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Euphoria Kat
Euphoria (2022)

Is self-confidence culture helpful, or a late capitalist ploy?

Confidence has been hijacked and sold back to us, distracting us from changing anything outside of our own self-esteem

The story of Kat Hernandez is a parable of our times. The Euphoria character, played by Barbie Ferreira, starts off as an insecure teen who, over the course of the season one, overcomes her body-image issues and finds power through engaging in online sex work. A triumph of our current model of empowerment feminism, body positivity and self-love. When we revisit Kat in season two, however, things aren’t going as well for our teen dominatrix who’s in a decidedly more vulnerable position: lying on her bed in a state of self-loathing. “Kat hated herself,” narrator Rue says in the voiceover. “But the problem with hating yourself is at some point recently the whole world joined a self-help group and won’t shut the fuck up about it.”

Suddenly, Instagram influencers and models in Jacquemus hats appear in Kat’s room, bombarding her with messages about loving herself, smashing beauty standards, and becoming a “bad bitch”. When Kat says the confidence she’d been portraying wasn’t real, the growing crowd of influencers express how disappointed they are in her for letting down the movement, proceeding to overwhelm her with chants of “love yourself” until she screams.

You see, Kat isn’t supposed to be insecure. Everywhere she looks, people are telling her to feel comfortable in the skin she’s in. Online, influencers bend over to show their tummy rolls in a bid to be relatable, while on the runway brands include the plus-size face of the moment, as skincare campaigns encourage us to celebrate the “real beauty” of our acne scars. Last year, US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her own beauty routine, telling viewers “the one foundation of everything is loving yourself.”

This messaging has been building since the mid-2010s when body positivity entered the mainstream. Originally part of a 1960s radical activist movement protesting capitalism and a diet industry profiting from anti-fatness, the revolutionary message was quickly co-opted. Soon self-confidence became the catch-all solution for all our problems – all we needed was a change in perspective (and some Dove body wash) to break barriers in society, the office, and at home.

To combat inequality in the workplace, women are told to be more assertive and also remove exclamation marks from emails. Struggling in the dating scene? It’s not the increasingly non-committal app-based interactions that are to blame, but rather your own confidence levels. Insecure about your body? Forget the years of cultural messaging about beach bodies and “eating like a thin person” and just embrace your curves. Never mind that brands preaching self-acceptance oftentimes don’t bother stocking above a size 12.

The message is clear: confidence can cure all, and the very real structural and societal issues that have caused these problems have been all but erased and glossed over in favour of individual responsibility. Kat, a teenager with no power or influence, is suddenly the one responsible for “smashing beauty standards,” instead of the capitalist systems that continue to perpetuate these ideals for profit. The issue, in fact, isn’t Kat failing to love herself – it’s the continued prevalence of fatphobia; the fact the average size of a UK woman is 16 but plus-size clothing doesn’t even make up 20 per cent of the market; and the myth perpetuated even by doctors that lack of willpower is the reason for obesity when 60 years of medical research shows diets almost categorically do not work.

“Confidence culture turns away from wider social issues and encourages women to turn inwards and work on themselves as a means of doing and feeling better” – Rosalind Gill

This phenomenon of blaming the individual rather than the structures surrounding them has been dubbed “confidence culture” by sociologists Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill in their newly released book of the same name. “Rather than identifying social issues and working collectively to change them, confidence culture turns away from wider political, economic and social issues and encourages women to turn inwards and work on themselves as a means of doing and feeling better,” Gill explains to Dazed. 

This reinforces the notion that “hard work equals success,” while ignoring all of the barriers that dictate where on the starting line to success you stand. It’s seen in the likes of body confidence campaigns that include a diverse group of women but gloss over axes of power and identity, including race, class, age, sexuality, and disability, returning to a “one-size-fits-all” – love yourself and you will succeed – message. The focus on self-care and self-optimisation encouraged by the wellness industry in particular is “central to confidence culture,” says Orgad, because of the way it fuels self-absorption (main character energy).

Essential to understanding confidence culture is that confidence itself isn’t what’s being criticised. Rather, it’s the way confidence has been hijacked and sold back to us, distracting us from changing anything outside of our own self-esteem. “Confidence isn’t our target. It’s the individualistic and psychologised way of understanding it that locates the problem in women themselves rather than in the systemic injustices of neoliberal capitalism,” Gill explains. “We are particularly critical of the way that engagements about social inequality and injustice get refigured as issues of confidence. Social injustices are treated in terms of internal obstacles, orientating us to changing the woman, not changing the world.” 

The perfect example of this happened just last week, when a viral tweet showed a recruiter blaming an employee for being underpaid by $45K because she didn’t “ask for the salary [she] deserved,” adding the hashtag “#beconfident” at the end. Women are still paid on average 16 per cent less than men in the UK, but instead of the company receiving criticism for lack of transparency, failure to pay people what they are worth, and failure to address the gender pay gap, the blame was shifted to the individual and her lack of assertiveness. 

Rhetoric like “ask for what you deserve” and “sometimes you’re your own worst enemy” that we come across in everyday pop feminism and social media is more damaging than we think, says Gill. “These types of messages, even if well-meaning, turn away from structural inequalities and wider social injustices to explanations that foreground psychological change which is made women’s responsibility.” And when we don’t live up to these responsibilities, confidence culture is increasingly creating an environment where we are shamed both through internal guilt and external pressure. 

Just as the influencers in Euphoria express their disappointment in Kat’s failure to love herself, plus-size women are often championed as ‘body positive icons’ simply for existing in their bodies and are then shunned should they ever dare to say they don’t feel confident or worse like Adele they lose weight. Lizzo received huge backlash when she went on a juice cleanse, while Roxane Gay wrote a powerful piece on the shame she felt about having weight loss surgery.

“That scene in Euphoria stuck with me so much,” says Megan, 34. “You can often feel when you push back and unlearn diet culture you're never allowed to slip up or go backwards otherwise you’re betraying yourself and other women who have struggled with this stuff. It’s so mentally exhausting.” Ferreira herself agrees. That scene for her was a personal one: “I don’t want everyone to just focus on the fact that I’m confident, because I’m not,” she said in a recent interview. “If you’re not the norm, in Hollywood or fashion, you’re automatically seen as a brave person, which I think is very offensive. It’s hard to always be put in that box and have this pressure to be happy with yourself at a young age.” 

Fostering confidence is important, but so too is “shifting the emphasis from the individualised and psychologised imperative to the structural factors and resources required to nourish a ‘climate of confidence,’” Orgad says. “In such a climate government, corporations, workplaces, the education system invest in supporting women and other disadvantaged groups in order to combat inequality.” If those women in Kat’s room came together to question why they’re all struggling to practice what they preach, perhaps the conversation would move away from changing their outlook and towards changing society’s role in it. After all, it’s together, not individually, that we are going to dismantle the capitalist system that’s keeping us down.