Thursday, 6 July 2017

"Women empowerment is not what they've been telling you it is."- Lydia Morrish


What do you find empowering? Posting a naked selfie on the internet? Taking up witchcraft? Clean eating? Pornographic music videos?

As it goes, not many people know what empowerment actually means. In fact, many of those who shout about it don't have a clue. As the media, advertisers and brands bolster the idea in order to sell and get clicks, people of all walks are reducing empowerment to sex toys, joining the gym and making decisions.

The 'one size fits all' nature of the current use of "empowerment" might be doing women – and others with less power – harm. By using the word in pretty much every context where a woman makes a choice (happening all around you), the nature of something being empowering has been watered down severely.

While the term has been popularised by clickbait feminism to make quite menial acts seem poetic, if we continue to label so many things 'empowering', we're heading for trouble. And not just in terms of linguistics.

But you want to stop that don't you, good little citizen? Here are some life lessons to be learnt when it comes to empowerment to save it from emptiness.

What empowerment actually means

Rising to popularity in the 70s, 'empowerment' was used to describe giving independence to the marginalised. By definition it means to give autonomy to a group of people who otherwise don't have it, so they can act with their own authority, as people should be able to.

Frequented in the early days of the Black Power movement, the term was radical, powerful, strong and was encouraged and used by members of varying sectors of society who needed to regain their rights or to ensure their wellbeing.

According to sociology academic Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès's paper on empowerment, it wasn't until after early protests that the word was prescribed to groups "such as African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities." It went forth to frequent feminist agendas and then, after the 2000s, the term came to mean nothing.

'Empowerment' became a buzzword for women doing shit for themselves and, now all politics are out of the window, it literally translates to "I did this because I wanted to".

Semantic change is a thing – I know, I did my English Language A Level. And yet, when it comes to the misrepresentation of an idea that is supposed to represent those who need it, we gotta act.

Most Western women don't need empowerment

It can be confusing, new-age feminism. I know. But hun, if you're reading this on your snazzy new smartphone while you sip a matcha latte/other ~health-kick~ beverage, you simply don't need to be empowered any more than Taylor Swift does.

The fact that a woman in the West doing something on her own terms is labelled "empowering" is so regressive for feminism and is exactly the kind of shit that gets fourth-wave feminism in trouble. Rightly so – buying a dildo might feed a woman some pretty gr8 orgasms, but it is not feeding her social autonomy where she didn't have it before.

Describing very consumerist acts as 'empowering' dangerously reduces actual empowering acts – like a Pakistani girl going to school for the first time – to nothing. As Hadley Freeman writes in the Guardian, empowerment "has become not only a synonym for self-indulgent narcissism, but a symbol of how identity politics can too often get distracted by those with the loudest voices and forget those most in need of it."
Posting that naked selfie or buying a new pair of sweatshop-free jeans may make you feel pumped and strong and like a better woman – and there's nothing wrong with either of these things – but this is not empowerment.

While Kim Kardashian's infamous naked selfie may have demonstrated women's abilities to celebrate "ownership" of their bodies in a world full of stigma and shame, her notorious essay on how it was 'empowerment' only went to show how often the world misses the point. Kardashian may have felt empowered, like many Western women do about random acts like being a hot MILF, but that's just not what empowerment is. Empowerment is not a feeling.

If it's not contributing to equality in some sort of way directly, it's probably not empowering.

"Reclaiming" your body is not true empowerment

All of this hoo-hah about "reclaiming" and "accepting" areas of our bodies/lives is ingrained in a very important conversation that needs to be had. But not in regards to empowerment.

If you're growing out your armpit hair/snail trail/pubes, good for you! We're all very genuinely proud you have the ability to rise above unrelenting social norms and kick the razor. But if you're uttering "I'm reclaiming my damn fuzz once and for all!" you don't need to be empowered.

Because, if one of your priorities is sending your BFF a snapchat of your newly organic pits, you most likely aren't reclaiming anything but a boost in self-confidence and friendship personal points. Celebrating female body hair and other feminist acts is amazing and positive and I'm glad you're doing so, but look a little deeper.

Girls and women – and indeed other sidelined members of society – that actually need to reclaim their bodies, sexualities and power genuinely need empowerment to be equal members of society.

Take young women and prepubescent girls in Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa who are victims of breast ironing. They're some of those who really need those empowering hashtag and body ownership campaigns.

The repeated abuse of middle class, well-to-do munchkins "reclaiming" their healthy, happy bodies acts like a watering can on critical work that needs to be done to give the most marginalised people on the planet more visibility.

Your empowerment is probably actually consumerism

Since the late 90s and early 00s, consumerism masked as 'girl power' – i.e. watered-down, novel feminism – has been used to sell stuff to young women and women alike in the name of women's rights. Unfortunately buying Stella McCartney's sporty silk tracksuit pants won't make you empowered, but the bank.

This, ironically, is doing the opposite. As Jezebel pointed out recently, Weight Watchers and Spanx have been tapping into the inner-feminist of many modern gals by assuring their products will unleash a dose of empowerment and 'sticking it to the man'. Of course, the ideals of both an expensive diet and slimming underwear feed the male gaze, all while making mega bucks.

A bell hooks kinda standpoint would rightly argue that sucking your podgy belly in with Lycra and ordering a pack of gluten-free goulash ready meals on Amazon is not, in fact, empowering; it's consumerism with a quite translucent mask on.

Advertising, as it always has done, is appropriating women who feel bad about themselves and offering to make them feel better. Only this time it's wrapping it up as empowerment to sell it.

You're not an asshole for falling for this kind of marketing – it's human nature to absorb advertising subconsciously. But making the moves to rejecting these ideas of smashing the patriarchy via the promise of bought independence is just wrong.

Then what is empowering?

Empowerment is many things.

Unlike what your favourite nu-wave mag might propose, empowerment is teaching poor kids in a bad neighbourhood poetry; empowerment is giving a girl in rural Africa reusable sanitary pads so she can go to school every day of every month; empowerment is helping young girls stand up to FGM; empowerment is adding LGBT sex ed to the syllabus of a shit school; empowerment is developing a system where black men aren't murdered by police officers; empowerment is dismantling rape culture.

Empowerment is giving dominance to someone who has been oppressed; empowerment is ending the use of women's bodies for profit; empowerment is not what they've been telling you it is.

Written by Lydia Morrish for

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