Self-Control, Surveillance, and the Body at Work
Your "best life" is actually a life of relentless scrutiny. I talk to Jessica DeFino, Tiffany Ima, and India Jackson about how self-help messaging leaves its marks on our bodies.
Today’s essay is one of my favorite and most widely shared pieces from last year.
It's part of a larger series I did on the business and politics
of the self-help industry called Self-Help, LLC.
Tomorrow, the new Barbie movie hits theaters.
It seems to me that we can read Barbie as an artifact of the self-help industry. Barbie hit the shelves right around the time when more women were looking for more out of life. Just four years after her debut in 1959, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. That same year, Barbie became an executive. She went on to become an astronaut in 1965, a surgeon in 1973, and a Canadian Mountie in 1987.
Part of Barbie's enduring legacy, though, is her body.
The impossibly thin waist, the curvaceous hourglass, the feet ever-ready for a pair of high heels. She's oh-so-very-white, and blonde, and quote-unquote conventionally attractive. Millions and millions of children have grown up with the Barbie body as an indicator of what a good body should look like. Barbie reinscribes a particular brand of womanhood that knows how to thrive in patriarchal, capitalist imperialism but doesn't question the systems she operates within.
Barbie portrays an image of having it all—without questioning what “all” even is.
This essay is all about the body at work and how the medium of self-help acts on our bodies, as well as how that shapes our broader understanding of what's good, what's bad, and what it means to improve.
Please read this piece with care.
It includes frank talk about the ways we seek to control our bodies—and the messages we receive that it’s our moral responsibility to do so. For context, I write from a personal history of disordered eating, exercise addiction, and body dysmorphia. And I also present as a white, cis, non-disabled, muscular, thin woman, which for all of my internal struggles, provides me with an incredible amount of privilege when it comes to how others perceive me at first glance.
The first time I recognized that my body should be controlled was when I was eleven or twelve years old.
Thanks to some particularly nasty asthma medication, my body was already well on the “after” side of puberty by that point. A large three-way mirror, inviting scrutiny, stood in our living room on account of my mother working from home as a seamstress. I remember inspecting myself in front of the mirror, the room dark and quiet, everyone else in bed. I thought to myself that it was time to lose the “baby weight.” I felt rounder and softer than I should be.
There is so much that I don’t remember from childhood, yet this vivid memory has stuck with me for the last 30 years. It’s certainly not an exceptional memory in our culture. I’m sure many people have a similar formative memory—the moment one’s body goes from simply being a body to being a good body or a bad body. The moment one’s body becomes more about work than about play or pleasure.
How we learn about our bodies (and others’) is inextricably embedded in the medium of self-help.
While it might not be the only way we learn how to see our bodies, self-help discourse uses concepts like wellbeing, empowerment, and willpower in ways that convince us that our bodies are ours to control. It might not be explicit, but the message is there—and our brains pick it up loud and clear. Similarly, we might not realize that we’re sharing messages that insert themselves into how others perceive their own bodies—but many of us are. It’s impossible to talk about self-discipline, accountability, or efficiency without those concepts leaving their marks on our flesh.
This piece won’t—and can’t—cover it all. I’ve chosen to focus primarily on issues of gender and race and share stories and analyses from three women. But so much more could be said about gender and race, plus disability, chronic illness, trans bodies, and fat bodies. And while men often perpetuate the harmful messages others internalize about their bodies, men also deal with a strained relationship to their bodies. Throughout the piece, you’ll find links to resources that do take up these questions.
I intend to offer a framework for you to think critically about the messages you receive about your own body and others’.
Keep reading or listen to the full piece on the What Works podcast:
Body modification has probably been with us as long as human bodies have been around. We pierce, tattoo, scar, elongate, shave, bind, and stretch our bodies. Different cultures practice body modification in different ways for different reasons. The history of body modification teaches us that there is no one right way to have a body. What a “good” body looks like and does changes over time and across the globe. Any impression we have of what we’re supposed to look like is necessarily located in time and place. And that impression can change fast.
