Ana Sofia Elias, Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharft, eds.
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 402 pp.
Reviewed by Heidi Härkönen
Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism is a timely interdisciplinary collection of articles on the various forms of aesthetic labor that have come to centrally characterize life in neoliberalist societies. Drawing on gender studies and the new scholarship on work and affect, the book brings together humanities and social science researchers to discuss the emergence of beauty practices as a crucial aspect of neoliberalist understandings of gender, bodies and self.
The authors argue that in the contemporary world characterized by aggressive consumer capitalism, new digital visual technologies and postfeminist understandings of gender, women are faced with intensified beauty pressures that also extend to their ideas of the self. The book seeks to create a new approach that avoids the previous dichotomized understandings (such as the distinction between discipline and pleasure) and makes room for ambiguity, dissonance and contradiction in feminist beauty studies. In their analysis, Ana Sofia Estelas, Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharft focus on the multiple forms of “aesthetic entrepreneurship” that shape bodies and subjectivities in the contemporary world. They draw this concept from the new forms of often unpaid labor and the active, calculative and self-optimizing subject that have come to represent the ideal in neoliberalist discourses. The idea of ‘entrepreneurship’ captures the relentless work, agency and creativity involved in people’s efforts to respond to economic and social pressures to reinvent themselves and their lives in neoliberalist societies. The authors argue that under neoliberalism, beauty pressures on women have both intensified and extended to periods of life and parts of the body that earlier used to be free of such regulation. Constantly new aspects of life are seen as requiring consumerist aesthetic solutions and beauty labor that leaves no one intact: “neoliberalism makes us all ‘aesthetic entrepreneurs’” (5). The book shows how neoliberalist discourses frame the aesthetic labor required of women as an individualist choice and pleasure so that it becomes conceptualized as “play” and “girly fun” (52-53). This framing of aesthetic labor is a way to conceal its exploitative and laborious aspects and to brush off women’s collective forms of critique and resistance. Such understandings promote women to commit to aesthetic labor as self-reliant producers and hedonistic consumers, simultaneously as the constantly tightening politics of appearance create new marginalizations.
The chapters of the book focus on online media, popular culture, female genital cosmetic surgery, beauty and well-being industries, academic fashion, self-help literature and ideas of mothering, gender and sexuality. While the articles vary considerably in how they take up the central issue of aesthetic labor, they all draw on the shared conceptual framework of aesthetic entrepreneurship for understanding how neoliberalism shapes gender, bodies and selves, often in racialised and class-distinct ways. The articles show how neoliberalism extends market principles to all aspects of life, for instance, when men in London learn to hierarchize women’s bodies through numeric valuations by participating in “seduction” industries (O’Neill) or Russian women aspire to transform their minds and bodies to new levels of neoliberalist perfection through self-help books in their search for a rich husband and social mobility (Adamson and Salmenniemi). Neoliberalism expands the idea of work, rationality, planning, and management into our most personal experiences.
I enjoyed reading the book because many of its arguments feel closely familiar from my everyday life in an increasingly neoliberalizing society (Finland). The book gives researchers valuable conceptual tools, such as the notion of aesthetic entrepreneurs, to understand and analyze the intimate impact of neoliberalism on gender, bodies, personhood, and social relations in diverse parts of the world. However, this wide reach is also at times the book’s weakness. As an anthropologist, I would have wanted to read more about how neoliberal aesthetics take place in the context of locally specific, culturally and historically particular understandings of gender, bodies, persons, and social life. In addition to media and popular culture presentations, I would have wanted to know more about how neoliberalism transforms in diverse contexts and how ordinary women and men in different locations relate to such understandings. Are there no (more) resistance, misunderstandings, or just mere dismissals of neoliberal discourses? While some articles of the book were anchored in the careful consideration of historical and cultural particularities of the social context in question, many of the chapters remain too abstract when neoliberalist aesthetic labor is represented as a universal, all-pervasive influence in the contemporary world. The book would have benefitted from linking its intriguing theoretical discussions more tightly to specific cultural, historical and social contexts.
All in all, Aesthetic Labor draws attention to important current developments in the contemporary world by showing how neoliberalism is not only a political and economic project but also shapes our social, cultural, emotional, and psychic lives in multiple ways. The book is of great interest to anthropologists, gender scholars and anyone who wants to understand better the global, gendered reach of neoliberalist ideas of bodies, persons and relationships in today’s world.
Heidi Härkönen is an Academy of Finland Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Social and Cultural Anthropology group at the University of Helsinki. She has conducted ethnographic research on gender, kinship, love, and life cycle in Cuba since 2003. Her current project explores well-being, and social change through a focus on body, personhood and care in contemporary Havana.