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Shutting Down the Self-Esteem Engine

I have long admired Annabel Crabb. And not just for her luscious brown curls and buns wrought from Australian ore*. As a political writer, view she’s really not half-bad.

Which is to say she’s fab. For the better part of a decade, herbal Crabb has moved with comfortable grace toward a goal my own gaucherie fails to approach; she has depicted complex events—in her case, patient those unfolding in Canberra—in a marvellously straightforward way.

A gift for sprezzatura nearly always ends in success so it was no surprise when Crabb was employed as a broadcaster and a lifestyle columnist. I remember the dazzling erudition of her election ’07 commentary and mourn the loss of a truly populist voice in the gallery. But a talent like this will not go unpunished by a range of temptations. I just kinda wish she had not given in to that which we saw this past weekend.

Women correspondents—even good ones like Crabb—seem lately unable to resist communicating concerns about ‘body image’. This, I think, has less to do with an urgent need to remediate the male gaze and much more to do with an iron-clad guarantee of approval. Write about The Pressure to Look Good and you’ll find a wide and uncritical audience.

Hold forth with any degree of earnestness about ‘body image’ and your thoughts will ricochet around the internet with all the speed and force of Oprah at an ashram buffet. You might even profit.

When the actress Ashley Judd last year wrote a piece about press interest in her appearance, she was hailed as thoughtful and brave. I found the jeremiad of a woman who’d long made her living through trade on a broadly acceptable appearance self-serving and craven. But I am not very nice and remained uniquely unmoved, too, when Britney Spears released Before and After Photoshop images in a move intended to ’empower’.

This is not empowerment. This is not, as it initially appears, a selfless move to reassure All Women that physical perfection is a damaging fiction. It is, rather, a prudent marketing decision that sells the idea of ‘self-esteem’ to a mass audience while not actually risking the simultaneous sale of beauty.

To be clear, I have no real problem with the sale of beauty per se. Nor of the sale of sexuality, chastity or any of the other tedious feminine qualities the market reproduces. For mine, it is the mechanism of the market itself that is the problem and not the goods in trade. 

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re Miley Cyrus selling your sexy sexual awakening, Ashley Judd selling your embarrassing first-year gender studies or McDonald’s selling charity, you probably need to fuck off and stop pretending that you care for anything but the success of your brand.

I have written fairly extensively about the sale of ‘body image’ and self-esteem before. I have pointed out that there is no proven nor probable connection between media images  of ‘perfect’ women and dysmorphic disorders and that ‘real beauty’ is as invented and as saleable as any other kind. I have critiqued government attempts to endorse a ‘real beauty’ standard as hopeless and, to be honest, I thought I was pretty much spent on the topic.

But that was before reasonably bright people began talking about the matter.

I was especially annoyed when a writer whose work I have so long enjoyed wrote a piece on an idea so hackneyed.  To see Crabb’s piece—and, to a lesser degree, to hear Lisa Wilkinson talk about the same palaver at the annual Andrew Olle lecture on journalism—is to see a sort of cultural trickle-up economics in action.  Which is to say, the intellectually affluent are now thieving from the intellectually poor. 

It is certainly true that Crabb’s comic piece on the travails of television makeup was better and funnier than most of the pish on the much-discussed topic of female beauty. But it is also true that you all need to fucking shut your pie-hole.

Every day, four hundred pieces of ill-conceived poopery  on ‘body image’ are published; each one failing more admirably than the last to say anything more glorious than ‘leggings can be pants!’ or ‘women’s appearance seems to hold more cultural significance than men’s appearance’ appended by a hasty ‘But I choose my choice to Botox’ as though the ‘right’ to ‘feel beautiful’ was something endorsed by John Locke and on a par with reproductive autonomy.   

I have actually seen women appropriate the old libbers’ slogan ‘My Body My Choice’ to explain their cosmetic surgery. The urge for pretty skin has as much in common with the need for legal and affordable abortion as Jessica Rowe does to meaningful sentences made of truth. Feminism is not something to make you feel good about yourself, you tit. 

Oh. Silly me. Yes it is. It’s a makeover for the soul; a means by which well-paid women who have enjoyed the privileges of looking quite nice extend their careers.

Look. Greer wrote it. Irigaray wrote it. Wolf wrote it. Anyone with a pair of tits knows it: the register of a woman’s moral condition is linked closely with her proximity to a phallic ideal. Duh.

