I’m writing a book about something I’m calling The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand. What I see is this: a legion of women entrepreneurs who used to be in the display professions (models, actresses, dancers) are now running online businesses selling other women “empowerment”. Or so they say. What I think they’re actually selling us is an exclusive fantasy: how to be youthful, white, skinny, very pretty and very privileged.
The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand is a marketing narrative. It’s meant to sell products. But what it also does is use the political language of revolution and the personal desire for growth to define the expectations of women, inside and out, personally and politically. And not in a good way.
To me, the marketing and messaging of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand is the modern incarnation of what Betty Friedan called The Feminine Mystique and Naomi Wolf called The Beauty Myth – only now, instead of being sold to us by male-dominated corporations, ad agencies and magazines, it’s women entrepreneurs at the helm. They’re leading the way in spaces that could in fact be sites of empowerment, growth and change for women. Career. Wealth. Wellness. Yoga. Fitness. Spirituality. These could be places to grow possibilities and challenge the limits and expectations our culture places on women. Instead, the most significant leaders in these spaces rely on The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand to promote ways to individually triumph, not by challenging cultural prescriptions, but by being the exception to the rule. Be hotter, tauter, richer, more positive, more productive and more serene. In other words, be more of what our mainstream media and culture already demands of women.
The other difference: The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand co-opts the language of feminists and revolution . They explicitly market the way they help women conform to mainstream social expectations as a form of rebellion and activism.
It’s like a cruel parody – we’re trying to invest in our liberation but are actually buying new and improved chains – but it’s real and it has real political and social consequences.
One of them is that we’re so thoroughly trained by The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand in thinking positive that we refuse to grapple with shadow side of this sunny belief system. If everything in your life is a result of your personal choices (and nothing else), then every person who isn’t an untrammeled success and kazillionaire – never mind the struggles of people grappling with poverty and injustice – did it to herself and it’s up to her, entirely, to change the situation. If she doesn’t, or if during her life-changing hustle she requires too much of our attention and emotional support – AKA becomes a “toxic” friend – then we’re entirely justified in cutting ties and abandoning her.
What then happens to our sick, our struggling, our injured, our young, our elderly? Not everyone can be an unencumbered twenty- and thirty-something on the rise.
The unrelenting insistence on positivity and boot-strapping is an essential component of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand and it absolves the rest of us of interpersonal and social responsibilities and the duty to care for and support each other.
Chasing happiness as a singular self-improvement or spiritual goal is a wildly personal, nearly-narcissistic endeavor that forecloses the possibilities for collective action and community – except for the ones devoted to these cults of personality.
The disturbing consequences of militant positivity play out socially (just be thin and pretty already because pretty fixes everything!), politically (upset about refugees drowning? Racism? Injustice? Just don’t watch the news!) and also personally.
A friend of mine was in a devastating car accident in which she almost broke her neck. A year later, she’s still dealing with the consequences: chronic pain, frequent debilitating migraines, exhaustion…
…and a total lack of emotional and community support. A fitness trainer she works with, and to whom she has paid thousands of dollars, blithely told her that she could ‘reframe’ her very real physical injuries and solve them with a better attitude. The trauma, the injuries, the pain: it’s all a blessing in disguise and opportunity for self-improvement!
(Perhaps thanks to the efforts of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand, this is how we’re starting to approach cancer, too: as though cancer is a choose-your-own-adventure game or a charming heroine’s journey that will one day make a good story rather than being terrifying, traumatizing, and life-and-fucking-death.)
My friend was outraged. She is doing everything she can to stay positive and empowered. She is wildly proactive about her health and healing. But the person she hired to guide her, physically, is so firmly in the grip of magical thinking that it allows – nay, demands – that she reflexively dismiss a bid for community and support as something someone ought to handle on her own. In other words: get a better attitude and stop being so needy.
