How we became suckers for the hard labor of self-optimization.
by Jia Tolentino edited by O Society August 2, 2019
The ideal woman is always generic. I bet you can picture the version of her that runs the show today. She’s of indeterminate age but resolutely youthful presentation. She’s got glossy hair and the clean, shameless expression of a person who believes she was made to be looked at. She is often luxuriating when you see her – on remote beaches, under stars in the desert, across a carefully styled table, surrounded by beautiful possessions or photogenic friends. Showcasing herself at leisure is either the bulk of her work or an essential part of it; in this, she is not so unusual – for many people today, especially for women, packaging and broadcasting your image is a readily monetizable skill. She has a personal brand, and probably a boyfriend or husband: he is the physical realization of her constant, unseen audience, reaffirming her status as an interesting subject, a worthy object, a self-generating spectacle with a viewership attached.
Can you see this woman yet? She looks like an Instagram – which is to say, an ordinary woman reproducing the lessons of the marketplace, which is how an ordinary woman evolves into an ideal. The process requires maximal obedience on the part of the woman in question, and – ideally – her genuine enthusiasm, too. This woman is sincerely interested in whatever the market demands of her (good looks, the impression of indefinitely extended youth, advanced skills in self-presentation and self-surveillance). She is equally interested in whatever the market offers her – in the tools that will allow her to look more appealing, to be even more endlessly presentable, to wring as much value out of her particular position as she can.
The ideal woman, in other words, is always optimizing. She takes advantage of technology, both in the way she broadcasts her image and in the meticulous improvement of that image itself. Her hair looks expensive. She spends lots of money taking care of her skin, a process that has taken on the holy aspect of a spiritual ritual and the mundane regularity of setting a morning alarm.
The work formerly carried out by makeup has been embedded directly into her face: her cheekbones or lips have been plumped up, or some lines have been filled in, and her eyelashes are lengthened every four weeks by a professional wielding individual lashes and glue. The same is true of her body, which no longer requires the traditional enhancements of clothing or strategic underwear; it has been pre-shaped by exercise that ensures there is little to conceal or rearrange.
Everything about this woman has been pre-emptively controlled to the point she can afford the impression of spontaneity and, more important, the sensation of it – having worked to rid her life of artificial obstacles, she often feels legitimately carefree. The ideal woman can be whatever she wants to be – as long as she manages to act upon the belief that perfecting herself and streamlining her relationship to the world can be a matter of both work and pleasure, or, in other words, of “lifestyle”. The ideal woman steps into a stratum of expensive juices, boutique exercise classes, skincare routines and vacations, and there she happily remains.
Most women believe themselves to be independent thinkers. Even glossy women’s magazines now model skepticism toward top-down narratives about how we should look, who and when we should marry, how we should live. But the psychological parasite of the ideal woman has evolved to survive in an ecosystem that pretends to resist her. If women start to resist an aesthetic, like the overapplication of Photoshop, the aesthetic just changes to suit us; the power of the ideal image never actually wanes. It is now easy enough to engage women’s skepticism toward ads and magazine covers, images produced by professionals. It is harder for us to suspect images produced by our peers, and nearly impossible to get us to suspect the images we produce of ourselves, for our own pleasure and benefit – even though, in a time when heavy social media use has become broadly framed as a career asset, many of us are effectively professionals now, too.
Today’s ideal woman is of a type that coexists easily with feminism in its current market-friendly and mainstream form. This sort of feminism has organized itself around being as visible and appealing to as many people as possible; it has greatly over-valorized women’s individual success. Feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier. These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image. She can believe – reasonably enough, and with the full encouragement of feminism – that she herself is the architect of the exquisite, constant and often pleasurable type of power that this image holds over her time, her money, her decisions, her selfhood and her soul.
Figuring out how to “get better” at being a woman is a ridiculous and often amoral project – a subset of the larger, equally ridiculous, equally amoral project of learning to get better at life under accelerated capitalism. In these pursuits, most pleasures end up being traps, and every public-facing demand escalates in perpetuity. Satisfaction remains, under the terms of the system, necessarily out of reach.