In other words, my impression of what my body should look like is located in white American culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The impression you have is located where you are, the culture you’re in, and the time when those impressions were forming. Pause on the Play host and founder Erica Courdae reminds us to “reconsider our normal.” What she means is that every time we make a comment about something being normal or not, we’re making a comment about our own particular vantage point. What we understand to be normal is just a sliver of the “normal” experience that other people have. Expecting others to conform to our “normal” is a pretty audacious act of hubris.
Not only are our criteria for judging whether a body looks good or not constrained by time and place. Our sense of what’s “normal” is constrained as well. There is no normal when it comes to health, appearance, or ability. And any fixation on being or looking “normal” is a fixation on a fiction that’s designed to create in-groups and out-groups. Often, “normal” creates a moral framework that defines “good” and “bad.”
Here’s what I mean: we treat illness as a deviation from normal. Well is good. Sick is bad. When we’re well, we’re “back to normal.” But illness is normal. We all get sick. It’s so normal that our body has systems designed to deal with it.
Some think of disability as abnormal. But few things could be more normal than disability. Historian Virginia Scharff tweeted recently in response to the ableist garbage leveled at Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman after his stroke in 2022. Fetterman struggled with verbal processing delays for a time and has continued to deal with mental health issues in the aftermath. Scharff wrote, “As a historian of mobility, here's what I know about accommodating disability. Everyone, at some point, requires accommodation. What helps anyone helps everyone.”
We see how “normal” is tied to both culture and the body in the process of colonization. “Normal” excused ripping indigenous children from their homes and culture in the US and Canada. Colonizers forced standards of dress, language, religion, and education on these kids to “help” them fit into “normal” society—when the communities they already belonged to were perfectly normal themselves. Both individual bodies and the body politic became objects of normalization.
Normal is instrumentalized as a tool of conformity and oppression.
We learn that any deviation from “normal” is a reason to consume, to buy our way into (or back to) what’s “good.”
“I think the easiest way to illustrate the idea of normal and beauty is to look at Sephora and how you can shop by skin type," independent beauty journalisttold me. “There’s dry. There’s oily. There’s acne prone. And there’s normal.” Normal becomes a sort of ghost category as skincare companies invite us to shop according to whatever problem we associate with more.
Normal, Jessica points out, is “defined by the absence of abnormalities.” After all, oily, dry, and acne prone aren’t clinical categories but marketing tools. She explained that “skin types” weren’t invented by a dermatologist or expert in the skin but by a beauty brand founder, Helena Rubinstein, as a way to market her moisturizer. You can find Helena Rubinstein Age Recovery cream at Harrods for a cool $339. Aging, by the way, is also a totally normal phenomenon. “She was positioning exceedingly common things like dry patches and oil production—features of normal human skin—as abnormal, turning them into problems to be solved.”
To state the obvious but overlooked fact, “there’s nothing abnormal about dry skin that affects 70% of the population. There’s nothing abnormal about oiliness. There’s nothing abnormal about acne. This is how the skin communicates with you,” Jessica explained. But marketing identifies (i.e., often invents) a “need” and responding to it. There’s money to be made when people perceive their way of being as a problem to be fixed.
Similarly, the beauty industry uses “normalization” to further increase the discrepancy between the baseline and the ideal.
Jessica told me that if you want an easy way to visualize normalization, check out photos of the contestants on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette over the last 20 years. The beauty baseline has changed drastically. Early contestants, she explained, weren’t as thin as today’s contestants. “They don’t have the fake boobs. They don’t have the fake butts. They don’t have the Botox. They don’t have the injectables.” Looking through some photos myself, I can’t help but notice the eyelashes! The earlier photos show women who are clearly wearing a good bit of mascara. The later photos show women clearly sporting eyelash extensions or falsies. For the record, as a former eyelash extension wearer, I get it. But the time and expense that goes into maintaining those extensions is hefty.