This skewed logic – solve it yourself; think positive; and if you don’t or it doesn’t work, that’s on you and you don’t deserve the support and community that wasn’t forthcoming anyway – absolves us of responsibilities to other people. It’s like sending light and love to a family in crisis rather than showing up with a casserole. You can’t eat positive intentions.
And we can’t solve The Big Problems as lone individuals.
That’s what I was trying to get at with my essay about how time is a feminist issue. The reality is this: most women in our society – especially women who are mothers of very young children – are wildly overworked and overwhelmed. This is not an individual problem. This is a predictable outcome of a system that requires the care-taking labour of women in order to function. Yes, women are ‘allowed’ to work outside the home, have careers and undertake meaningful projects, but that doesn’t mean that they’re now no longer required to maintain and sustain others and, by extension, the system. Men with big careers, on the other hand, are nearly utterly exempt from those expectations even when they’re the fathers and even if they have large families. And, traditionally, they can only function in that unencumbered way because the women in their lives handle every other function for them. They escape the domestic demands of care-taking and domestic sustenance and maintenance by relying on the labour of women. That’s how some women escape these responsibilities, too: by hiring other women to take them on. No matter who commissions it (men, women), the pivot that makes corporate and public spheres possible is the domestic labour of women.
So the time-suck and straight-up exhaustion most women struggle with is a collective problem. We’re not going to solve it with super-cool tricks on how to save scraps of time here and there. We’re only going to solve it by changing the system and its requirements.
That’s a big job. That isn’t easy work.
It gets even harder when we’re all indoctrinated to believe that any problem we ever experience is a product of poor individual choices and we get what we deserve so we don’t need to help each other.
How can we band together and support each other in challenging structures and circumstances that are not our fault when we’re busy blaming and judging each other and believing it is our fault?
Those are two of the more distressing and dis-empowering consequences of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand:
- It purports to be empowering and liberating and uses the language of political activism but its reliance on positive-thinking and The Law of Attraction depoliticizes people. It’s not a coincidence that many of its proponents explicitly instruct or encourage their fans and clients to disengage from distressing realities so as not to compromise their positive mental states.
- Inculcating the belief-system that you can define and dictate every circumstance in your existence seems empowering, but the dark side of that moon is self-hatred and a pervasive and corrosive sense of personal failure. If everything is possible and everyone can do it, then what the hell is wrong with me?
And that’s why I’m writing about it. I want to destabilize that process and conclusion. The last thing women in this world need is one more reason to feel inferior .
But there’s money to be made in making women feel bad. That’s the psychology employed by consumer marketing at its most basic: name, stoke or invent fear and then offer a product or service that solves it.
In their eras, and still, that’s what marketing narratives of The Feminine Mystique and The Beauty Myth accomplished: invent problems, make women afraid, then sell products to ameliorate that fear.
And it’s what I see The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand doing, too. The women at the helm of these enterprises market to women with images of their professionally beautiful selves and their enviable lives. They do it in the guise of building a relationship with you but what they’re doing is dramatizing the gap between your ordinary apartment and their New York loft, their frequent and fabulous holidays and your staycations, their flat abs and your squishy stomach, their nearly-naked yoga and your see-through yoga pants (the ones that their inventor never intended for your kind of ass, after all), their famous besties and your toxic friends, their bottomless bank accounts and your overdraft. This kind of lifestyle marketing relies on you internalizing the comparison between their exteriors and your interior; feeling bad about your present and fearful about your future; and then buying an individual solution for your individual problem from them. Because obviously they’ve got it all figured out.