But the worse things get, the more a person is compelled to optimize. I think about this every time I do something that feels particularly efficient and self-interested, like going to a barre class or eating lunch at a fast-casual chopped-salad chain, like Sweetgreen, which feels less like a place to eat and more like a refueling station. I’m a repulsively fast eater in most situations – my boyfriend once told me that I chew like someone’s about to take my food away – and at Sweetgreen, I eat even faster because (as can be true of many things in life) slowing down for even a second can make the machinery give you the creeps. Sweetgreen is a marvel of optimization: a line of 40 people – a texting, shuffling, eyes-down snake – can be processed in 10 minutes, as customer after customer orders a kale caesar with chicken without even looking at the other, darker-skinned, hairnet-wearing line of people who are busy adding chicken to kale caesars as if it were their purpose in life to do so and their customers’ purpose in life to send emails for 16 hours a day with a brief break to snort down a bowl of nutrients that ward off the unhealthfulness of urban professional living.
The ritualization and neatness of this process (and the fact that Sweetgreen is pretty good) obscure the intense, circular artifice that defines the type of life it’s meant to fit into. The ideal chopped-salad customer needs to eat his $12 salad in 10 minutes because he needs the extra time to keep functioning within the job that allows him to afford a regular $12 salad in the first place. He feels a physical need for this $12 salad, as it’s the most reliable and convenient way to build up a vitamin barrier against the general malfunction that comes with his salad-requiring-and-enabling job. As Matt Buchanan wrote at the Awl in 2015, the chopped salad is engineered to “free one’s hand and eyes from the task of consuming nutrients, so that precious attention can be directed toward a small screen, where it is more urgently needed, so it can consume data: work email or Amazon’s nearly infinite catalog or Facebook’s actually infinite News Feed, where, as one shops for diapers or engages with the native advertising sprinkled between the not-hoaxes and baby photos, one is being productive by generating revenue for a large internet company, which is obviously good for the economy, or at least it is certainly better than spending lunch reading a book from the library, because who is making money from that?”
On today’s terms, what Buchanan is describing is the good life. It means progress, individuation. It’s what you do when you’ve gotten ahead a little bit, when you want to get ahead some more. The hamster-wheel aspect has been self-evident for a long time now. But today, in an economy defined by precarity, more of what was merely stupid and adaptive has turned stupid and compulsory. Vulnerability, which is ever present, must be warded off at all costs. And so I go to Sweetgreen on days when I need to eat vegetables very quickly because I’ve been working till 1am all week and don’t have time to make dinner because I have to work till 1am again, and like a chump, I try to make eye contact across the sneeze guard, as if this alleviated anything about the skyrocketing productivity requirements that have forced these two lines of people to scarf and create kale caesars all day, and then I “grab” my salad and eat it in under 10 minutes while looking at email.
It’s very easy, under conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organizing your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible. Women have known this intimately for a long time.
I was a late bloomer in terms of functional physical practices, like eating vegetables and exercising. I was a gymnast as a kid and then a cheerleader later, but one thing was fun and the second was effectively a requirement: at my school, you had to play a sport, and I lacked the hand-eye coordination to do anything else. As a teenager, I subsisted on pizza and queso and cinnamon rolls, trying to immunize myself with apathy and pleasure-seeking throughout the long stretch of time when girls, overwhelmed by sudden expectations of beauty, transmit anorexia and bulimia to one another like a virus. For the better part of a decade, I figured I was better off being slightly unhealthy and leaving the active pursuit of body-related matters alone.
This all changed when I was 21 and volunteering in the Peace Corps. Under the circumstances, it was impossible to think too much about my appearance, and health was of such immediate importance it was always on my mind. I started doing yoga in my room every day as a prophylactic measure against mental breakdown. When I returned to America in 2011, I kept at it. Yoga helped me be gentle to myself during the process of readjustment, when I was constantly flooded with dread and spiritual uselessness, the sense that I had failed.
And then, in 2012, at the end of a yoga class, I felt something shift. I was in grad school, deep in a period of daytime beers and open-ended self-discovery, and I was lying in final resting pose, suddenly wondering why motionlessness was supposed to be relaxing. The specter of stagnation hung heavy over my existence. I missed, suddenly, the part of me that thrilled to sharpness, harshness, discipline. I had been directing these instincts at my mind, hiding them from my body, but why? At that moment I needed something stronger than yoga, the unrestricted ease of which had reminded me, just then, that I didn’t know what I was doing, and likely never would.