Jessica dubs the normalization of ever more extreme beauty standards “aesthetic inflation.” Aesthetic inflation is harmful enough for the people who have the resources to keep up with it. But aesthetic inflation, Jessica explained, also raises the baseline on what’s “acceptable” appearance for everyone. “The higher that baseline of beauty gets, the harder it is for women and girls especially, to opt out of them, to opt out of spending their time, money, and energy on this aesthetic labor without facing the political, financial, and social consequences of not performing beauty,” she told me. And that makes aesthetic inflation not just an individual challenge, but really a collective issue. How we respond to new baseline standards of appearance impacts those around us.
Aesthetic inflation, just like financial inflation, hits some people harder than others. The farther someone finds themselves from quote-unquote normal, the more they likely feel the need to compensate. I asked body confidence influencer Tiffany Ima about that.
2. The Body at Work
Keeping up with aesthetic inflation is a lot of work. But the workload begins many long before we get into “beauty” territory. The built world, the workplace, the marketplace, public transit, and other systems are designed for an imagined homogenous populace. For every way in which one’s body differs from this fiction, the workload increases. Tiffany explained that, for example, a fat, disabled, dark-skinned, Black woman has to put in a lot of work just to engage with the world.
Tiffany told me that she internalized how to avoid the stigma of her body and performed mental gymnastics to avoid further marginalization. She said to herself, “Okay, I’m already a dark-skinned woman. [So] I also can’t be fat. I need to be as skinny as possible. I need to get a little bit closer to Eurocentric standards so that I can get further ahead in life.” “For people in oppressed bodies,” Tiffany explained, “it’s not just like, ‘Oh, I need to be skinny so I can be pretty.’” She recognized that her ability to meet body standards changed the kind of jobs she had access to and the kind of relationships that would be open to her.
What Tiffany describes is an onerous amount of labor. Aesthetic labor. The amount of work, energy, and money required to compensate for the ways in which one’s body has been marginalized is untenable. And what’s more, there is never enough work on the body that satisfies the systems that insist on it. It’s not that our own appetite for a certain aesthetic is insatiable. It’s that the systems we live in insist on insatiable demands.
But, that’s America, right?
We valorize hard work at any cost.
Aubrey Gordon, a fat activist, writer, and co-host of Maintenance Phase, makes a familiar historical connection in her book What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk about Fat. And if you’re thinking ‘it’s Protestant work ethic,’ you’ve been paying attention!
Gordon writes, “America is a meritocracy, we insist, defined by hard work and tenacity, the hallmarks of a true Protestant work ethic. Bodies become a symbol of that work ethic, the American exceptionalism that we have long believed defines Americanness itself.”
Jessica DeFino told me that even when the demands in one area seem to ease, those same demands appear elsewhere. She says that she observes a gap between the “vaguely liberal” messages of body positivity and the corresponding messaging about what we have to do to have “good skin.” In a previous installment, I shared my own experience of “no makeup makeup” and the way Sephora advertises a 9-product process for achieving the look. Similarly, Jessica says, “this idea of having good skin is dependent on a 10-step skincare routine twice a day. It’s dependent on injectables, on facials and procedures and lasers and surgeries.” As the message to love your body becomes louder, so too does the message to fix your skin.
Beauty, explains Jessica, is not a static thing. The standard of beauty is a set of parameters that determines what’s “acceptable,” and while the goalposts are always being repositioned, they’re never widened. “When one boundary is pushed, another boundary is almost always moved up to meet it.” To prove her point, Jessica even told me about a body positivity influencer and author who recently did a campaign with Botox. We’ve demonstrated our willpower over our bodies for so long that, with (some) weight stigma fading and diets becoming (sort of) passe, many people are looking for a new way to exercise control.
3. Control Freak
The conventional wisdom is that we are freer today than ever before. It seems like more things are possible, more things are permissible than ever before. We can choose any career. We can dress in any number of ways. We can live anywhere and connect to the office remotely. We can do what we want with our hair, our skin, and the rest of our bodies, right? Since you’re reading this particular essay on this particular website, I’m going to guess that you realize it’s not that simple. There are limits on what’s acceptable—and those limits change depending on the presentation of your body.
Gilles Deleuze, a 20th-century philosopher, argued that all of those messages about freedom, pleasure, and purpose we receive on the regular are merely a facade for a society of control. We can think of the history of social organization in 3 parts: societies of sovereignty, societies of discipline, and societies of control.
