‘The Girls are Alright’: Beauty Work and Neoliberal Regimes of Responsibility Among Young Women in Urban India

Donner, Henrike. 2023. ‘The Girls are Alright’: Beauty Work and Neoliberal Regimes of Responsibility Among Young Women in Urban India. Critique of Anthropology, 43(4), pp. 399-421. ISSN 0308-275X [Article]

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Abstract or Description

This paper adresses the complex ways in which poor urban women’s educational and training needs are embedded in official discourses of capacity creation and their own community and kinship networks' needs, an aspect that is very often overlooked when such programs are designed. It argues that this oversight is not a coincidence, as neoliberal policies and their attached discourses of empowerment construct their subjects as individuals and 'subjects of capacity' which excludes their preexisting kin and community relationships which need to be overcome. As the paper states, where girls are addressed directly they are framed as the single, autonomous subjects of liberalism they need to overcome kinship and community attachment, which are cast as ‘traditional’. Looking at the work of development agencies and NGOs which are geared towards community development and therefore reference broader social landscapes the paper argues that the young woman who figure as a beneficiaries of training programs see themselves and their training as part of rather than as opposed to kin obligations and future roles as wives, mothers and members of working class communities. Whilst education and training are more often than not conceived as stand alone projects by policy makers and NGOs, which are designed to create young women as ‘bearers of potential qualifications, the paper foregrounds class-based differences in what such opportunities mean and how the daughters from lower caste and lower class background, many of whom are trying to make a difference to their own and their families live through education and training, join the beauty industry. Whilst many of them are mothers themselves, some fully embrace the identity of the modern, educated professional, though their interpretation of what that means differs. The paper argues that association with the beauty industry can be a way of making a professional from a middle-class background, by founding and running a neighbourhood salon, thereby establishing oneself as an entrepreneur. In the case of young women from marginalized backgrounds, the actual work of the beautician allows some access to similar dreams: it nurtures aspirations, for example for a different, and arguably more dignified life than that of their mothers, for a more sophisticated and materially rich fabric of life, and of skills and self worth that will benefit the family and community they stem from.

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India; gender; labour; service industries; beauty work

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June 2023Submitted
6 December 2023Published Online
December 2023Published

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Date Deposited:

13 Jul 2023 11:29

Last Modified:

19 Dec 2023 09:35

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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