So, later that week, I printed out a Groupon trial offer at a studio called Pure Barre. I was greeted by an instructor who looked like Jessica Rabbit: ice-green eyes, a physically impossible hourglass figure, honey-colored hair rippling down past her waist. She ushered me into a cave-dark room full of sinewy women gathering mysterious red rubber props. The front wall was mirrored. The women stared at their reflections, stone-faced, preparing.
Then class started, and it was an immediate state of emergency. Barre is a manic and ritualized activity, often set to deafening music and lighting changes. The rapid-fire series of positions and movements, dictated and enforced by the instructor, resembled what a ballerina might do if you concussed her and then made her snort caffeine pills – a fanatical, repetitive routine of arm gestures, leg lifts and pelvic tilts.
By the end of class, my leg muscles had liquefied. Jessica turned the lights off and chirped that it was time for “back dancing”, a term that I thought, collapsing on to the floor, sounded like what people on a parenting message board might use as a euphemism for sex. It was, in fact, pretend-fucking: we lay on our backs and thrust our hips into the darkness with a sacrificial devotion that I had not applied to actual sex for years. The lights went on. Jessica cooed: “Great job, ladies.” Everybody clapped.
Barre was invented in the 60s by Lotte Berk, a Jewish ballerina who developed an exercise method based on her dance training, and at 46, with her rigidly disciplined body as a walking billboard, founded a women-only exercise studio in a basement on London’s Manchester Street. It is now a national fixture across the US. The rise of barre is unparalleled in a few aspects: as far as exercise methods go, nothing this expensive and this uniform has gone this big. Hot yoga and pilates are both ubiquitous, but the pursuits have expanded at the level of individual studios rather than nationwide chains. (Yoga classes also mostly hover around $20 or less, where barre, if you pay full price, often costs double that.) Among hundreds of thousands of women in dramatically different political and cultural environments, there seems to be an easy agreement that barre is worth it,
In grad school in the midwest, I became a believer. I had been primed, first with my girlishly regimented physical training – dance, gymnastics, cheerleading – and then with yoga, my therapeutic on-ramp to the thing I was slowly realizing, which was that you could, without obvious negative consequences, control the way your body felt on the inside and worked on the outside by paying people to give you orders in a small, mirrored room. Barre was much too expensive for my grad school budget, but I kept paying for it. It seemed like an investment in a more functional life.
Was it health I was investing in? In a very narrow way, it was. Barre has made me stronger and improved my posture. It has given me the luxury – off-limits to so many people, for so many stupid reasons – of not having to think about my body, because it mostly feels good, mostly works.
But the endurance that barre builds is possibly more psychological than physical. What it’s really good at is getting you in shape for a hyper-accelerated capitalist life. It prepares you less for a half marathon than for a 12-hour workday, or a week alone with a kid and no childcare, or an evening commute on an underfunded train. Barre feels like exercise the way Sweetgreen feels like eating: both might better be categorized as mechanisms to help you adapt to arbitrary, prolonged agony. As a form of exercise, barre is ideal for an era in which everyone has to work constantly – you can be back at the office in five minutes, no shower necessary – and in which women are still expected to look unreasonably good.
And of course it’s that last part, the looks thing, that makes barre feel so worthwhile to so many people. Barre is results-driven and appearance-based – it’s got the cultishness of CrossFit or a boot camp class, but with looks, not strength, as its primary goal. It’s only vaguely connected to ballet in terms of your actual movements, but conceptually, ballet is essential to the pitch. Among women, ballerinas have a uniquely legitimate reason to look taut and disciplined. There are plenty of other women who are thin and graceful-looking by professional requirement – models, escorts, actors – but ballerinas meet the beauty standard not just in the name of appearance or performance but also in the name of high athleticism and art. And so an exercise method even nominally drawn from ballet has the subtle effect of giving regular women a sense of serious, artistic, professional purpose in their pursuit of their ideal body. This is a good investment or, more precisely, a pragmatic self-delusion. Learning how to function more efficiently within an exhausting system: this seems to me to be the thing, with barre, that people pay $40 a class for, the investment that always brings back returns.