These entrepreneurs explicitly market themselves as role models and leaders but balk at assuming the risks and burdens of substantive cultural leadership. They have built exceptionally large platforms and cultivated influence but make a strategic decision not to reach beyond their generic, “universal”, evergreen advice content to offer leadership and counsel on specific current events (except, sometimes, on Facebook, which is more evanescent and less archival than a personally-owned website). I have seen, however, one of these leaders capitalize on the outrage and grief we’re feeling in response to police killings of men and women of colour by repurposing pre-existing content to address it and, in so doing, garner clicks and traffic to her site. She used something she’d already created, retitled and introduced it so that her piece appeared to speak to the happening-right-now despair and distress. And she did this while never naming the actual people and events (Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter) she was purporting to address. She wrapped up her piece by instructing commenters not to get political in their responses. This is someone who exhorts you to change your life/change the world (as though it is one and the same). The oblique, exploitative, yet seemingly-helpful way she handled a specific contemporary political problem is emblematic of the depoliticizing process, strategic positioning and outcomes of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand. They seek the prestige and profits of leadership but not the responsibilities.
Side note: I’m going to specifically name and refer to this instance (and others) in my next series of posts. Right now, in this piece, I’m just laying out my idea and framework, not the specifics.
All of this makes it seem like I think these women are evil tricksters out to hustle you. That’s not what I think at all.
I think they’re truly, madly, deeply sincere about their beliefs and their businesses. I believe that they believe that they’re helping people. I think that many of them have helped people. I think some of them have as much substance as they do style and that some their products and services are effective.
I’ve bought many of their books and products. I’ve taken their challenges and courses and publicly sang their praises. Some of them are truly, no-doubt-about-it, excellent.
It doesn’t excuse the damaging marketing strategies they deploy and its consequences. It doesn’t mean that this is the only way to market. It doesn’t mean that they couldn’t do it differently or better.
As exasperated as I am, my work isn’t about calling them out. It’s about calling them in.
It would be really easy to devolve into gossip. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I don’t really care about what these women look like, except that they’re using the way they meet conventional ideals of attractiveness as a marketing device. That strategy -and not the association between the content of their characters and the numbers on their bathroom scales, whether big or small – is reasonable grounds for critique.
So, to stay out of the space wherein I get snarky or construct these women as frivolous – a sexist practice I abhor and one that entirely misses the point, because I believe they’re sophisticated entrepreneurs who are having a serious impact on women’s culture – I’ve made up some rules for myself:
- No gossip. I’m not repeating hearsay or wondering about their childhood wounds or interested in their sex lives (for example). I’m critiquing their public personas, platforms, marketing strategies and their social consequences.
- Must have more than 100,000 Facebook followers. This might be a slightly arbitrary metric but I’m taking it as a success threshold. At this level of reach (and, presumably, revenue), it’s pretty unlikely my critique could devastate their reputation, business and livelihood.
- Can’t be anyone with whom I have a direct, 1:1, personal relationship.
- I must disclose any apparent conflicts of interest.
So those are my initial parameters (and no doubt the list will lengthen as my research deepens).
As I’m writing out my definition of – and problem with – The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand, here’s my intention: to name and investigate a social phenomena that markets itself as revolutionary but actually reinforces the current patriarchal status quo .
To do that, I’m going to have spend time and chapters naming and analyzing the work of specific leaders that are emblematic of, and the occasion for, my critique of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand. That pains me, to be honest. I like some of them (that’s part of their positioning: professional likability). I value some of the work some of them are doing. But unless I point to specific blog posts, videos, interviews and marketing campaigns, I’d be doing the literary equivalent of vaguebooking. Without specifics, I’m building a straw woman.
Still: no gossip. I don’t care what their hair or weight apparently says about their characters or whether they’re mean to kittens or blah blah blah. I care about the impact The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand is having on women and the world we’re co-creating .
I think it’s possible for us to do better. I think we can be financially successful and amass influence without selling women out. And, given their skills and wild success, I’m pretty sure that these sophisticated, influential and sincere women could lead the way if they were so inclined.
And if they won’t, or can’t, we will.
This is part 1 (the introduction) of the book I’m writing about The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand.
Are you interested in (or exasperated with) The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand? As I’m researching my book and developing background pieces and chapters, I’ll share them by email in my Sunday Love Letter – and I’d be thrilled if you sign up to receive it.