How Confidence Became a Cult

Messages about women’s self-esteem are now so ubiquitous that their value has been placed beyond debate.

illustration of the bottom half of a woman's face
Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

To be self-confident is the imperative of our time. While women and girls are subjected to intense appearance pressures and unrealistic body ideals, the beauty industry is announcing that “confidence is the new sexy.” Similarly, as women suffer profound inequality at work, some employers are offering “confidence training” courses. Meanwhile, female celebrities are advocating self-love in chart-topping songs such as Lizzo’s hit “Truth Hurts,” and books such as Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead and Jen Sincero’s 2013 You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life have dominated best-seller lists. Gender, racial, and class inequalities are persisting, yet women are called on to just believe in themselves.

book cover for "Confidence Culture"
This article was adapted from Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill’s recent book, Confidence Culture. (Duke University Press)

As feminist cultural analysts, we began to notice the rise of these messages in the early 2010s. They stretched across many apparently unrelated spheres: the welfare system, consumer culture, and even international-development initiatives. We expected that confidence might just be having a moment. But several years later, the obsession with women’s self-confidence seems to only be ramping up. Even the military has gotten in on the act: In a 2020 recruitment campaign, the British army addressed potential female soldiers with the promise that joining the forces would give them true and lasting self-esteem—unlike the superficial pseudo-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 from joining the army with the immediate satisfaction of pleasures such as a “quick drink.”) By now, these exhortations are so ubiquitous that they have come to constitute a kind of unquestioned common sense; the self-evident value of women’s confidence has been placed beyond debate.

Of course, we are not against confidence. Would anyone genuinely want to position themselves against making women feel more comfortable in their own skin? But we are skeptical of the consequences of the cultural prominence of this imperative. And after a decade of research, we’ve come to a conclusion: Confidence is both a culture and cult. It is an arena in which meanings about women’s bodies, psyches, and behavior are produced, circulated, negotiated, and resisted. This cult isn’t all bad. But just as it opens up many possibilities for change, it also renders much unintelligible.

Whatever the problems faced by women or girls, the implied diagnosis offered is typically the same: She just needs to believe in herself. (We use women to include all who identify as such, including trans and gender-nonconforming individuals.) Inequality in the workplace? Female employees need to lean in. Eating disorders and poor body image? Girls’ empowerment programs are the solution. Parenting problems? Let’s make moms feel more self-assured so they can raise confident kids. Sex life in a rut? Well, loving yourself is “the new sexy!” Each of these messages reframes features of our unequal society as individual problems; according to confidence culture, we need to change women, not the world.

In recent years we’ve seen a seemingly contradictory move—the vulnerability turn. Indeed, many of the champions of confidence culture—such as the female celebrities Serena Williams, Melinda French Gates, and Michelle Obama—have confessed their self-doubts, experiences of impostor syndrome, and other struggles. Hashtags such as #BeVulnerable, #SelfCompassion, and #RadicalAcceptance spread through social media. Although this focus on vulnerability might seem to challenge the confidence imperative, ultimately it can reinforce this culture. Many incitements to confess one’s insecurities ignore the structural sources of vulnerability, such as poverty, ill health, racism, and sexism. And many of the celebrities divulging their feelings of inadequacy or business leaders sharing their failures are doing so from a place of security, because their struggles are located safely in the past.

Though these messages primarily target women, appeals to men’s confidence are also evident across dating websites and advertising campaigns for products such as Viagra. But, for men, the “wins” of confidence are typically framed as ways of achieving greater status and top performance. For example, one popular male life coach claimed that he’d teach men to “operate on the highest, most optimized level of performance,” “become a remarkable leader,” and “reach social mastery.” By contrast, those who promote self-confidence in women tend to focus on overcoming internal problems—even in realms where this wouldn’t seem to make sense, such as financial advice. An accountant and writer who aims to financially empower women, for example, promised “five ways to make managing your money an act of self-love.”

Perhaps most significantly, calls for women to improve their self-confidence are frequently framed as feminist interventions to help overcome inequality. Of course, we live in a society that systematically undervalues women, so it would be surprising if this did not have an impact on women’s well-being. Yet we remain deeply uncomfortable about the way injustice is framed in personal terms, shifting the blame for gender inequality away from institutional failures to purported 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 completed. For example, when we took the online “confidence quiz” of the best-selling book The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, we each scored highly, but were made to feel that this did not mean that we could relax: “Even those who are fairly confident often experience periods of self-doubt.”

This isn’t to say that confidence culture isn’t appealing and emotionally forceful. We have each 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-belief. What’s more, we are ourselves active—if ambivalent—participants in this culture by, for example, encouraging our female students to be bold and take up more space, and to not apologize for themselves or preface their remarks with “I’m just” or “I’m no expert.” But, ultimately, confidence culture is a distraction. It demands that women identify themselves as lacking and then work on changing their communication styles, their thoughts, their attitudes toward their bodies, and even the way they breathe. In doing so, it achieves what may be its most insidious effect: freeing the forces that are actually at the root of women’s low self-esteem from accountability.

This article was adapted from Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill’s recent book, Confidence Culture.

By Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill

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