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Is confidence a cult? These sociologists think so.

A new book aims to show why directives to “just be more confident!” are so harmful.

A drawing of a plainly dressed figure whose shadow is wearing a superhero cape. Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

It’s hard to pin down exactly when it happened, but if you paid attention to women’s media in the 2000s and kept paying attention into the next decade, you definitely noticed it. Magazines that devoted their pages to diet tips and celebrity snark suddenly started preaching “empowerment.” Fashion brands that made clothing that only went up to a size 12 wanted you to “love your body” just the way it was. Parenting books wanted you to know that messing up was okay, that as long as you raised resilient, self-assured children, nobody cared about your stretch marks or your glass of wine in front of the TV.

Regardless, somewhere along the way — perhaps having to do with a catastrophic financial crisis and the rise of social media — it became imperative for capitalist enterprises to recognize that people were rediscovering a certain kind of feminism, a kind that emphasized self-love and self-care, embraced imperfection, and called on women to advocate for equality. All of this coalesces in what the sociologists Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill call “confidence culture” in their book of the same name due out January 28.

“To be self-confident is the imperative of our time. As gender, racial, and class inequalities deepen, women are increasingly called on to believe in themselves,” reads the first line of the text. It criticizes the individualistic, neoliberal missives from corporations to “just be more confident” — in our bodies, in our relationships, in motherhood, in the workplace, and within humanitarian efforts to support global development — and argues that, most of the time, they end up reinforcing the very beliefs they aim to deconstruct. For example: Orgad and Gill describe one “love your body” campaign that features a dozen or so women all dressed similarly against a minimalist background as “an attempt to use and strategically deploy images of minoritized groups (people of color, disabled people, Muslims, queer people) in commercial culture to ‘take diversity into account’ only to empty any particular differences of their meaning and social significance.”

I chatted with Orgad and Gill over Zoom, where we discussed the difficulties of critiquing confidence culture without critiquing confidence as a concept, the “girl-powering of international development,” and how the new wave of “anti self-help” is basically just … self-help.

When did you begin to see directives for women to “just be more confident!” as a systemic cultural trend?

Shani Orgad: We were working across different fields — Rosalind in intimate relationships and body image, I in motherhood and work, and we both had worked in issues of international development — and over the last decade or so, were witnessing very similar imperatives that were particularly addressed to women: to be confident, to believe in themselves, to love themselves.

Rosalind Gill: The timing is not accidental, partly in the context of the financial crisis. That was a very significant moment that gave rise to this new common sense. Here in the UK, there was a really strong austerity culture distinctively targeted at women. It was all about women being thrifty and going back to traditional crafts and cultivating these qualities and dispositions that they needed to survive in this tougher, financially strained period. It really intersected with feminism and created a very neoliberal or individualized feminism: putting it on women to turn inward, focus on themselves, and stop thinking that structural barriers are out there and start thinking that they’re just something we need to work on.

You note throughout the book that what you’re critiquing isn’t confidence itself but the culture around it and “what its fetishization does.” How did you approach marking the difference between criticizing women with confidence and the more insidious confidence culture?

Rosalind Gill: For me, the “love your body” advertising and body positivity really resonates. It has a power and I am not ashamed to admit that I cried when those first Dove adverts came out. We were very, very critical of the work that they were doing, while also recognizing that we were doing similar things with our own students. We’d be trying to support our young graduate students and making them feel more confident. We’re deeply implicated in it. But we make clear that we’re attacking that fetishization and the way that it’s become this article of faith, this kind of unquestioned common sense, rather than attacking the idea of confidence per se.

In many instances you style “confidence culture” as “confidence cult(ure),” implying that this is more than a culture, it’s a cult. How do you define the confidence cult?

Rosalind Gill: It’s like a cult in the way that it’s been placed beyond debate: Who could be against confidence? Nobody could possibly argue against it because it’s so taken for granted. I think it’s good to be suspicious of the things that get placed in that space where they can’t be interrogated at all. It was also just a culture in the way that it saturated right across society — it was disseminated so, so widely. We were encountering exactly the same messages, literally word for word, in our respective areas of research.

Shani Orgad: The women I spoke to describe it as something that isn’t tangible: When you ask them, “Where did you get these expectations that you should be the confident mother and the full-time worker who’s assertive?” they say, “It’s everywhere.” It becomes so unquestioned that it’s being internalized into the most intimate sphere, whereby women, often very painfully, judge themselves according to this unattainable expectation.

There’s been a lot of backlash to these individualist, neoliberal ideas in the past five or so years, but you also argue that a lot of the responses — from “anti self-help” media like the How to Fail podcast, the bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, or on another end, Brené Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability — are simply repackaging the same ideas. How so?

Shani Orgad: It’s again about looking inward. It’s about you, as a person, working on yourself, recognizing how you’re experiencing vulnerability. It’s not matched by any call, for instance, to invest in developing a community that would support these vulnerable selves. So in this way, it’s very similar and actually kind of reinforcing to confidence culture. It ultimately becomes yet another site of privilege because very particular people can afford to be and be seen as vulnerable. It’s about a very temporary and contained moment that you are allowed to be vulnerable, so long as you ultimately overcome and become the confident, self-loving, resilient, content person. Vulnerability is fine, but oftentimes, those who write about being vulnerable are already “on the other side.”

Rosalind Gill: It’s almost like there’s these two clashing tones, one which is defiant, breaking the rules, “fuck everything,” and the other which seems really paradoxical is this kind of vulnerable, more fragile, “let’s give space to our insecurities and not aspire to be perfect.” They both sit alongside each other as “self-believing, self-accepting, confident-yet-relatable and not overconfident because that would be off-putting.” What would a properly feminist, antiracist, LGBTQ, non-neurotypical collective resistance self-help look like? It’s really hard to imagine.

