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It’s Women’s History Month, and my inbox can’t take any more.
There’s been a noticeable uptick in pitches and products that presume to “empower women” and tout “girl power” positivity. There’s lots of pink and purple, and quippy copy imploring me to lean in, #girlboss!
And I’m tired of it.
Because I don’t want “empowerment.” I want real, actual power.
Empowerment, as a brand, is thriving. It’s thriving because it’s the distillation of what should be a challenging and radical ideology, re-packaged for the market-driven social media age. Running is rife with #girlboss feminism and false empowerment that purports to lift women up, primarily by telling us to buy something vaguely and abstractly “empowering” while we yass-kween our way to the top of the podium or boardroom.
This “empowerment’ is a trap.
This “empowerment” allows brands to plaster female athletes on billboards while reneging on contracts if they get pregnant. It allows gear companies to release a “female-specific fit” while remaining silent in the wake of rollbacks of reproductive protections. It lets CEOs use underpaid female workers to share misquoted Rupi Kaur poems imploring us to “celebrate women” on March 8th. There’s a Twitter account dedicated entirely to linking companies’ hollow celebrations with data on their gender pay gap. While writing this piece, I received a pitch from a brand celebrating that all their imagery will feature women in March, and also included a link to a scientific study assessing their product’s efficacy for recovery nutrition entirely on men.
Slogans like “girl power” and “women run the world” can distort the truth that right now, we very much don’t run the world. Only 24 out of 100 senators are female, and less than a third (28%) of the House is women. Just 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and only 15% of outdoor companies are led by women, according to the most recent data gathered by Camber Outdoors. Only 32% of board-level positions in the outdoor industry were occupied by women (women made up 46% of non-manager positions, and 48% of the workforce – meaning, while almost half of the workers in the industry are women, many do not reach management, leadership, or executive levels). This is a far cry from true equity, or “running” anything.
The imagery is predictable. Cute pastels and loopy, soft fonts cover images of smiling, conventionally attractive bodies. The implicit message is that staying cute, small, and palatable to the marketplace is the key to “empowerment.” This messaging shrinks and distorts the realities of female power into quippy and non-threatening ad copy. Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s a cheap counterfeit of true gender solidarity meant to keep us distracted from gaining real power!!
Empowerment often exploits inequality for its own ends, telling women to “lean in,” or imploring us to be more confident or self-accepting while doing nothing to dismantle systems that limit women’s opportunities at work, or deconstructing our culture’s obsession with conflating woman’s worth with her physical body and ability to accept and love that body (it’s like those Dove ads didn’t do anything!!).
Empowerment wasn’t always a marketing buzzword. It emerged from social science and the work of Julian Rappaport, referring to the process by which a marginalized person perceives the systemic conditions of their oppression, and is able to take action against those systems. It has been used to discourage paternalism and celebrate communities that solve problems in their own ways. It emphasized faith in the individual, while also endowing a fair amount of responsibility to take action.
Now, we’ve turned it into a hashtag. It substitutes awareness for meaningful action, consumption as activism.
True empowerment will not, and cannot bow to market demands, or bow to respectability politics. It will be messy, loud, beautiful, threatening, and powerful, like the lived realities of womanhood. The job of feminism is not to make itself palatable to the wider culture. It’s to radically reimagine and change the wider culture to be equitable. That will be hard and scary, but one thing’s for sure: it will not be cute, and it probably won’t move any inventory.
True empowerment is neither a cute, nor a marketable idea. It shouldn’t be non-threatening or commercially successful. It should be seen as threatening because it does threaten the status quo and current systems of power. It might not sell a single sports bra, but it would radically improve the lives of the seamstresses who make our sports bras. It threatens a culture that’s still very much steeped in inequity, and “empowerment” allows us to nod at this fundamental fact without ameliorating it.
“Empowerment” is cleaved from material politics, meaning the messy stuff of advocating for minimum wage (most minimum wage workers are women), universal paid parental leave (the U.S. is the only developed country without it) and reproductive justice (where to start with this one?!). Too often, “empowerment”-based marketing distracts us from the challenging and critical work that must be done, of examining systems of power and dismantling ones that claim to support women while ultimately marginalizing all non-dominant genders.
When brands and organizations say they want to “empower women,” I hear: “We’d like to get credit for nodding towards gender equity without doing a single thing to correct the structures that have historically enabled oppression of marginalized genders, or examining our role in that process. Byeeeeeeee!”.
I care less about you putting a strong woman in your March 8th Instagram post, and more about what the gender breakdown of your board room is, how much money you’ve given to reproductive justice, and what your company’s parental leave policy is. We don’t need another cute Instagram photo telling us how strong we are (We get it!), but what we do need is a world that’s prepared for women in power.
Giving women power will radically reshape the status quo. It will mean making workplaces attentive to the needs of caretakers. It will mean examining pay structures. It will mean examining who we see as truly worthy in our world.
It is so much easier to buy a shirt that says “Girl Power” (believe me, I have three), than it is to make sure your company has fair and transparent payment policies, supportive structures for caretakers, flexible work hours, pregnancy deferrals for athletes, that your race lottery doesn’t actively discriminate against female registrants, and contracts that support the full reality of being a female athlete.
This girl-power framework is condescending because it assumes the reasons that inequality persists are because we haven’t had the confidence to address it, and maybe we’d have a female president by now if I had just bought one more pink hat or Nasty Woman t-shirt!
This is the sneaky bait and switch of “empowerment”: it purports to address the needs of the marginalized, while ultimately serving and enriching those who already have power. It gestures at power while really only revealing the lack of it, and tricks us into being grateful that we even have the opportunity to buy in at all.
So, this Women’s Day, I’m inviting us all to radically rethink how we interact with messaging around empowerment and ask tough questions of brands, organizations, and most importantly, ourselves to do the difficult, beautiful work of building a more just world.
Try putting that on a t-shirt!
Zoë Rom is Editor In Chief of Trail Runner magazine, and Managing Editor of Women’s Running. When she’s not running, she’s writing, and when she’s not climbing she’s cooking or eating. Southern story-teller turned mountain-dweller, she starts every day with a cup of strong coffee and a good story. Her work has appeared in REI Co-op Journal, Discover, Rock & Ice, Trail Runner, Backpacker, and Threshold Podcast. She currently hosts and produces the DNF Podcast. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, Becoming a Sustainable Runner with Tina Muir.