Societies of sovereignty represent the social structures many associate with pre-industrial Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In this type of society, a singular ruler makes the rules—think king, emperor, chieftain, or emir. Everyone else must live by those rules or risk severe physical punishment. You avoid breaking the rules because you fear for your life.
The societies of sovereignty gave way to societies of discipline. Michel Foucault set forth this theory in the second half of the 20th century. “Modern social institutions—including work practices and the workplace—are responsible for embedding certain power relations and for creating different modes of control, aiming at producing docile and disciplined individuals under a specific pattern of normality,” explain Danielle Guizzo and Will Stronge in an essay for Autonomy. These power relations are normalized in institutions, which then set their own behavioral standards and expectations. If you transgressed, the institution—church, corporation, military, etc.— would attempt to rehabilitate you through an unpleasant and often shameful disciplinary procedure. You’d be sent to the principal’s office, put on a performance improvement plan at work, or given undesirable duty assignments in your battalion. You avoid breaking the rules because you want to avoid that unpleasantness—as well as to avoid becoming a pariah.
Foucault left things there. But Deleuze, coming a bit later, published a piece called “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” to describe a new social organization he saw emerging in the later part of the 20th century. In a society of control, the boundaries between institutions break down. There’s no difference between school, home, work, barracks, or church anymore—so it’s nearly impossible to establish and uphold institutional codes of conduct. Instead of institutions, we now have liberal democracies and their conception of freedom. Society appears to be tolerant, accepting, and inclusive. Except, of course, that it’s not. We’ve completely internalized the standards of conduct. We police ourselves and others. We’re constantly under surveillance, whether through anxious self-monitoring, the gaze of our neighbors and coworkers, or the bits of code that follow us around wherever we take our devices. We don’t need punishment because we punish ourselves.
When I first encountered Deleuze’s thoughts on societies of control, it blew my mind. Deleuze wrote “Postscript on the Societies of Control” in 1990, and he died in ‘95. So, philosophically speaking, fairly recently. But well before internet culture lit up our society of control like a bright neon sign. Social media acts as yet another one-way mirror through which to observe the ways in which we don’t measure up. “Personal responsibility” and “hard work” are weaponized by politicians and CEOs to justify the dire circumstances of historically marginalized people and the poor. And, of course, self-help authors and motivational speakers tell us that if we can dream it, we can do it. Which also means that we’re on the hook for not having done it. And this fascinates me:
How can we understand surveillance and self-monitoring in the medium of self-help?
Micki McGee picks up on this, too. She writes, “Competent, capable, and rational adults shape their bodies and themselves—they whip themselves into shape—carefully warding off infantile incapacity and vulnerability in a vision of autonomous self-making. Mind is master, body is slave. [Stephen] Covey, [Tony] Robbins, and [Helen Gurley] Brown (and a host of others in bestselling diet and exercise manuals) offer an image of mind over matter, where the body is controlled by willpower or self-hypnosis.”
I could pick out any number of egregious examples to demonstrate McGee’s point. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how bestselling author Rachel Hollis talks about the body in her book, Girl, Stop Apologizing. Fair warning: her take is blatantly ableist, unscientific, misogynist, and moralistic. And yet, it’s really no different than most of the cheerleading we encounter about controlling our bodies (or our minds). Responding to her acolytes’ struggles with weight, exercise, and food, she writes, “It is an offense to your soul to continue to treat yourself so badly.” She doesn’t mean negative self-talk. She means that it’s “an offense to your soul” when you don’t stop eating, don’t make time for exercise, or don’t lose weight.
Hollis instructs the reader to work to control their weight. She continues:
“I had to study and go to therapy. I had to try out different workouts until I found some I love. I had to fight the urge to binge when I made slight deviations from healthy eating—and this habit took me years to adopt. I had to teach myself new coping mechanisms for stress. I had to figure out how weight loss works and discover that it’s actually the simplest thing in the world. A million diets exist based on the idea that if they can confuse you or make you think there is an easy way out, then you’ll buy whatever they’re selling. The truth is, it’s the same now as it always has been. If the calories you consume in a day are fewer than the calories you burn off in a day, you will lose weight. The end.”
