The economics of feminism are complicated.
The first wave — suffrage — was about political freedom for (white) women.
The second wave — free love, the pill, and the sexual revolution — was about sexual freedom for women. (Acknowledging, again, that the movement was still mostly only inclusive for white women.)
With women given the right to make political decisions (especially after suffrage was achieved for women of color) and to make decisions about whether or not they wanted to have children or have the heteronormative relationships promoted in the Leave it to Beaver version of America, it was only a matter of time before women began looking toward true economic freedom.
In a capitalist society such as ours, your worth is defined by your economic contributions. Sure, you can vote, but if you can’t pay your taxes, you’re still not a valuable member of society. Sure, you can have sex before marriage, but if you’re not able to pay your bills, you still have to rely on someone to take care of you.
When I was a young(er) woman, I heard about the third wave of feminism, but I feel as if we’ve actually had a series of small waves — choppy waters — instead of a true wave to wash away the economic struggles of women in the present.
Women, today, still make 75 cents on the male dollar. They still only make up 6.4% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. (That’s 32 women out of 500 companies, for reference.)
We’ve been asked to decide if we want to side with the domesticated woman and be mothers and wives or boss-babe career women with unbridled ambition, resting bitch face, and financial freedom.
We’ve been told to lean in — and then back out. Articles have been written about why we can’t have it all but, frankly, we’re still struggling to have anything so we have to keep trying to have it all until something sticks.
And what’s happened is that, in these choppy waters, we’ve begun to drown.
In high school, I was discouraged from pursuing science because I was too emotional. (True story. A female science teacher thought I’d be a bad fit for advanced chemistry because I was too overwhelmed by all of the other advanced classes I was taking. I was overwhelmed because I had undiagnosed major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive tendencies, as well as an exercise addiction and an eating disorder. I might have been emotional, but I could have excelled in the class. So, I doubled down on English and History. To this day, I regret not pursuing science, because I wanted to work in genetics.)
I’ve ridden the rollercoaster of Trying to Get a Job while Female (TM). With my English degree, I’ve been a teacher, marketer, and quasi-journalist. I’ve been bullied and harassed by my male students. I’ve watched female executives drop out of the workforce to spend more time with their children because being a female VP means staying late at work to prove that you’re serious, having to be the note taker at meetings, and playing executive assistant to the CEO.
I’ve been paid so little that I have had to rely on first my parents and now my fiancé just to make ends meet — and been told by male bosses that I should be thanking them for my “high” wages. (I once had a CEO, who was paying me $30K in San Francisco, look me in the eyes and tell me, without a shred of sarcasm or apology, that I should move out of my mother’s house and closer to work so I wouldn’t have to commute for four hours every day. And for reference, the BARE MINIMUM you can make and “afford” to live in SF — the living wage — is $30,777. A second male boss insisted that I should be grateful for how much they were paying me, even though it was below market, and I had to take a 30% pay cut in order to work at that company doing a job with responsibilities comparable to a job that paid six figures.)
Which is why, when I discovered internet marketing, passive income, and online coaching, I sought to get the hell out.
The internet has opened up a whole new world of economic leverage previously inaccessible to a number of groups, and the pursuit of online money is not limited to women.
But the freedom number (the amount it takes to officially quit working for someone else and still support yourself) is specifically enticing to those of us who move throughout the world as “women.” Whether or not we’re aware of it, it offers something that the workforce cannot: the opportunity to “have it all.”
To be a #bossbabe or a #momtrepreneur or a #ladyboss, you define your own economic terms without having to rely on someone else telling you your worth (and making you thank them for it). You can stay home, raise children, and be domestic — and still have an empire. You can wear yoga pants and not have to prove yourself in a three-piece suit that shows *just* enough cleavage to make you interesting while still making yourself appear “respectable.”
You can be a functioning member of society and feel like you’re making a contribution in a way that working for a micromanaging boss never will.
Internet money should be a win for feminism; however, I’m concerned by the ways in which women in particular are still being exploited even while they earn:
Even as they seize more earning and spending power, women are doing so by centering their economic worth in their bodies.
Before going further, I want to make clear that there is no clear and reductive argument for or against using the internet to make a living; I can’t pretend, as a person who has struggled to find a career that both enriches me on a personal and developmental level and allows me to put money away for retirement or give consistently to others, that there’s currently a better alternative. What I would like to do instead is discuss the potential negative effects of a culture that forces women to rely on the internet for marketing, and suggest areas where we could improve for future generations. But we have to agree to start improving now, rather than waiting for future generations to figure it out on their own.