A lot of people would argue, well, what’s the problem with Dove saying that all bodies are beautiful, or campaigns that feature larger or non-normative bodies? But you make a compelling point that this actually reinforces the same harmful messages. Can you lay out that counterargument?

Rosalind Gill: There are so many ways into this critique. One is that, until very recently, it represents a fake or pseudo-diversity, and claims to be a lot more diverse than it actually is. It will claim to show diverse ethnicities, religions, body sizes, but barely differing from what went before. The whole company is premised on exploiting women’s insecurities, selling products targeted at that. It also has a post-racial tenor in the way it flattens our differences to make them seem as if they’re all on one plane and as relevant as each other while appropriating social justice language. It takes all the differences and empties them out of their meaning and appears that, say, being pregnant is as significant as being disabled.

Body image is probably the most common association people have with “confidence culture.” As much as “body positivity” is a common and very popular and marketable phrase, you show that at no point in history have people been this focused on their bodies. How does that dichotomy work?

Rosalind Gill: It delegitimizes the feelings that anyone could have about their own body insecurities because we’re supposed to be comfortable in our skin. Yet that isn’t the world that we live in. We’re in a world of absolute forensic surveillance where everybody feels under intense scrutiny. I’ve just been doing some interviews with young people around how judged they feel all the time around their appearance. Yet they don’t feel that they can speak about it on their social media posts because that would be seen as being attention-seeking and attract more criticism.

In the chapter on “confident mothering,” you say that many of the blogs and communities where women can vent, rant, and commiserate, claim that what they’re selling is “real,” but still perpetuate the idea of a perfect mother, that idea of “perfectly imperfect.” What does that look like?

Shani Orgad: There’s been lots of research documenting significant shifts in the ways in which mothering is being talked about and represented in popular media. Some popular TV shows and films offer much more complicated portraits of mothering and comment on the many frustrations and disappointments and imperfections that this experience entails. That is a significant break from what characterized earlier decades. But it didn’t release the pressure — it transformed the pressure to be a “perfectly imperfect” mother, to be “authentic.” One of the things that was very apparent in our research into these kinds of websites and blogs is how the idea of the “perfectly imperfect” mother is still very much white and middle class. This is a time where there has been significantly growing visibility on Black motherhood in popular discourse, so at the same time that [the perfectly imperfect white, middle-class mother] is gaining visibility, there’s also a reinforcement of a new ideal mother.

We call it the double whammy of confidence culture because it works as a double burden: Women have to perform confidence for themselves and also for their daughters, so they have to model it all the time. It introduces a whole new layer of self-vigilance and self-inspection and a constant awareness of yourself as a mother, not just in how you might harm yourself but how you might harm your daughter. There’s very little talk about what role men who are parents play in their children’s confidence. It’s unspoken that it’s the mother alone.

One of the most fascinating sections of the book is your discussion of the “girl-powering of international development.” Can you explain what that means and how you see it as part of this larger confidence culture?

Shani Orgad: The whole industry of, for instance, voluntourism is marketed as a good cause to help the “faraway other,” but it’s never separate from investing in your own self. We looked at numerous volunteer tourism websites, and they all have this feel-good, adventurous, exciting vibe. They’re often about how you can “hone your leadership skills” or discover yourself. It’s a self-discovery, while you’re also “rescuing” your sister in the Global South. In an era that has already seen so much criticism of earlier tropes that NGOs have been blamed for — dehumanizing the suffering of the other, the undignified depiction of victims — you would expect that something new would occur and in many ways, confidence culture is yet another iteration of these problems. We call it “confidence without borders” as a new movement that seems to characterize a lot of these initiatives in the humanitarian fields today.

The book ends on a pretty positive note as you discuss recent alternatives to confidence culture — the rise of the pop star Lizzo, TV shows like Shrill and Sex Education, and books like Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim. How do you see confidence culture evolving in the future?

Shani Orgad: We were interested to find examples that at least partly challenged or refuted the tropes and logics of confidence culture. For example, we looked at the TV series Sex Education, appreciating its take on intimate life in all its nuance and complexity, that didn’t ever recourse to easy clichés of self-esteem or “confidence is the new sexy,” but actually showed how relationships of all kinds are striated by power. We talked about Hannah Gadsby’s shows Nanette and Douglas, and the striking way in which she actively rebutted individualist accounts of sexism, sexual harassment, and homophobia with her line, “this is not an isolated incident.”

We included also the example of Lizzo, because in many ways she epitomizes confidence culture, but we found her to be a really interesting and important example of how some of the limits of confidence culture can be repaired or at least challenged. She represents a radical deviation from the normative ideal of female attractiveness and the highly restrictive beauty standards that dominate the confidence culture; the ways she privileges and celebrates Black bodies and experiences; the way she refuses the post-racial tenor of the confidence culture and instead connects her performance and persona to her experience of racism, sexism, and fat-shaming; and how she does not hide the immense work that self-love requires.

How has the pandemic changed our relationship to confidence culture?

Shani Orgad: The pandemic presented a moment that could significantly challenge the existing neoliberal order and disrupt the confidence culture. It has exposed intersectional inequalities and the way it highlighted our relational interdependence. However, during the pandemic, we have witnessed the reinforcement of confidence imperatives and proliferation of self-care messages. Staying positive and practicing “self-care” became motifs throughout the pandemic, seen in everything from exhortations to exercise, breathe deeply, and sleep better; to the promotion of “uplifting” tunes, “comfort” food, and “feel-good” TV. They encouraged women to turn inward rather than encouraging action to challenge and transform the structural conditions that have affected women disproportionately. So, seemingly benign and often undoubtedly well-meaning messages of confidence, calm, and positivity during the pandemic seem to buttress the confidence culture in very problematic ways.

This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.