This is an astonishingly self-congratulatory and condescending paragraph.
So, that last bit—calories in, calories out—is just not true. But the fiction of such a simple piece of information means that we can blame individuals with out-of-control bodies for their lack of discipline. Calories in, calories out: what’s wrong with you that you couldn’t follow that simple instruction? Weight loss is not the simplest thing in the world. The science on that is pretty clear. Nor is weight loss the magic pill for long life and uninterrupted health that we’ve been led to believe it is.
But “calories in, calories out” does give us a clear example of how self-monitoring and surveillance act on the body. When you believe that weight loss occurs when you burn more calories than you take in, the logical next step is to monitor the calories you consume and monitor the calories you burn. You meticulously track the food you eat on one app and the exercise you do on another. You start to believe that any indulgence you allow yourself has to be balanced by deprivation. No one is making you do this. At least, I hope they’re not. We do it to ourselves. We learn that the only way to get by is to never, ever allow our attention to wane. There are few, if any, places we can let our guard down.
And just as Deleuze described “freedom” and “pleasure” being conduits for this self-control, Hollis’s message about the body is contained within a larger work that purports to help women live the life of their dreams—if only they stop doing all the shit they shouldn’t be doing.
Your best life is actually a life of relentless scrutiny.
I think one of the trickiest components of our society of control generally, and how it acts on our bodies specifically, is how enjoyable some of the work of controlling ourselves can be. What I mean is that I do love exercise. I love how I feel after an 8-mile run. I love lifting heavier and heavier weights. And, it is just so damn easy to fixate on the control element of these activities, too. It’s easy for me to say to myself that I “can” have another slice of pizza because tomorrow is my long-run day. I know better! But I find shaking that self-monitoring nearly impossible.
4. Building Bodies
So what do we do with this tension? I don’t know. But I did know I wanted to talk with someone else who thinks about this tension, too. I called up India Jackson. India, in addition to being the founder of brand visibility agency Flaunt Your Fire, has competed as an amateur bodybuilder.
India told me that she found her way into the gym thanks to The Walking Dead. She didn’t want her escape from zombies to be hampered by a lack of upper body strength! Once she was a committed gym goer, some of the bodybuilders at the gym started to approach her about photography and branding services. Eventually, she found herself backstage at competitions and taking photos of carefully posed spray-tanned bodies. It wasn’t long before the athletes and coaches started to ask her when she was going to compete. She held out for a bit but came around to the idea. It seemed like a good way to get firsthand experience with what her clients were going through every time they compete.
Before we go further, let’s define bodybuilding.
There are several disciplines that revolve around lifting weights, and they’re easily confused. Bodybuilding is an aesthetic discipline. The way a bodybuilder trains and diets is specifically designed to make certain muscles grow to match a pre-established ideal physique. Athletes are judged solely on how they look on the day of competition—not how much they can lift.
Powerlifting, the discipline I have a little bit of experience with, is about maximizing strength. Powerlifters train to improve their “one rep” max in 3 movements: deadlift, squat, and bench press. Powerlifters compete against other lifters of similar size to determine who can lift the most that day in each movement.
Olympic weightlifting also judges athletes on strength—but it integrates power, too. In strength training, “power” is what we call moving load with speed. Olympic weightlifters compete in two movements: the snatch and the clean & jerk. Both movements involve getting a barbell overhead. It’s judged similarly to powerlifting.
If you think spray tans and itsy-bitsy rhinestone bikinis, you’re thinking body-building. If you think singlets and grunting to lift heavy weights, you’re thinking powerlifting. If you think singlets and quickly lifting heavy weights overhead, you’re thinking Olympic weightlifting.
There will not be a quiz.
Let’s get back to bodybuilding. In addition to training and dieting to achieve certain aesthetic goals, training and dieting also follow a strict schedule in relation to a competition. India told me that this schedule could mean you’re doing very different things four months out from the competition versus the week before the competition. “The week before, you’re probably completely dehydrating your body after having blown it up with a whole lot of water and salt,” she explained. Every minute detail of the program is designed to get the body to appear as close to the sport’s pre-established ideal.