My generation is struggling with the holes left by the second wave of feminism’s “have it all” rhetoric. I don’t want our daughters and granddaughters to look back on the third wave or whatever the hell this “movement” is and say: They set us up for failure, too.
The Argument For: Why We Need Internet Marketing in the First Place
Before we talk about why women shouldn’t need to rely on internet marketing to make a living, we have to understand why they do rely on it in the first place.
Internet marketing takes many different forms, but the three that you’ll find most women participating in are: blogging, coaching, and direct marketing, the latter of which is also known as multilevel marketing or “MLM.” (Also, I’d like to acknowledge that direct marketing often takes place off the internet — think about Tupperware parties, sex toy parties, etc.; however, many of the direct marketing companies will provide resources to their sellers to create a “brand” presence online and recruit new followers and customers. I feel like it’s important to include this as a separate category from coaching, although some direct marketers will also brand themselves as “coaches,” such as Beachbody coaches.)
The first blogs were accidental business ventures. Women writing about their adventures in baking, running, and childrearing suddenly found themselves with hundreds and even thousands of readers, hanging upon their every word and leaving enthusiastic comments. With these huge — and highly engaged — audiences, it only made sense for advertisers to reach out. When a company sniffs out a business opportunity, they bite — blood in the water, and all. And when women, who were maybe looking for ways to make additional revenue or revenue in the first place, are suddenly presented with the prospect of making some cold hard cash for just showing up and being themselves, well…why wouldn’t they bite too?
This liberated women (granted, usually white, cis, hetero, and straight sized women) from the corporate system, gave them the option to stay home with their children while still contributing to the household, and provided an easy alternate revenue stream that was often better than waiting around for a bonus or a promotion that might never come.
In this sense, there’s a great argument for using the internet to make money: if all it takes is your face, a couple of carefully posed pictures, and some generic advice or a “useful” listicle to start a business and out-earn your counterparts who are working their less-toned butts off for “the man,” why wouldn’t you go all in?
Pick a passion, claim your expertise, and start selling. It’s much simpler than struggling to pay off student loans, living off food stamps because you can’t get a job that pays a living wage, or wishing you didn’t have to lose yourself in creating, marketing, or selling someone else’s product.
Since the early days described above, blogging has exploded into a big business, with “freedom coaches” “liberating” thousands of people from their drab day jobs and helping them make money with their passions.
The person becomes the passion becomes the brand — but that is where the problems begin to arise.
The Argument Against: Why Internet Marketing is a Problem
I would argue that any time something becomes a “big business,” it runs the risk of corruption or, at least, creating negative consequences. And blogging became a big business. If you go back into the history of blogging-as-business, you can watch the images getting better, posts getting “advice-ier,” and the product placements becoming as natural as natural light falling softly on a perfectly posed oatmeal in a jar.
Why is this a problem? Well:
Because, for the bloggers leveraging this newfound income stream (their audiences) showing up “authentically” online meant showing up in the ways that attracted an engaged and paying audiences. Bloggers began identifying harder and louder and in more targeted and specific ways with their online presences. Women with kitschy blog names suddenly became the kitschy blog name. They were the Pioneer Woman, Mama Pea, a Purely Twin. Their identities became the blogs, the blogs became their brands, and their brands became their identities. There was no separating them online.
Now. This isn’t a problem, necessarily, if these people entered into their brands with awareness and had the presence of mind to separate themselves (their identities and beliefs) from the source of their money. If they could say: I may change my mind, learn new information, or move on from this money-making venture. I believe in this now, I am an expert in this now, but I am not my business, I run my business.
Instead, the business runs them.
The internet is a visual place. How you present yourself — your personal brand — matters. Because people do not trust you if they do not identify with your brand.
Whether they are selling an image or an actual product related to their bodies, women are increasingly reliant upon looks in order to both establish a brand and register trustworthiness and identification with a potential audience. They are increasingly reliant upon showing up “authentically” by showing up in the first place.
And when those brands are tied to diet, weight, size, or fitness, or even just the behaviors and image of what makes a “good woman” (cis/hetero, white, straight-sized, good mother, sexy but not sexual, “empowered” but not shrill), it becomes incredibly enticing for those women to hold onto their beliefs — and dangerous for them to let go.
I know a nutrition blogger who has built her brand around optimizing her health through a certain way of eating and “natural” cures. When she optimized her health beyond what most people could ever do, she started looking for even weirder, more esoteric, and potentially dangerous things to “cure” so she could stay relevant. The minutiae of optimizing her existence keeps her audience engaged and purchasing affiliate products, but she is suffering from the anxiety of trying to make her health “perfect.”
