The Problem With Empowerment
Empowerment: a word that has garnered so much attention and use in the past few years that it is almost played out. Naturally, I want to ramble on about. Before I move on, let me be perfectly clear, I am ALL ABOUT “empowering” women….I just have issues with how we (the collective we) do it.
Let’s start with the word - empowerment. Empowerment is defined as authority or power given to someone to do something. More colloquially, most of us define empowerment as the process of garnering confidence, strength, and fortitude to do things and feeling secure in the doing of those things. These definitions are perfectly adequate and do, indeed, serve their purpose. BUT….is that really what we mean when we say we want to “empower” people? We want to GIVE them power? We want them to garner power from another source? Are we supposed to lead people to some magical fountain of empowerment so they can drink from it and then BAM, they’re confident, secure, and strong?
Personally, I don’t love that idea. I don’t want to give anyone power because power isn’t mine to give. I think most people would agree that, when we say we want to empower people, we aren’t talking about an exchange of confidence forces. We want people to stand up and fight for themselves and do so with confidence. We want people to stand in their own power. It may seem like I’m being petty with linguistics here, but language matters. And more importantly, how that language is used and how those ideas come into fruition, matter. They matter a great deal.
At times, it seems that things written in the name of empowerment have taken on a rather less than “empowering” tone. There is a lot of “empowerment” that is done by shoving one group down so that another group may rise. Lately, it seems as if empowerment has really come to mean “making one better than someone else” and that’s just bullshit. That is not helping others stand in their power. That is not “empowering”.
In my own realm, I’ve seen this illustrated most strongly (ha!) when it comes to the idea of strength versus aesthetics. The idea that women who get into sports like powerlifting, strongman, etc. that are judged on strength are somehow above, better than, or just frankly more fucking feministy, than women who choose sports that are judged on aesthetics. Don’t get me wrong, I think lifting is about the most power-building (literally) thing that women can engage in - but do we really need to shove other women down to make that point? Furthermore, does the commentary on what women wear, what we look like, and how we adorn ourselves actually serve to further the goal of helping women stand in their power?
Whether I am reading an article about bikini competitors or reading an article about women powerlifters, I feel as though I’m being told how to present my body. Look, I get it. A sport which is predicated on being on stage half naked IS inherently a bit more about how you present your body - that’s the sport. That’s, by definition, what someone signed up for. And you know what? More power to them. Insinuating that those individuals are somehow less, and women who compete on a platform are somehow better, is just exercising the same comparative bullshit that most women who lift have come to hate. I think intention is important here as well - is someone posting things on social media as a way to garner attention to take people’s money and provide a, shitty at best and dangerous at worse, service to them? Are they posting as a exercise in confidence? Are they trying to share their story? Are they trying to criticize others? All of these things matter. And quite frankly, you as the consumer get to chose what you consume. You can unfollow, you can ignore, you can scroll on past. You can change the conversation and show that there is not one “right” way to fitness by sharing your own story and selfies, if that is something you chose to do.
It seems as if the borderline constant comparative banter and judgement occurs as a knee jerk reaction. There is a recoiling from and rebelling against what, for most women, was sold to them as they only way to do “fitness”. Most women have been told that in order to be “fit” you must exercise a certain way, eat a certain way, post on social media a certain way, and if you don’t...well then, you aren’t fit. More importantly, the “cooking breakfast in your underwear” (credit for that illustrative phrase to Dani Overcash) model of fitness was sold to them as the only way to attain worth. The idea that one has to display themselves in a particular way or only do particular activities in order to check the box of “fit” is, indeed, totally fucking useless.
On the flip side, I don’t think making sweeping condemnations or generalizations about the intention of groups of women, and somehow framing those condemnations in a “well, clearly we are better” way, is useful. I know I am very guilty of thinking of that way and saying those things - and honestly, I still find myself doing that from time to time. I don't want others to make sweeping generalizations about me, so why would I not extend that same courtesy?
We, the collective we, have to move past this. Instead, we can embrace that there is the radical notion that maybe, perhaps, some women may chose to present their bodies in a certain way and pursue certain activities because *gasp* they like them! And those activities make them feel good! And those things aid them in standing in their power. (Note: I’m not here to entertain a debate about whether one can have power if they conform, intentionally or unintentionally, to the “male gaze” or societal standards. That’s a different topic for a different time).
So what do we do? How do we help women stand in their power? We accept. We raise each other up. We refuse to settle for the tired trope of strength vs. aesthetics, because at this point, it’s just fucking lazy. We stop the comparative bullshit and the shoving of people into boxes. We stop judging women solely on how they choose to present their physical bodies. We stand in our power. We help women to stand in their power. We do better, because we deserve better.