When Women's Empowerment Becomes Sinister

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By Evamarie Joubert

The year 2019, more so than ever, has been a year for women. With a number of movements launched solely to amplify the female voice and shed light on the challenges and experiences women face. These movements have sparked outrage and conversation re-invigorating the discussion surrounding feminism, how its definition has changed, and who is allowed to call themselves a feminist. Above all, they have cemented that this is a time where a woman's voice cannot be ignored. 

It’s no surprise then that there are individuals or organizations whose main goal is to exploit this evolution of womanhood. Brands are eager to tap into the desires of women via content that aims to celebrate their strength, independence, and equality. On the surface, this is something that should be encouraged and embraced fully. However, it becomes insidious when the woman brands deem empowered and worthy of uplifting is nothing more than the status quo. 

It wasn’t until I began my entrepreneurial journey that I noticed this flaw in the empowered woman marketing movement, more specifically in the lifestyle space. As someone who is interested in uplifting the voices of other women and actively searched for women-centered content, I was easily sucked into the dark-side of women supporting women. Before launching my own coaching business, I sought to hire a coach of my own. She was attractive, stylish, enjoyed luxury, and as a bonus had spent a couple years living in Italy. At the time, she was my definition of an empowered woman and I desperately wanted to learn her secrets. 

Upon working with her, I learned that to attract people to my business I needed to present a life of glamour. She encouraged me to show off my life in Italy – to take photos in luxury hotels and restaurants as a way to entice other women to believe that by working with me, they could live a life like mine. Never-mind the fact that I was down to 3 months of savings and had maxed out my credit card to pay for her services. She told me that prospective clients needed to hear my story of how I achieved success in order to be able to import my learnings to them; completely disregarding the fact that I hadn’t yet achieved anything! When I expressed my concerns of feeling like an imposter, I was told to master my mind, be confident and stay positive. Despite my efforts, I only felt depressed and dishonest, which ultimately caused my business to fail. 

I don’t believe that my coach meant to cause me harm, nor that she had negative intentions in what she was teaching me. I do believe however, that she was guiding me to fulfill a narrow definition of an empowered woman. A woman who is wealthy, physically beautiful, eternally positive, and in most cases – white. It’s an archetype that reeks of privilege and relies on an “us vs. them” attitude that essentially blames other women for not measuring up. 

The idea of this perfect empowered woman is so pervasive it’s easy to miss without careful examination. Multi-level Marketer’s (MLM’s), business coaches, and numerous lifestyle brands target women with terms like “sisterhood,” “femprenuer,” and “bossbabe” – all used as rallying cries to lure them into believing their communities are safe spaces where women can feel accepted, understood and share with other like-minded individuals. Instead, these brands reinforce patriarchal tropes where white women are the face of empowerment, leaving space for only a handful of women of color. Beyond race, these women are all extremely wealthy, own luxury handbags, and can afford to travel to exotic locations multiple times during the year – all things I desire for myself but have learned to disassociate from my self-worth. Usually their lifestyles are posed as being aspirational, encouraging other women to believe that if they adapt to certain behaviors or purchase an advertised product or course, they too can be a part of the empowered sisterhood. 

Where the trouble lies is when women are not able to meet these requirements for empowerment. They are often left feeling inadequate, ashamed, and guilty that they aren’t enough. Even worse is that these brands are incapable of providing these women any support or encouragement because they can only preach eternal positivity as a cure! But forced positivity cannot overcome real pain that needs to be acknowledged and faced. Instead it only highlights the fact that these women aren’t happy when they’re supposed to be. 

It’s time to reclaim what empowerment means. To create a definition that doesn’t stem from racial superiority, classism, and false positivity. Instead we must acknowledge that an empowered woman should never automatically equate to white, or that while wealth may equal access, it does not equate to a mind or a heart that is free. Physical beauty is only useful as it relates to how others view us, not how we view ourselves. Finally, holding ourselves on a pedestal will always include the degradation and disrespect of others, whether it’s intended or not.  

Empowerment must always come from an internal drive, not to be rich and revered by others, but to cultivate a self-worth that is free of materialism. A self-worth that is uplifted by the courage to think differently, to stand alone when others don’t understand. One that maintains humility in light of success and hope in the event of failure. Women are not empowered by the chains that keep us competing against one another. We are empowered by the choice to disregard what is deemed the right way and claim our own path.