The term “optimize” was used for the first time the way we currently use it, in economics, in the mid 19th century. “To satisfy our wants to the utmost with the least effort – to procure the greatest amount of what is desirable at the expense of the least that is undesirable – in other words, to maximize pleasure, is the problem of economics,” wrote William Stanley Jevons in The Theory of Political Economy. We all want to get the most out of what we have.
Today, the principle of optimization – the process of making something, as the dictionary puts it, “as fully perfect, functional, or effective as possible” – thrives in extremity. An entire industry has even sprung up to give optimization a uniform: athleisure, the type of clothing you wear when you are either acting on or signaling your desire to have an optimized life. I define athleisure as exercise gear that you pay too much money for, but defined more broadly, athleisure was a $97bn category by 2016.
Since its emergence around a decade ago, athleisure has gone through a few aesthetic iterations. At first, it was black leggings and colorful tank tops – a spandex version of an early-aughts going-out uniform favored by women who might have, by the time of athleisure’s rise, shifted their daily social interactions to yoga and coffee dates. More recently, athleisure has branched off and reconverged in permutations. There is a sort of cosmic hippie look (elaborate prints, webbed galaxy patterns), a sort of monochrome LA look (mesh, neutrals, baseball hats), a minimalist and heathered Outdoor Voices aesthetic, and an influx of awful slogans like “I’ll See You at the Barre”. Brands include Lululemon (“Wunder Under High-Rise Tights”, described as “edgy”, cost $98), Athleta (“Pacifica Contoured Hoodie Tank”, a hooded tank top, is $59), Sweaty Betty (“Power Wetlook Mesh Crop Leggings”, which are “Bum Sculpting? You Bet Your Ass”, $120), the ghoulish brand Spiritual Gangster (leggings with “Namaste” across the ass, $88; cotton tank top screen-printed with “I’ll see it when I believe it”, $56).
Men wear athleisure, but the idea, and the vast majority of the category, belongs to women. It was built around the habits of stay-at-home mums, college students, fitness professionals, off-duty models – women who wore exercise clothing outside an exercise setting and who, like ballerinas, have heightened reasons to monitor the market value of their looks. This deep incentive is hidden by a bunch of more obvious ones: these clothes are easy to wear, machine-washable, wrinkle-proof. Athleisure – like all optimization experiences and products – is reliably comfortable and supportive in a world that is not. In 2016, Moira Weigel wrote, at Real Life magazine, “Lululemons announce that for the wearer, life has become frictionless.” She recalls putting on a pair of Spanx shapewear for the first time: “The word for how my casing made me feel was optimized.”
Spandex – the material in both Spanx and expensive leggings – was invented during the second world war, when the military was trying to develop new parachute fabrics. It is uniquely flexible, resilient and strong. It feels comforting to wear high-quality spandex, but this sense of reassurance is paired with an undercurrent of demand. Shapewear controls the body under clothing; athleisure broadcasts your commitment to controlling your body through working out. And to even get into a pair of Lululemons, you have to have a disciplined-looking body. (The founder of the company once said that “certain women” aren’t meant to wear his brand.) “Self-exposure and self-policing meet in a feedback loop,” Weigel wrote. “Because these pants only ‘work’ on a certain kind of body, wearing them reminds you to go out and get that body.”
This is how athleisure has carved out the space between exercise apparel and fashion: the former category optimizes your performance, the latter optimizes your appearance, and athleisure does both simultaneously. It is tailor-made for a time when work is rebranded as pleasure so that we will accept more of it – a time when, for women, improving your looks is a job that you’re supposed to believe is fun. And the real trick of athleisure is the way it can physically suggest that you were made to do this – that you’re the kind of person who thinks that putting in expensive hard work for a high-functioning, maximally attractive consumer existence is about as good a way to pass your time on Earth as there is.