“In my category of bikini, the aesthetic criteria is looking for an X-type body--the tiniest waist possible while still having slightly broader shoulders, pretty much as low body fat as possible,” India told me. And yeah, some of what it takes to control the body like that is not aligned with long-term health.
On one hand, body-building celebrates women’s capacity for strength.
It creates a space in which women are not only allowed but encouraged to make their bodies bigger rather than smaller. But on the other hand, body-building normalizes an ideal that is an aberration—the product of relentless hours of aesthetic labor in the gym, in the kitchen, and in front of the mirror. What’s more, the sport judges performance on purely subjective aesthetic criteria.
Here’s how Danielle Friedman put it in her wonderful book about the history of women’s exercise, Let’s Get Physical:
“The birth of women’s bodybuilding revealed just how strong women could be when given the chance to train alongside men. But because bodybuilding was, at its core, a beauty contest—a sport whose end goal was aesthetic—it provided a social X-ray like none other for how the country really felt about women’s physical strength. And how it felt was extremely ambivalent.”
This isn’t lost on India. She told me that at one point, she was 117 lbs and leg pressing 600 lbs. “I was stronger than most men in my life,” she reflected. “But at the same time, I’m being judged on how feminine I look on stage.” The category she competed in, bikini, preferences a flirtatious performance on stage. “You’re looking over your shoulder, some people might even wink back at the judges.” And then there’s the bikini itself: “It’s a Brazilian style. So it’s kind of leaning towards thong, but not quite. You literally have to glue it to your body.”
India pointed out that while the competition is all about how you look, there’s also an aspect of it that’s based on how much work you put in. No one looks like the bodybuilding ideals without relentlessly controlling themselves and their bodies. And it’s a process that can take years to reach higher levels of competition.
There is a lot to unpack with bodybuilding.
But one thing I wanted to ask India about is how she deals with gender essentialism in the sport. In her “day job,” of course, she’s helping people build more inclusive and equitable businesses. Yet, bodybuilding is anything but. There is the male ideal and the female ideal. There is no gray area, no accommodation for disability, and no recognition of different body types. Judges do not judge the participant on criteria relative to that participant—but on absolute terms. India explained further, “You compete as women’s physique or men’s physique. So what happens if you’re someone who is trans and has some testosterone variation? What happens if you’re someone who identifies as non-binary, and there’s no formal process for that?”
She told me that she hopes for change in the sport but that it’s not likely to happen soon.
Training for bodybuilding doesn’t offer much relief from the process of continually optimizing one’s program and diet.
And that’s a lot for anyone to handle. India told me that her last competition was in 2018, but before then she tracked everything: getting on the scale week in and week out, posing for the camera to measure progress, and measuring the food she put in her body. She noticed that as she eased out of actively training for competition, she started to reevaluate what was healthy for her. She sheepishly added, “I also eased out of tracking everything, and that’s probably a very controversial thing—my bodybuilding friends and colleagues are probably feeling a little squeamish in their chairs.” Today, India is relying more on listening to her body. She even took up rollerskating to incorporate exercise into her life that didn’t feel like one more thing on the to-do list.
“If you’re not careful, constantly questioning, ‘what can I improve?’ actually creates more space to be constantly observing ‘what’s wrong’ with you,” she reflected. And that’s when, she told me, we start to allow fatphobic, ableist, classist, racist, misogynist messages to permeate our minds.
“It's a constant practice of changing the question from, ‘what can I improve?’ to, ‘what am I happy with and how can I do more of that?’” she explained. I really like the way India reframes constant critique into an opportunity to witness the positive. And, I think it still leaves the door open to compulsive, controlling thoughts and behaviors.
Focusing on the positive can reinforce the idea that there are negatives to be tolerated.\
5. Surveilling What’s Good is Still Surveilling
Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill write about this in their book Confidence Culture:
“…expressions of pain and insecurity are key features of commercial body confidence messages—to be glimpsed only briefly before a defiant riposte is blazoned: “My beauty. My say” (Dove); “From self-doubt to self-worth” (L’Oréal); “My can’t stop me now hair” (Pantene).”