I know a “healthy living blogger” who is actually an anorexic. Despite being confronted by her friends who went to treatment with her, this blogger continues to exercise and share calorie-restricted “healthy recipes” because she believes that she is helping people. She won’t come clean, quit the blog, and go into treatment again because it would destroy her brand and her ability to make money.
I know a Paleo blogger who is still selling weight loss even though she claims feminism as her worldview, because she has to make money — and using the words “weight loss” sells. She could just stop exploiting her audience’s vulnerabilities and fears, but then she would lose listeners, readers, and, ultimately, the revenue she needs to live.
I know women who run ultra marathons in sponsored clothing despite admitting to anorexia and exercise addiction, Crossfitters with Amazon affiliate accounts who can’t stop injuring themselves, people with the symptoms of hypothyroidism and chronic stomach pain who refuse to eat enough calories or cut down on exercise because they are “healthier” (read: thinner) and get more “likes” when they partake in their behaviors and post them online.
There is capital in your personal brand. That much is very clear. If your brand is clearly defined, “authentically” presented, and built on your identity, you’ll attract a clearly-defined audience that identifies with you. You’ll get the social capital (likes and follows) and the financial capital (program/product sales, affiliate deals, sponsorships) that liberate you from the pain and drudgery that is working on something you hate, for someone you hate, for less than you’re worth, and away from your family.
So how is this not feminist?
The issue is not that people who follow this path are earning money through a different system — that is feminist. Breaking the mold of corporate capitalism and earning what you’re worth, setting your own prices, hours, and boundaries is absolutely an act of feminism.
But the ways in which we are forced to rely on our image is firmly anti-feminist. How well we visually conform to expectations, whether or not we’re actively losing weight or keeping it off, whether or not we’re performing “woman” or “wellness” or whatever it is we’re selling — well, we’re still using our bodies as the main selling point for our product.
Sure — we’re not being sold as the product; we’re the ones doing the selling. But we — our bodies — are still the product. Whether we’re being gazed at or presenting ourselves for the gaze, we are still participating in the objectification of our bodies.
And worse: when that objectification makes us money, we hold even tighter and faster to that objectification. When presented with information that contradicts our belief systems (being thinner doesn’t necessarily make you healthier, obsessive exercise and not the standard American diet is destroying your hormones, cyclic dieting in order to sell your multilevel marketing product is worse for your health than gaining back those five pounds you had in the first place, etc.), we balk.
You can’t just rebrand and hope for the best, especially when rebranding means admitting that your behaviors were damaging the people you were trying to help. Look what happened to Jordan Younger, formerly the Blonde Vegan, when she admitted that she was using veganism like an eating disorder: she got death threats, and, perhaps worse for her in terms of tangible damage, people left her audience in droves and asked for their money back for the products she sold.
Your body is NOT your brand. Yes, it allows you to have it “all,” but that “all” comes with chronic dieting, anxiety about health and wellness, a fetishization of your own image, and the commodification of your beliefs. Is that a price that you’re willing to pay? If so, ask yourself why. The system we live in is completely screwed up if we have to be willing to stay objects in order to pay the bills.
When we rent out our belief systems, identities, and bodies to the highest bidder, our income is no more feminist than the incomes of the desk jockeys making less than their male coworkers. It’s just that the ways in which the money isn’t feminist are different.
We need to find a system that allows us to participate in capitalism without centering our bodies in the product, service, or brand. We need to find a way to deconstruct the idea that beauty, physical attraction, and conformity are the best ways to build, represent, and strengthen a brand. We need to find ways to decenter heterosexual, cis-presenting, light-skinned, straight-sized femininity from the narrative of who makes money (and, in doing so, also decentering similar narratives in the plus size/body positive community as well).
I don’t have all the answers to this dilemma — but I think it’s safe to start by raising the questions. How do we participate in capitalism without perpetuating an anti-feminist narrative of objectification? How do we run a business without becoming the business? Can we stop asking the world to consume us so we can afford to be consumers too?
If you’d like to join the conversation, head over to the Your Body, Your Brand Facebook group and let us know what you think.
You can also take the 5-Day Social Media Authenticity Challenge for People Who Are Tired of Being Brands.
And keep your ears out for the Your Body, Your Brand podcast later this year, where we’ll discuss why I hate your brand, and how we’re going to solve the problem of participating in capitalism while presenting female online.