Even if you’re not a self-proclaimed feminist, it’s pretty difficult these days not to notice there’s a new and rejuvenated focus on empowering women and ensuring they have a voice in our society. From the Women’s March that protested the election of a man who admitted to grabbing women by their private parts, to the heartbreaking rise of #MeToo that began an avalanche of allegations against powerful men who have abused their positions to sexually harass and assault women, attention has turned to what we as a society – and individually – should do to better empower those who form nearly half of the world’s – and more than half of our country’s – population.
While I’m actively rooting for anyone who even acknowledges there’s a problem, I’ve seen far too many giving lip service to the issues and not presenting real solutions – and not just men. Women are sometimes their own greatest enemy (I’m speaking directly to you, Roy Moore supporters) and often, without realizing what they’re doing.
I recently sat through a sales pitch for a multi-level marketing company that is aimed almost exclusively at women (though they talk about expanding both their product reach and employee makeup to encompass men). It’s no secret that these companies make their bread and butter more from recruiting salespeople to join their ranks than the actual products they sell, and that they have become very popular amongst women with young children looking for a way to have a business and earn money without sacrificing full-time, stay-at-home motherhood.
This particular sales pitch leaned heavily on the idea that this sort of home-based business empowers women to “have it all”. The products sold by the organization are also primarily geared towards women: makeup, skin care including the all-important anti-aging line, and of course for “internal beauty”, a wide variety of diet and nutritional products. The entire organization and its products were pitched, in a nutshell, as another form of female empowerment.
I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who is trying to have a home-based business and I’m not against the idea of beauty and nutrition and taking care of oneself. Most of us want to feel good and look attractive. But I do have a few issues with this organization’s philosophy and product portfolio being sold to me as female empowerment. This leads me to some steps I think we could all agree to take that could actually give women the power they seek and so richly deserve in our society.
- Work on male-female equality in the workplace AND in the home. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for women-owned businesses and enabling the flexibility to work from home and take care of your children. My career choices changed dramatically when my older daughter was born and I started my own PR and marketing consulting practice, working from home, because I couldn’t bear the two hours of commute time and 10+ hours per day my corporate job demanded. But what we really need are corporations to step up and make it easier for women to climb the ladder: equal pay for equal work, affordable childcare and flexible working hours. Studies show that children – both girls and boys – benefit from having a positive, working mother role model in the household, so policies that allow women to work benefit everyone.
But perhaps, most importantly, let’s make it easy – and socially acceptable – for men to have the same workplace flexibility so they can share in the household and parenting responsibilities. My husband was an odd-man-out when he took paternity leave to stay home with our older daughter for a month in the early 1990s. For him, it was an expected step, having been born and raised in Sweden where both working parents are given generous leave to care for their newborns. Here in the U.S., while we’ve made some progress, I know far too many women who shoulder the entire burden of childcare, parenting and household activities – whether they are working full-time or not. We must make it easier – and more acceptable – for men and women to share these duties. I don’t know about you, but I never want to hear another man say that he is “babysitting” his own child. That’s not babysitting. It’s your job as a parent.
- Stop talking about “anti-aging”. No one enjoys the process of growing old. From creaking joints to sagging skin to a forgetful mind, none of us enjoy watching these things happen to those we love or ourselves. But we can’t be anti-aging unless we want to be anti-life. Aging is part of life. We are all aging – every day – and there is absolutely no known scientific way to stop that. If you’re not aging, you’re dead. So why are products that cater to “anti-aging’ so popular in our society? I’m not immune to vanity – I complain about the wrinkles that have sprouted on my face and certainly, I’m in daily denial about what my body can and can’t do any more – but I am becoming increasingly irritated with all of the focus on stopping a process that can’t possibly be contained. Sure, we all want to feel and look as good as we possibly can as we age, but by constantly focusing on the aspects of aging we don’t like as women, we’re missing out on the opportunity to embrace the positive aspects of aging. Gaining wisdom, having adult relationships with our children, or just being able to say “I don’t give a rat’s ass about that” because we’ve earned the right to – these are all aspects of aging that we should revel in. And the constant focus on anti-aging as it relates to beauty is probably the least empowering thing we can do as women for each other as it puts the focus squarely on our appearance and diminishes the value of our minds and our accomplishments.
- Compliment your daughters – and the other women in your life – on more than just their appearance. “What a pretty, little girl!” “You’re so beautiful!” “You look so thin!” I’m not saying that these kinds of compliments are never appropriate. But the amount of times we comment on young girls’ appearances dwarfs the number of times we tell them how smart, capable and independent they are. Boys, on the other hand, are rarely complimented on their looks, but more for their athletic prowess, their accomplishments in the classroom and their ability to complete tasks on their own. Perhaps the worst of these three statements above is the “you look so thin!” remark. Take it from someone who battled disordered eating early on in life – women become so used to the societal emphasis on “thin is beautiful” that they begin to crave those kinds of remarks to the point of self-destruction. Emphasize “healthy” and “fit” all you want, but an overemphasis on being thin does the exact opposite of empowerment.
- Quit putting yourself down. If you’re like me, this may be one of the most difficult steps to take. It’s not humble or self-deprecating to constantly look in the mirror and put yourself down. As women, we are sometimes taught early on to not be vain, to brush aside compliments and praise, to be grateful, humble and “nice”. And combine this with the rise of social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, where every picture can be altered, filtered and airbrushed, and that “anti-aging” message we hear over and over in advertisements, in magazines, in TV and movies, and amongst our own friends, and you can see why young girls grow up to be women who are constantly analyzing their every fault in the mirror. But if you look in the mirror when your daughters are standing beside you and complain about your newly-formed eye wrinkles, or stand sideways and grab at a slightly-protruding belly and call yourself “fat”, remember that your daughters are watching you and modeling your behavior. And let’s not forget the boys: what message does it send to young boys if they continually hear their mother complaining about her own appearance? That appearance matters above all else and the women in his life need to conform to some unachievable beauty standards?
If current events are any indication, we have a long way to go as a society when it comes to female empowerment. And while the recent spotlight has been squarely on men and their attitudes and behaviors – and rightly so – women also need to take a long look at their own, often unwitting, complicity (Side note: is it any wonder that both “feminism” and “complicit” are Merriam-Webster words of the year?).
We’ve got a long way to go, baby.