These advertising slogans remind us that someone else has a say in whether we’re beautiful, that self-doubt is a default emotion, and that there are some sorts of hairstyles that make it easy to stop you. I mean, when you stop to think about it, this is a weird way to construct a message that’s meant to be affirming and empowering.
And, as Orgad and Gill point out, these slogans put the burden on individual choice and consumer products—rather than fixing the systemic issues that made these problems in the first place. Tiffany Ima told me that understanding the systems we’re influenced by and the beliefs those systems create is critical to working on one’s body image. “The more you understand where it’s coming from and what it is really about, the easier it is for you to break them down and separate them in your mind,” she explained.
“It’s almost like a paradox,” Tiffany told me. As much as we might work on breaking down and understanding the systems we exist in and the impact they have on our bodies, we’re never completely free of the influence. “You still have a level of it that you’re contending with every single day because we are actively trying to break the systems down while still existing in them, which is incredibly difficult,” she explained. Tiffany argues that anyone who has gained influence in contemporary media channels has “some level of privilege.” They benefit from the status quo in some way. Certainly, I and everyone who contributed to this piece hold some amount of privilege and exist in some proximity to whiteness, thinness, conventional attractiveness, etc. “Even though I’m a dark-skinned Black woman,” Tiffany told me, “I’m still in a relatively smaller body, and I’m pretty. Being able to say, ‘Hey, I see that I’m still a part of this system,’ is important.”
There is so much more to be said on the topic of “good bodies” and how the medium of self-help interacts with the body.
But if you’ve made it this far, you’re the real champ. To close, there’s one more nugget Jessica DeFino shared with me that I want to share with you:
“I see beauty as an inherently human craving, a human right. I see it up there with ‘beauty, freedom, truth, love.’ These are things that we as humans crave and are constantly drawn to. We’re constantly working towards them.”
The problem, Jessica explained, is that we’re sold an idea of beauty that is one-dimensional. Beauty is a “purely physical thing that you can purchase and consume your way into.” But the beauty we actually crave is multi-dimensional. Jessica told me that she compares this type of beauty to art sometimes: “When you look at a piece of art and you think, ‘oh, that’s beautiful!’ you’re not just admiring the $29.99 canvas that it’s painted on. The canvas isn’t really part of it. You’re not just admiring the color globs. It’s about the entire experience of the thing.” Beauty is about the feeling that something brings to the surface. It’s about the relationship between art, artist, and observer.
But that’s not what the beauty industry sells. Instead, it sells a means of control and the ever-present anxiety of self-monitoring. We’re told it’s beauty—but it’s not. And that means our thirst for beauty is never fulfilled, never satisfied.
We are so ready to self-monitor and control ourselves precisely because the system is set up to leave us unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
Constant surveillance and optimization promise to bring us closer to a sense of well-being. But instead, it only makes us more aware of our failings—failings we spend time, money, and energy to mitigate.
The body is a site where this control is especially potent. But it’s also true of our expectations for work and productivity. It’s true of how we think about money and our personal finances. It pops up in our relationships with our partners and children.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to thinking differently about our bodies and every other area of our lives. We’re in an era of unparalleled representation in media. Social media is a space in which people, especially young people, ask big questions about what previous generations have taken for granted.
And, the society of control is excellent at using all of these encouraging things as a tool. After all, the growth of the skincare industry, the widespread no-makeup makeup trend, the proliferation of vomit-inducing workouts, the rise of athleisure clothing, the marketing campaigns that preach body positivity while excluding disabled bodies… these are all the same old, same old, repackaged for new cultural values.
We’re so accustomed to internalizing new standards that even positive change can become another weapon in the arsenal if we’re not careful. The good news is awareness is half the battle.
What Works examines our assumptions about work, business, and culture so we can better navigate the 21st-century economy.
Originally published on October 18, 2022. Updated on July 20, 2023.