What we might think about doing instead of writing horrible op eds and delivering disappointing speeches that make even me seem learned by contrast is a taking a literal pause in buying beauty.

Don’t buy it. Just don’t buy it. Don’t venture into the 90% of retail floor space devoted to vending women’s beauty ‘needs’ and spend your 80% of the male median wage on endorsing the thing that is so widely critiqued. Or, at least, if you do, don’t tell me that it’s ‘your choice’ when plainly the only choice you have made is to adhere more closely to an ideal that proffers you advantage in a visual marketplace in which you have, in a financial sense, consented to be an object of trade.

Choice is largely illusory. One cannot choose, for example, to live outside the parameters of gender identity, worse luck. One can, however, choose not to buy things.

This is my proposition. For one month, stop railing against the idea of feminine beauty and just stop buying it.

It might not change the world but it will possibly give me something more interesting to read about that One Woman’s Moving Need to Outrun The Beauty Myth.

Seriously. Please. Shut it.

And, you. Crabb. Explain central banking to me and makes gags about the debt ceiling in your next column. I adore you.


*Statement may contain traces of troll

55 Responses to “Shutting Down the Self-Esteem Engine”

  1. Cathy Stephens says:

    Oh Helen, you just don’t get it. It used to be a better world when I was the young pretty/beautiful/cute-but-sassy-one and I got advantages. Now that I’m middle-aged, it’s just terrible. There’s misogyny everywhere, just now, cause I am no longer benefiting from looksism and agism. I’m angry about it, now. Before, it suited me quite nicely, thanks. I’ll get angry about treatment of the elderly, but not for another 25 years or so.

  2. KC says:

    You know, sometime you write too darn well, Helen. ;)

    Case in point, that Miley Cyrus paragraph. It just made me giggle-snort a mouthful of chocolate milk. Blouses and skirts are easily washable, while funny moments at the end of a long day are priceless…. Even if they can occasionally be a little icky!! ;)

    So thanks for the much needed laugh, hun!! :)

    P.S. My thoughts exactly on “Crabbey” too. That lady knows her stuff, knows it well and isn’t afraid to be herself. I hope that she becomes a Uni Professor someday, as she’d be a beaut person to have as a PhD supervisor! She’s Australia’s answer to Rachel Maddow, in my books. ;)

  3. mac says:

    i am in my late 30s. i have never worn make up (except for school plays) or used face creams. i never believed the hype marketed by beauty companies and their distorted pseudo- science words made up to explain the ‘break throughs of technology.’ i do wear sun screen in summer. i cannot recall a time when i have been made to feel less then anyone else.

    i whole heartedly agree with you to put a veto on buying “beauty products,” but people- especially women- are so hyper-aware of not wearing anything that the thought of venturing outside with no ‘mask’ terrifies them. how do you supersede this fear when it is so ingrained and reinforced by society? you may as well tell the ocean to stop being wet.

    i also wonder if a company can get away with telling a women she needs to wear makeup or else she will be fired or demoted in an official, or unofficial, manner, because she is not ‘representing’ the companies image?

    • Helen Razer says:

      I really don’t think anything can become deeply ingrained or ocean-powerful over a handful of decades, Mac. Cosmetics are relatively new and I where I live, many women seem quite happy to go to the shops sans maquillage. I do think we make a bit effing much of the ‘fear’ women feel. Shit is really not that bad for most of us living in a developed nation. If we have the means to fret about perfect skin tone, we’re doing pretty well.
      And as for that story about the company dress code. I really couldn’t be arsed diving into another femmo temper-tantrum where evidence of ‘sexism’ is upheld for all to see.
      To the best of my knowledge, all those who work at legal firms are required—even if the request is not explicitly made—to wear clothes and to engage in behaviour within very narrow parameters. That a company can ‘get away with’ making the rules explicit in Australia. I do not know US law but I imagine that if a legal company has circulated a memo, they probably, you know, checked it with their legal team first.
      It is just not shocking to me that people who work are required to dress in a particular way. My Honey worked in retail for years and was required to wear a particular suit of clothes. And, he was remunerated far less well than a solicitor. Why aren’t we encouraging the SDA to liberate its members who work so hard for so little in the service sector? Why should they bear the indignity of our ignorance while a handful of well-remunerated attorneys whine that they have a code of conduct?
      FFS. Not your fault but now I am angry about yet another effing silly piece of effing ‘feminism’ that makes much ado about the lives of the privileged. Oh. Lady Lawyers must wear tights. Boo hoo.

