When Kim Kardashian “broke the Internet” with her nude selfie last week, it was the latest stunt by a socialite who has become an object of fascination in our celebrity-obsessed culture.
Glamour labor is a phenomenon of the Internet age. It means investing time and effort into editing the body and self to appear as fascinating and polished in person as in one’s highly scripted, filtered and manipulated online life. It means shaping the body (by going to the gym or the salon), while simultaneously crafting one’s online image – all to appear to have achieved an elusive ideal of attractiveness.
Those who epitomize the ideal are rewarded by large followings (Kim Kardashian has more than 60 million on Instagram), endorsement deals (the Blonde Salad blogger Chiara Ferragni earns US$8 million a year) and sometimes even an actual paying job.
Nonetheless, the pleasures of glamour – fame, swag and VIP access – often obscure its costs.
I came across the practice of glamour labor while interviewing fashion models for my book This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour. They told me that modeling work involved far more than merely smiling for the camera. It entails constant self-promotion and the adoption of a “CEO of Me” mentality that has become alarmingly common across many industries.
The currency of ‘cool’
There was a time in our economic history when workers could expect long-term employment capped off by a pension. But in recent decades, many of these good, stable jobs have disappeared.
Communication scholar Mark Deuze notes how people now live in media, experiencing a “liquid life” characterized by a volatile mix of work, consumption and play that renders them in a perpetual state of “flux and uncertainty” about their future.
Meanwhile, labor researchers David Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker point out how autonomous work fosters self-exploitation. And sociologists like Gina Neff have shown how “cool jobs in hot industries” lure people into working too hard and too much for diminishing returns.
The result? A gig economy that has workers struggling to patch together a viable living. Rather than adhering to a standard 9-to-5 work schedule, the norm for many has become all work, all the time, with only some of it paid.
If Kim can do it, can you?
Nothing ventured, nothing gained: that is glamour labor’s promise and its curse. Glittery celebrities and models lure regular people into thinking glamour labor can be a way to achieve social and financial success.
Yet they all adhere to a similar script, and underneath their breezy confidence and glossy, girlfriend-y rapport is feverish calculation: sharing intimate moments, constantly shopping for and documenting one’s purchases and travels, and tracking “likes” – all with phone constantly in hand.
Kim K.’s curvy, diminutive persona encapsulates a modified, popular version of the American Dream – that anyone can make it big in America, achieving fame and glory if they just work hard enough – regardless of how ridiculously impossible it is to achieve. The daughter of a self-made lawyer and businessman, Kardashian is certainly a hard worker: her ubiquitous image is the result of countless red carpet appearances and strategic selfies.
Lest we think she “just woke up that way,” Kardashian readily shares her secrets, democratically suggesting that anyone can look like her: just follow the directions of her makeup tutorial, or shop for the look (for less!) on her website.
Pressures for intense self-promotion and management – common in modeling and other glamour industries – take on an urgency in the digital age.
While an untested modeling newbie might once have landed a big campaign on the basis of a few test shots, models now must populate their social media feed with attractive images of themselves and gain a large network of followers just to be eligible for such a booking.
Across many creative fields (art, music, film, media), institutions once shared the risks with aspirants. Movie studios and modeling agencies would offer contracts to raw talent, and then use their marketing capabilities to train them for success.
Now the burden of risk is shifting to individuals.
Communication scholar Gina Neff described this process as the rise of “venture labor,” where the imperative to “give it your all” to “have it all” spreads via social media.
As Kim Kardashian preached to her fans:
If I don’t feel confident about my body, I’m not going to sit at home and feel sorry for myself and not do something about it. It’s all about taking action and not being lazy. So you do the work, whether it’s fitness or whatever. It’s about getting up, motivating yourself and just doing it.
With Kim Kardashian and model Gigi Hadid leading the way, the promise of fame or money lures many to put themselves out there – working for free (via internships and spec work), broadcasting yourself (as in the case of famous but broke YouTube stars like Brittany Ashley or Connor Manning), or spending all your time crafting a curated online life that looks great on camera but is otherwise unbearable.
Forget job stability, health insurance, or even pay: if you can be accepted into the media machine’s fold, you’re one step closer to the glittery riches it promises all.
While few are rewarded, many feel increasingly pressured to play this losing game. Even though the game is rigged, in our society the individual is almost always blamed for his or her failure. If you complain about racism, classism or sexism, it means you’re making excuses and not working hard enough. It’s up to you to fix your life and build your brand.
What’s so crazy about wanting to be famous, anyway? As communication scholar Alison Hearn notes, when nothing is certain, especially a paycheck, “achieving celebrity status has come to seem as reasonable a life goal as any other.”
Exposed – for what?
How did we get here? Of course, there’s more to the story than young girls duck-facing in the bathroom.
Kim K. and her ilk show us that the path to social legitimacy, acceptance and employment is achieved through working hard to be gorgeous and achieve notoriety. The Kardashians make the work of exposure – getting it, doing it, managing its impact – look like fun, like something we should all strive for.
Oversharing (a Kardashian specialty) takes on a glamorous sheen when coupled with the trappings of the family’s celebrity lifestyle. The Kardashians’ joyful abdication of the right to any privacy paves the way toward normalizing its loss, drawing us into the world where the “‘likes,’ clicks and tweets that can be earned by sharing” seduce us into what social scientist Bernard Harcourt called a “mad frenzy of disclosure.”
Self-tracking these “likes” and retweets taps a voracious desire for self-improvement, which fuels glamour labor. It provides new fodder for online self-documentation as we post our Fitbit step counts, tweet our opinions, Facebook our vacation and Instragram our lunch.
Insidiously, our loss of privacy is what the Kardashians hide in plain sight. Glamour laboring to chase an ever-receding ideal of looking right, feeling right or being in the right circle leaves us as routinely exposed as Kim Kardashian’s backside.
Elizabeth Wissinger is affiliated with Data & Society research institute.