Of course, we are not against trust. Would anyone really want to take a stand against women feeling more comfortable in their own skin? But we are skeptical about the consequences of the cultural pre-eminence of this imperative. And after a decade of research, we’ve come to one conclusion: Trust is both a culture and a cult. It is an arena in which meanings about the body, psyche and behavior of women are produced, disseminated, negotiated and resisted. This cult isn’t so bad. But just as it opens up a lot of possibilities for change, it also makes a lot of things unintelligible.
Whatever problems the women or girls face, the implicit diagnosis offered is usually the same: she just needs to believe in herself. (We are using women to include all who identify as such, including trans and gender non-conforming people.) Inequality in the workplace? Employees need to bend over. Eating disorders and poor body image? Girls’ empowerment programs are the solution. Parental issues? Let’s make moms more confident so they can raise confident children. Sex life in a rut? Well, loving yourself is “the new sexy!” Each of these messages reframes the characteristics of our unequal society as individual problems; according to the culture of trust, we must change women, not the world.
In recent years, we have witnessed a seemingly contradictory movement: the turn of vulnerability. Indeed, many champions of the culture of trust, such as female celebrities Serena Williams, Melinda French Gates, and Michelle Obama, have confessed their doubts, experiences with impostor syndrome, and other struggles. Hashtags such as #BeVulnerable, #SelfCompassion and #RadicalAcceptance have spread across social media. While this focus on vulnerability may seem to challenge the imperative of trust, it can ultimately reinforce that culture. Many incentives to confess insecurities ignore structural sources of vulnerability, such as poverty, poor health, racism and sexism. And many of the celebrities who divulge their feelings of inadequacy or business leaders who share their failures do so from a safe place, because their struggles are safely in the past.
Although these messages primarily target women, appeals to men’s confidence are also evident on dating sites and advertising campaigns for products such as Viagra. But, for men, confidence “wins” are usually presented as ways to achieve higher status and peak performance. For example, a popular male life coach claimed that he would teach men to “operate at the highest and most optimized level of performance”, “become an outstanding leader”, and “achieve social mastery”. In contrast, those who promote self-confidence in women tend to focus on solving internal problems, even in areas where it wouldn’t make sense, such as financial advice. An accountant and writer who aims to empower women financially, for example, promised “five ways to make managing your money an act of self-love.”
Perhaps most importantly, calls for women to improve their self-confidence are often framed as feminist interventions to help overcome inequalities. Of course, we live in a society that systematically undervalues women, so it would be surprising if this didn’t impact women’s well-being. Yet we remain deeply uncomfortable with how injustice is framed in personal terms, shifting the blame for gender inequality from institutional failures to alleged deficits in women. And we are suspicious of how this culture perpetuates itself by peddling the idea that the work of loving yourself can never be done. For example, when we took the online “trust quiz” of the best-selling book The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Assertiveness: What Women Should Knowwe each scored high, but we were made to feel that didn’t mean we could relax: “Even those who are quite confident often experience periods of doubt.”
This is not to say that the culture of trust is not attractive and emotionally powerful. We’ve all found ourselves moved to tears by “love your body” campaigns or by apps such as My Confidence Coach and Shine that aim to instill a sense of self-confidence. Moreover, we ourselves are active, albeit ambivalent, participants in this culture by encouraging, for example, our female students to be bold and take more space, and not to apologize or preface their remarks with an “I’m just”. or “I am not an expert”. But, ultimately, the culture of trust is a distraction. This requires women to identify as missing and then work to change their communication styletheir thoughtstheir attitudes towards their bodyand even the way they breathe. In doing so, he achieves what might be his most insidious effect: releasing the forces that actually underlie women’s low self-esteem from accountability.
This article was adapted from the recent book by Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill, Culture of trust.