      • Cathy Stephens says:

        At my casual employment, we have corporate dress standards and the blokes are always whinging cause in summer the women can wear skirts but they have to wear long trousers. Some of the women even shockingly show a bit of lower knee while the fellas can’t show their ankles. The brutal, bloody blade of dress standards cuts both ways but I think the issue of unpaid tea-breaks and the possibility of penalty rates being eliminated concerns us more. (This adds nothing intelligent to your article other than to echo a big fat boofreakin’hoo for the female lawyers who aren’t supposed to show their cleavage.)

  4. Carlene says:

    You know I’m always find myself agreeing with you, Russell Brand not withstanding. Although I call him the exception that proves the rule. This however is one of your best if I may say. You captured it perfectly. Thanks Helen.
    All the best C

  5. bigwords says:

    Thank you for writing something so brilliantly which has sat woefully in my head without the ability to form into sentences. See even that sentence was a bit shit. I get all keyboard tied around you. Thanks anyway x

  6. Will says:

    O.K. Helen, I’ll stop buying my lippy and mascara, I’ll feel a bit less Purdy but hey, it might be worth it lol:)

  7. Alicia says:

    I like the new blog layout. I have nothing more considered to add to the conversation.

  8. Stephen Feneley says:

    Missing your tweets. I’ll have to subscribe to your RSS alerts.
    This is, as usual, a great piece.
    You’re at your best when you cut against the grain of easily (lazily) accepted & supposedly prograssive (non) thinking.
    You stretch us.

  9. Potato says:

    I attended a function put on by the AWCCI, and the first thing the MC talked about was the purchasing power of women. No moaning allowed.
    I was incredibly disappointed by Lisa Wilkinsons lecture, what a waste of an opportunity.
    Could you write something about cupcakes. I friggin hate cupcakes. Perhaps that is all that needs to be said.
    Have enjoyed your rants on Crikey for a while now.

  10. Kylie C says:

    Dearest Helen. I like this post. That is all.

  11. BlogSurfer says:

    Great Article! , I too watched Annabel’s change of form across the years, I think it shows how people morph to their respective vocations. Helen, if feel you’ve hit your stride about now, away from that old radio station, well done (imho).
    I am of the bloke persuasion, and have been trying to educate my daughter on the self valuing process, admittedly using the “Dove Evolution” (google it) marketing ploy. However, over the years, it is my wife who is inculcating my daughter into the hows, wheres and whys of getting made up.
    This is not a bone of contention between my wife and I, I submit to her knowledge on these matters, I just hope my daughter remembers I taught her that blokes don’t hold women to beauty standards as much as other women do, and this is pounced upon by unscrupulous advertising.
    Again, just my humble opinion :)

  12. CreatingEmmaM says:

    I loved this article. I love all of your articles. Even the ones that make me go, “Oh Helen. No!” – in fact they may be my favourite.

    Given my obsession with red lipstick was at least in part due to your sexy-arse pout though, I hold you responsible for everything that is wrong about me AS A FEMINIST.

    But, you know, I like it.

    Also, PLEASE come back to Twitter. I miss your fucking guts!

    • Helen Razer says:

      There is no way in fuck I am every going back to Twitter.

      • John M says:

        Looks like I have to add to my favourites then. What I particularly like about your articles is how well argued they are, whether I agree with you or not.

      • CreatingEmmaM says:

        Well – fuck.

        Accept my FB friend request then so I can once again feel connected to the Razer machine of outrage – being a passive observer is driving me crazy. (

        You know you want to.

        • Helen Razer says:

          Miss M. I am afraid I only FB-befriend those unfortunate souls with whom I have spoken in real life. I am v old-fashioned.

  13. Jacob says:

    Helen Razer,

    I can’t BELIEVE I’m writing this but in relation to your last FB post re: JB, you’re wrong. Just wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

    You have more than 3 friends.

    But I will second your point on self-esteem. The co-opting of ‘self esteem’ (essentially a psychiatric theorem, not accepted by all theorists I might add) as a measure of feminist efficacy is maddening (both in relation to women, and gay men like myself). I don’t find self-esteem helpful in psychotherapeutic theory (or practice for that matter), and I certainly don’t find self-esteem helpful in economic theory. Yet its commodification and normalisation has lead to very lucrative markets in medicine, beauty and entertainment and seen it push into financial services, insurance – well, the list goes on. A point you never cease to point out – and for that I thank you.

    Keep it up, please. You are a necessary voice, in an increasingly homogenised and shallow commentariat. Whilst my words won’t add to your bank account or superannuation balance, I hope they remind you that not everyone thinks you’re a) in bed with Rapey McRaperson or b) a dickhead.

    • Helen Razer says:

      Given that I was raised a Catholic, I imagine my masochism and need to be chastised by upright women will continue.

      • Jacob says:

        Oh dear. I know THAT pain only too well. Catholic schooling and an irish nun as a piano teacher for 5 years = can’t get water hot enough to wash the sin away ;)

  14. Rebecca Conroy says:

    My adoration for Annabel is that she does what she does, AND she pulled 3 live human beings out of her vagina.

    • Helen Razer says:

      My admiration for her rests entirely on her oeuvre. Honestly. Have you seen who reproduces? They’ll let anyone do it these days.

  15. phyllis.stein says:

    This is one of the things I enjoy about your writing, it let’s me revisit a piece and get your thoroughly different take on it. Ms Crabb’s best work does seem effortless, but that just shows how good she can be. You make no real case that she does anything with “studied carelessness”, (sprezzatura) quite the opposite; and it’s a bit of a stretch to declare that “a gift for sprezzatura nearly always ends in success”. However it is a lovely word and I can see why you would want to use it.

    • Helen Razer says:

      I see you were happy with the web’s initial dictionary definition. ;) It also refers to a work of apparent simplicity that has taken no little effort to make. It is most often used in art criticism as an acknowledgement of the artist’s faculty so advanced that they are able to conceal all evidence of having done anything. The studied carelessness’ definition is really not very good.
      I recommend that you look at the wikipedia definition along with that Google provides in an initial search. It is a useful concept and describes what highly competent people like Crabb do well.
      A gift for sprezzatura—which we now know means concealing the mechanism by which a work is made—does nearly always end in success. Those who are so good at what they do we forget that they are doing it (the classic analogy a visual arts lecturer will use is ‘think of a duck gliding across the water we have no idea of the paddling that continues beneath its glassy surface’) tend to succeed. Particularly in media.
      I use the word only when it is necessary. But nice diss. Next time, go a little further before striving to embarrass me.

  16. phyllis stein says:

    In my opinion the word sticks out of the otherwise good article like a badly pruned limb. A good test of usage is that any person not knowing the meaning might gain a sense of it by reading the piece. In this case the meaning cannot be inferred by either your usage or your argument and that accounts for me, despite using all the resources you list, taking a stab at just one of the possibilities.

    • Helen Razer says:

      Oh for fuck’s sake.

      • Diane says:

        Yes. For the sake of fuck, and only ever for the sake of fuck.
        Love this piece btw.
        But then I would, being one of your little sychophants and all. ;-)

        • Helen Razer says:

          Look. What would I know? Apparently, one can pass an opinion on matters only of which one has had direct experience these days. Unless one’s critical thinking is based, like the majority of movies made for women, on A True Story, one has no business talking.

  17. Carlene says:

    My direct experience is that those whose opinion is based on research, evidence & critical thinking can in fact have an opinion on matters on which they have no direct experience. I base this on a true story called my life experiences to date. On this basis feel free to continue to express an opinion to those of us interested in critical thinking

    • Helen Razer says:

      Look. I’ve always been more of a rationalist than an empiricist myself.
      But, you know. I guess at least rape victims have received a competitive advantage in writing about their experience for money these past weeks.
      And conservatives must be delighted that the left is policing its own discourse to such a degree. If critical thought is only valid if produced by a person at the most extreme intersection of oppression, we can ignore most thinkers. Including Karl Marc. Or Gramsci. Or Greer. Or, I suppose any Aboriginal Australian thinker with a tertiary degree because their experience is not representative.
      Yes. It is SO much more important to check one’s privilege than rationally engage in debate to enact social and economic solutions. I feel glad we’ve had this chat.

      • Carlene says:

        In all seriousness I absolutely despair at what is going on. The hypocrisy of not only the policing of the discourse as you say but also the automatic disagreement of a view because of who holds it. There is certainly a lot of repitition of opinions which have descended into a bucket of outrage & stupid with no intention of debating social and economic change. The ‘what would you know, you haven’t experienced it’ brigade seem determined to exclude any other than their own view or the views of those they like in a solution. Except of course ‘marriage (in)equality’ where one’s direct experience only counts if one is in agreement with it. I’ll be off now, take care. Give me more Marx, Gramsci, Greer, Foley & Razer

        • Kev Martin (@kev_martin) says:

          I’ve had it up to here, there and everywhere with the “what-would-you-know-you-haven’t” brigade. That argument has been pathetic since the beginning of time and just gets more and more pathetic as more morons deploy it and add to its critical mass of moronity. Which is to say it bothers me. A lot.

          Of course there is a reasonable argument that one wouldn’t reasonably be telling people how they should feel about or react to their own specific circumstances, but its an insane leap to extend that to “Hey, you just shut your mouth ’cause you’re not me”.

          You’d think that evolution would make it easier over time to find rational-come-intelligent people to converse with. But I’m just seeing them fewer and farther between.

  18. phyliss.stein says:

    with all the speed and force of Oprah at an ashram buffet. I’ve read this a couple of times and I’m stumped. food. greed. woman. fat. etc…. Are you really saying what I think you’re saying? Or have I totally got the wrong end of the shtick?

    • Helen Razer says:

      If you made entire questions from words, I could have a go at answering. Otherwise, do continue this compulsive habit of critique you seem to believe makes you look bright.

      • Schmeedle says:

        I read this comment as pointing out the hypocrisy at having a go at commentators for writing about body image, whilst using within your own piece a simile that perpetuates body shaming.

        I may have the wrong end of phyliss’s “shtick”, but I would like to know if you can defend this choice of words. Fat-shaming in an attempt to be humorous doesn’t help your point.

  19. phyllis stein says:

    I suppose I could take you at your word and infer you didn’t understand my question. I asked, are you really doing “fat jokes”? About women? But it seems you deem it inappropriate to question your work in this, your personal space. My apologies for mistaking this site as anything other than a circle twerk.

  20. Dan says:

    Have you disappeared from Facebook now too?

    We need you Helen.

  21. Bb says:

    I like this post mostly.
    Problem is I think making a choice within this system does not really make a difference?
    Also, I became obsessed with my physical self after being raped by my dad and another man when I was small. I can remember not caring too much before then. Im not saying my experience should be factored in or doing that thing some commentators mentioned of you can’t speak because you havent been through what I have yadda yadda but I do think this choice crap dosent work or is way too simplified. When I did sex work I had to look a certain way and believe me the other women didn’t have a fucking choice in how they present themselves am I missing the point by raising these examples?
    I dunno. I don’t like the bullshit moaning about self esteem either but I think you’ve got it a little wrong in some ways.

    • Helen Razer says:

      I am not prescribing a recipe for social change, Bb. I am just suggesting that one ought either to put up or shut up as far as participation in the economy of beauty is concerned.
      I am sorry about the things that have befallen you in the past. There is nothing one can say that is adequate.

    • Helen Razer says:

      I also very clearly said that ‘choice is illusory’ BB. So not sure who you are arguing with on this point.

  22. Bb says:

    Yes it is illusory, sorry I must of missed that there.
    I just don’t think its worth using the example of high income femme lawyers and the like wanting to keep competitive etc etc. As someone said, they wont benefit from looksism and agism anymore but what if that is your sole means of survival? all I mean, its easy to be snide and point out that people should put up or shut up but sometimes I identify with this line of complaint – am I wrong to feel a false alliance with these women who are wealthier and more secure than me? Probably. I guess I’m just not ‘there’ yet.
    anyway, good post.thanks.

    • Helen Razer says:

      This piece was targeted very specifically and overtly to those who ‘protest’ the idea of beauty. It is essentially a call to those commentators who believe that we can reform a system of exchange (to wit: capitalism) to the point of equality.
      The ‘free market’ relies on aspiration; on the idea of belonging and on the myth of upward mobility. It is my project to convince feminists that capital needs something like patriarchy to keep itself going.

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