I recently bought my first pair of Spanx in preparation for a wedding. My oldest friend was getting married in Texas, and the bridesmaids’ dresses – for all 13 of us – were pale pink, floor-length and as tight as shrink-wrap from the strapless neckline to the knees. When I first tried the dress on, I could see the inside of my belly button in the mirror. Frowning, I went online and bought a $98 “Haute Contour® High-Waisted Thong”. It arrived a few days later, and I tried it on with the dress: I couldn’t breathe properly, I immediately started sweating and everything looked even worse. “What the fuck,” I said, staring at my reflection. I looked like a bad imitation of a woman whose most deeply held personal goal was to look hot in pictures. And of course, in that moment, in a $98 punishment thong and a dress designed for an Instagram model, that’s exactly what I was.
The ideal woman looks beautiful, happy, carefree and perfectly competent. Is she really? To look any particular way and to actually be that way are two separate concepts, and striving to look carefree and happy can interfere with your ability to feel so. The internet codifies this problem, makes it inescapable; in recent years, pop culture has started to reflect the fractures in selfhood that social media creates. Not coincidentally, these stories usually center on women, and usually involve a protagonist driven to insanity by the digital avatar of an ideal peer. There is an exaggerated binary fatalism to these stories, in which women are either successes or failures, always one or the other – and a sense of inescapability that rings more true to life. If you can’t escape the market, why stop working on its terms?
Women are genuinely trapped at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy – two systems that, at their extremes, ensure that individual success comes at the expense of collective morality. And yet there is enormous pleasure in individual success. It can feel like license and agency to approach an ideal, to find yourself – in a good picture, on your wedding day, in a flash of identical movement – exemplifying a prototype. There are rewards for succeeding under capitalism and patriarchy; there are rewards even for being willing to work on its terms. There are nothing but rewards, at the surface level. The trap looks beautiful. It’s well-lit. It welcomes you in.
There is a case, as laid out by Donna Haraway in her tricky 1985 essay A Cyborg Manifesto, for understanding the female condition as essentially, fundamentally adulterated and for seeking a type of freedom compatible with that state. “At the center of my ironic faith, my blasphemy, is the image of the cyborg,” she wrote. The cyborg was a “hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction”. The late 20th century had “made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”
Haraway imagined women, formed in a way that makes us inextricable from social and technological machinery, could become fluid and radical and resistant. We could be like cyborgs – shaped in an image we didn’t choose for ourselves, and disloyal and disobedient as a result. “Illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential,” Haraway wrote. The cyborg was “oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence”. She would understand that the terms of her life had always been artificial. She would – and what an incredible possibility! – feel no respect whatsoever for the rules by which her life played out.
In real life, women are so much more obedient. Our rebellions are so trivial and small. Lately, the ideal women of Instagram have started chafing, just a little, against the structures that surround them. The anti-Instagram statement is now a predictable part of the model/influencer social media life cycle: a beautiful young woman who goes to great pains to maintain and perform her own beauty for an audience will eventually post a note on Instagram revealing that Instagram has become a bottomless pit of personal insecurity and anxiety. She’ll take a week-long break from the social network, and then, almost always, she will go on exactly as before. Resistance to a system is almost always presented on the terms of the system. It’s so much easier, when we gain agency, to use it to adapt rather than to oppose.
Technology, in fact, has made us less than oppositional: where beauty is concerned, we have deployed technology not only to meet the demands of the system but to actually expand these demands. The realm of what is possible for women has been exponentially expanding in all beauty-related capacities – think of the extended Kardashian experiments in body modification, or the young models whose plastic surgeons have given them entirely new faces – and remained stagnant in many other ways. We have not “optimized” our wages, our childcare system, our political representation; we still hardly even think of parity as realistic in those arenas, let alone anything approaching perfection. We have maximized our capacity as market assets. That’s all.
For the way out, I think, we have to follow the cyborg. We have to be willing to be disloyal, to undermine. The cyborg is powerful because she grasps the potential in her own artificiality, because she accepts without question how deeply it is embedded in her. It’s possible if we want it. But what do we want? What would you want – what desires, what forms of insubordination, would you be able to access – if you had succeeded in becoming an ideal woman, gratified and beloved, proof of the efficiency of a system that magnifies and diminishes you every day?
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino