Empowered Sexism, How Fashion Killed Feminism

I started Lone Wolf Magazine out of a feeling that more good needed to be done within fashion media to offset some of the negative impact the industry was having on women. The goal was to “inform and empower women through the language of fashion” (that, by the way, is the official slogan). But this isn’t about selling you our mission statement, actually, it’s the story of how I lost faith in the cause. Five years ago, amidst all the excitement of starting a magazine, a tiny seed of doubt began to take root. I couldn’t articulate it or make sense of it at first, but as it grew, its outlines became clearer and pretty soon the industry I once loved felt, well, like it no longer fit right.

So which one is it?
Where do women currently stand? Are we empowered or merely objectified?

I started to notice a strange incongruity between the fashion images passing through my office, and what I understood to be true about those images: I saw objectification dressed up as luxury, sexism passing as empowerment, and materialism masquerading as self-care. I saw women stripped of their identities only to become walking advertisements for the brands they worshipped. I’ve seen models wither away to nothingness, while their agents and photographers stood by watching with wide-eyed elation, as if the slow destruction of a young girl’s body was the fucking aurora borealis. I saw literally thousands of fashion editorials in which this kind of physical vulnerability was presented as a feminine ideal. I couldn’t get away from this thought that we were all somehow drinking the Kool-Aide.


Empowered sexism. Examples of the mixed messages sent by the fashion industry.

Rewind to the Spring 2015 Chanel Show: Models walked down an artificial Parisian street in a mock-feminist-riot, shouting “What do we want!? Tweed! When do we want it? Now!” The models looked embarrassed as they waved signs with profound statements like “Free Freedom” and “Boys Should Get Pregnant Too.” The message was muddled. Was shopping somehow a feminist statement? Was looking good somehow tied to women’s empowerment? Were women in designer clothing more powerful than those in mere polyester? Chanel’s substance-less protest at once made feminism look completely frivolous while also suggesting that being decorative was a legitimate form of power for women. The legendary fashion house appropriated the very vehicle for gaining actual political power only to replace it with empty materialism. This was starting to look familiar. I had seen this before.

Fashion designers and editors have been drawing a tenuous connection between female power and fashion for decades. Hell, we’ve done it regularly at Lone Wolf (and the realization is giving me a serious identity crisis to be honest). It all seems fairly innocent, until you dig a little deeper. The fashion industry has always strategically used a very narrow interpretation of female power as beauty and self-ornamentation, but over the last few years, that narrow interpretation has increasingly been marketed as empowering to women. And this is where the fashion industry can get really ugly.

chanel feminist protest

Women will always want to feel beautiful. Nothing will ever change that. But feeling beautiful is next to impossible when there’s a whole economic infrastructure built on the pillar of your low self-esteem. The more insecure you are the more you spend on stuff that’s designed to capitalize on that very insecurity. The more unworthy you feel the higher your consumption of fashion, the more self-conscious you become, the more you agonize over your wardrobe. The fashion and beauty industry is so deeply tied to you feeling shitty about yourself, that if every woman in the world woke up and decided to love herself fully and without reservation, the entire economy would literally collapse.

Though it has never been as easy to feel empowered as it is today, there still remains a major chasm between feeling empowered and actually being empowered.

Our identities as women are coopted and shaped by an industry that relies on connecting fashion with personal empowerment for profit. Nowhere can you see the effect of this kind of “inspired” industry coaxing than on Instagram and Pinterest. Both platforms are a microcosm of yearning. Every photo you pin, every photo you like and share, serves as a small reminder of the kind of person you wish you were. Behind every board you’ve ever created was the belief that, this isn’t who I really am, if I had enough money and/or time and/or hustle, I would be this other person, and I would live in this other apartment, with this other better furniture, and my hair would look better, then and only then will I become the person I was always meant to be. Obviously this is bullshit. No amount of furniture or mascara will change who you are. But the dream of change is infinitely more powerful than the reality of self-acceptance. Especially if “change” is meant to look like the images below.

Who in their right mind wouldn't want the life painted by these kind of images?
Who in their right mind wouldn’t want the life painted by these kind of images?

Consuming copious amounts of fashion and cosmetics isn’t so much a personal choice as a socio-professional one. When we look across the fashion, beauty and lifestyle media landscape, the girls who look good always seem to win. They’re the ones with the perfect apartments, exciting careers, idyllic relationships and muse-worthy wardrobes. It’s no longer simply about having the perfect body or getting the guy, now it’s about having the perfect life, apartment and career as well. We’ve now moved away from merely “sex sells,” now it’s about becoming the ideal version of you. And that shit runs so much deeper than sex. It has the power to fundamentally reprogram your entire way of being.

No amount of furniture or mascara will change who you are. But the dream of change is infinitely more powerful than the reality of self-acceptance.

Billions of corporate dollars go into understanding what makes you tick. Women’s fashion and beauty industries are worth about a trillion dollars combined, the apparel industry alone accounts for two percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. These industries are not about to gamble that immense share of the market on compassionate people-focused marketing strategies that may not go anywhere. They want to get to the heart of what matters most to you. They want to know your deepest fears and aspirations, because that’s the most obvious way to make a sale.

When Dove executives figured out that most women do not like to refer to themselves as beautiful, they launched the #RealBeauty campaign and raised their profits by 2 billion dollars. Similarly, when Always (a tampon company that spends nearly 10 billion dollars on advertising a year) realized that fifty percent of girls report a drop in confidence after their first period, they quickly launched their award-winning #likeagirl campaign and doubled their purchase intent. It’s the same story with Pantene’s #StrongIsBeautiful campaign, American Eagle’s #AerieReal campaign, and Spanx new slogan “Reshape the way you get dressed, so you can shape the world!” As well as many many others. These advertising practices have given rise to what some companies are calling fem-vertising, the idea of using female empowerment to sell products. And when you consider that women control 85 percent of household purchasing decisions, it makes perfect sense.

Fashion taking "inspiration" from the women's liberation movement to sell clothes.
Fashion taking “inspiration” from the women’s liberation movement to sell clothes.

Let’s just stop and think about what it means to sell empowerment for a second. What does empowering someone even mean? Originally the term was socio-political, and referred to the process of giving disenfranchised groups (blacks, women, gays ets) a voice. Empowerment is about casting your vote, fighting for your basic human rights and gaining upward mobility, and has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of soap or shampoo you use. Contrary to what Dove or Pantene may have us believe, women can’t wash gender inequality away in the shower.

Contrary to what Dove or Pantene may have us believe, women can’t wash gender inequality away in the shower.

Women aren’t stupid. We’re surrounded by images that show us what kinds of women get rewarded in life, and which one’s lose out. Take Pantene’s #StrongIsBeautiful campaign which is about “women rising above society’s expectations and proving once and for all that strong is always beautiful.” So…in other words, they’re aiming to show us that a woman’s power comes from her strength not her beauty by showing us that her strength is beauty. Come again?

And what about Wrangler’s recent #MoreThanABum campaign, what was meant as a “rallying cry against female stereotyping” (their words) reduced a group of talented women to a single body part: Their ass. The video is presented against a soundtrack of women repeating the word “bum” while Kimbra sings “Ain’t about what’s behind me” juxtaposed over footage of women’s denimed asses. In other words, we are told that women are “more than a bum” by being reduced to just a bum. Again, what? This shit is so confusing.

Wrangler Jean's #MoreThanABum campaign.
Wrangler Jean’s #MoreThanABum campaign.

This kind of circular reasoning is not unusual. We’re not really supposed to think too much about it. It’s not meant for your mind but for your gut. One look at the video below and some deep emotional part of you just wants to shout, “FUCK YES!! Let’s break that glass ceiling!!” But the rational part of you, the part that you are choosing to bury in that moment, thinks “Great, strong is beautiful, I better make sure my hair is strong, I wouldn’t want anyone thinking it’s not beautiful.” Your emotional reaction may be louder in that moment, but the other message is just as, if not more important. It’s the thing that unconsciously connects your feelings with your purchasing actions.

We all dream. We all want a better life. Can we really blame the fashion and beauty industry for capitalizing on those collective dreams? Definitely not. But I do think we should be aware of how they operate. When brands sell you this story of empowerment it resonates somewhere deep inside you, in the place you keep all your hopes and dreams for the future. Whether you call yourself a feminist or not, there isn’t a single woman walking this earth who doesn’t want to feel powerful, respected, and accomplished. There isn’t a woman alive who doesn’t aspire to something great. To have someone tell you that you can be everything you’ve ever wanted if you simply look the part, well, who wouldn’t want to believe that fairytale?

There is a clear financial incentive for brands and tv networks to offer women this narrative of “you can have it all as long as you look the part.” Women by default buy into these messages. We’re invested in them heart and soul. We will stand behind any brand, tv show, ad campaign, and movie that shows us this fantasy of women in power. We so badly want to believe we’ve achieved equality. But that’s sadly not the world we live in.

Regardless how empowered you feel by the images of strong females you see around you, we are not there yet. And certainly, buying a new “empowering” shade of lipstick isn’t going to get us there. Getting a seat in the senate will.

A woman is raped every six seconds in America, a country where women can still be fired for both being too hot and not hot enough (see here and here and here). On average, globally women earn 11k a year, while men earn an average 21K. 39 thousand girls are married off as child-brides every single day. In rural parts of China baby girls are still murdered because parents consider sons to be more economically valuable. 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year. According to the U.S. State Department, over half a million people are trafficked across international borders every year, 80 percent of which are female. Equality isn’t even on the horizon yet.

aspirational-working-girl

Women currently hold a mere 4 percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. 90 percent of the world’s board seats still belong to men. In fact, there are more CEOs named John than all female CEOs combined. In Hollywood 77 percent of the films produced in 2015 had no female writers, 92 percent had no female directors, 79 percent had no female editors, and 96 percent had no female cinematographers (see the full report here). In the fashion industry, a mere 14% of major brands are run by female designers (despite the fact that the majority of fashion design graduates are women). In government 80 percent of the Senate as well as the House of Representatives is male, and there are currently only six female governors in the US. And in case you need reminding, there still remains a total of zero female presidents in American history.

Though it has never been as easy to feel empowered as it is today, there still remains a major chasm between feeling empowered and actually being empowered. Fashion magazines often depict a reality in which women exude an image of immense power and success. And we ARE powerful in the nebulous put-it-on-a-postcard sort of way. Women have made incredible strides over the last four decades. But what we decidedly are not, is powerful socially and politically. Our voices are simply not getting heard because we have painfully little female representation out there in the world.

Women may be progressing, but we are progressing at a snail’s pace. In fact, at this rate it will take another 170 years before we have achieved actual equality between the sexes. Contrary to what you may see on Pinterest or Instagram or on TV, and regardless how empowered you feel by the images of strong females you see around you, we are not there yet. And certainly, buying a new “empowering” shade of lipstick or a dress made with organic cotton isn’t going to get us there. Getting a seat in the senate will.

Unfortunately no amount of dancing is going to make this statement true.
Unfortunately no amount of dancing is going to make this statement true.

But it’s so easy to feel like women have made it. The proof is in the media pudding. It’s literally everywhere we look, on every TV show and movie and magazine we like to read. We see women like Olivia Pope (Scandal), Claire Underwood (House of Cards), Meredith Grey (Grey’s Anatomy), Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones) and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss playing Vice President (Veep) on practically every TV show made today. Not to mention the cultural prevalence of fashion power-players like Anna Wintour, Phoebe Philo and Vera Wang. This, of course, is totally wonderful, it’s amazing that strong women are finally being seen. But as wonderful as it is, it’s also inaccurate. What you see in the media is not a reflection of reality, but the over-representation of a teeny tiny sliver of the world. How do we square the persistence of female inequality with all those images of female power we see around us?

It is wonderful to see so many strong women represented in the media, but let us not lose sight of the fact that women still have a long way to go. Overstating women’s gains and accomplishments in the media renders us blind to the persistant inequality that still remains around us.

Overstating women’s gains and accomplishments in the media renders feminism obsolete at a moment when we need it most. It paints the picture that full equality has been achieved and that the work is done when in fact we still have a long way to go. “The odd, somewhat unintended consequence,” writes Enlightened Sexism author Susan Douglas, “we are getting images of imagined power that mask, and even erase, how much still remains to be done for girls and women, images that make sexism seem fine, even fun, and insist that feminism is now utterly pointless…and while the scantily clad or bare-breasted women may have seemed to be objectified, they were really on top, because now they had chosen to be sex objects and men were supposedly nothing more than their helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves.”

As a result, we are bombarded by these contradictory images of women being simultaneously objectified while also empowered, successful and strong, but only as long as she keeps all her hair appointments. How are we supposed to make sense of these messages? The truth is, most of us don’t. Today’s average woman is so confused about what it means to be empowered that she ends up leaning further into a sexist culture that equates objectification with self-expression. “You think you’re being brave, you think you’re being sexy,” writes activist Susan Brownmiller, “you think you’re transcending feminism. But that’s bullshit.

Screen Shot 2017-01-20 at 10.04.37 AM

Reality star Kim Kardashian for example, who frequently posts nude photos to her massive online following, has defended the practice explaining, “I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin.” There is a subtle but important distinction to be made here: That sense of empowerment is not coming from actual empowerment (i.e. gains in socio-political power), but from the immense collective admiration showered upon her every time she appears nude online. It’s not hard to imagine why this would feel good, but it’s not empowerment so much as it is buying into the traditional sexist system of exchanging your body for self-esteem and financial profit. And to be clear, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with female nudity, but in the words of cultural critic Naomi Wolf, “to live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn inequality in little ways all day long.”

This type of empowerment has nothing to do with breaking the glass ceiling, it’s exclusively about breaking what author Ariel Levy called the sexual ceiling. But how empowering is that really? How is our sexual liberation going to get us closer to closing the wage gap for example? “Being able to have an orgasm with a man you don’t love or having Sex and the City on television, that is not liberation,” wrote Levy in Female Chauvinist Pigs, “If you start to think about women as if we’re all Carrie on Sex and the City, well, the problem is: You’re not going to elect Carrie to the Senate or to run your company. Let’s see the Senate fifty percent female; let’s see women in decision-making positions–that’s power. Sexual freedom can be a smokescreen for how far we haven’t come.”

To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn inequality in little ways all day long. So even if we agree that sexual imagery is in fact a language, it is clearly one that is already heavily edited to protect men’s sexual–and hence social–confidence while undermining that of women. ~ Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

From where we currently stand in this post-Brexit, post-Trump-vs-Hilary world, reality seems to have split into two distinct realms: On one side we have everything we see and believe, and on the other side is that which is unacknowledged but true. Media outlets, realizing how much women want to feel empowered, give us a seemingly endless stream of strong, confident women to live vicariously through. The problem is that by over-representing women in positions of power, we’re seeing a beautiful but fictional portrait of the world we actually live in. We feel that the fantasy is real because it is everywhere we look. The tragic irony her is that if you truly believe that equality has been achieved, if you truly believe that the fight is over, that women are as powerful as men, you are going to be more tolerant of sexism. Because when you feel that you are standing from a position of power, those kind of “small” jabs seem trivial.

Standing from a place of perceived-power, women have embraced trends that are, at the end of the day, bad for women as a whole. We’ve become blind to what’s right in front of us: The fashion industry’s sexualization of little girls, their core message that materialism is empowering, their use of children to sell clothing to adult women, their liberal use of porn-inspired imagery to add “edge” to their ad campaigns, the reduction of a human being to just her sexual parts, the general cultural blindness to the fact that we are, in fact, regressing.

Every model you see here is 14 years old or less.
Every model you see here is 14 years old or younger. Why is the fashion industry using children to market clothes to grown women? With so many older models available, what message is the industry sending women?

Given all this, perhaps it’s not surprising that a recent study by The Harvard Business Review found that women who spent a higher portion of their income on cosmetics felt more satisfied, successful, and powerful, even if they weren’t. Contrast that with findings from a poll by PerryUndem Research that, while most people know that society has a long way to go before women will be fully equal to men, few people are properly informed about how much actual power women have and where they currently stand in the world.

We are slowly resurrecting tired old sexist stereotypes because now we believe that, as long as we ourselves choose to be objectified, it’s totally ok. We’ve been spoon-fed these mixed-up empowering-but-also-somehow-sexist images for so long, we really can’t tell where the line falls anymore. So the question is, where do we draw the line between “owning our sexuality” and objectifying ourselves for the benefit of the viewer alone? Who is the implicit viewer of images like these? And most importantly, are we selling ourselves short? These are not easy questions to answer, but there’s a heavy need for change in the air. We’ve spent far too long equating fashion and beauty with female empowerment, and it hasn’t done a thing to move us forward. If anything it has cost us precious time and money.

“I could be rich (or at least get richer faster) if I gave up my beauty routine,” writes Molly Faulkner-Bond in Why Vanity Keeps Us Poor (Sirens Magazine). “Currently, my daily self-prepping involves the following: shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, face wash, toothpaste, body lotion, face moisturizer, blusher, a bit of glimmer for my cheeks, eyeliner, mascara, lip gloss, and perfume. And I’m a basics kind of gal. Most American women also add in regular salon and spa stuff like spray tanning, waxing, highlights, haircuts, manis, pedis, microdermabrasion and Botox.”

“Why is this the "new feminism" and not what it looks like: the old objectification?” ~ Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
“Why is this the “new feminism” and not what it looks like: the old objectification?” ~ Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

We can keep the blinders on and tell ourselves that it doesn’t really matter, but the truth remains that this particular cocktail of empowerment-objectification is bad for women, even if done consciously and willingly and happily by the person being objectified. Even if it looks glamorous and edgy in an ad campaign. The short-term gains are obvious. You become the thing that society likes to call attractive, they’ll say you dress well, and that you’re a real woman for doing so. But in the long term, it means that women’s value will forever remain tied to their appearance. Realistically, we may never break free from that shackle, but we owe it to ourselves to try.

Natalia Borecka

Natalia is the editor in chief and publisher of Lone Wolf Magazine. She founded the publication in 2012.

14 Comments
  1. shesaidsomething says:

    I agree with the basic thesis of this article. I tend to ascribe to the late Bill Cunningham’s view that fashion is armor. It is not a subtle reference to society’s treatment of women. It is a protection and assertion at once of my unique self, my values and my own interpretation of the rules of society as they relate to gender. I want the conversation with the creative. The business/marketing…etc. is the part I don’t buy into.

  2. Very astute assessment of an extremely important topic. I’ve studied and worried about this for decades. The social lives of women are deeply affected by trends in fashion and beauty, yet those industries focus more on consumerism than true empowerment. The co-opting of feminism in them is depressing. Thanks for drawing attention to the issues and offering insights.

  3. This was utterly fantastic to read and I really appreciated the attention to references and external citation. Such an articulate and passionate reflection on a subject that is too often ignored or brushed off by consumers and artists alike.

  4. This is the best fashion article I’ve read in a long time. You hit the nail on the head. As a makeup artist over the last 9 years I can relate to that unsettled realization. It’s a conflict what a monster it has become. Great article!! Nothing closer to the truth than what you have said !!

  5. Thank you for writing this, i’ve searched inside to articulate this paradox in my head many an evening scrolling through Instagram. As much as i love the aesthetics and irreverence in girl online culture, the short term gain is ever stalling the long term gain for our real selves. This write-up needs to be shared and shared and shared again, i’ll question the next time I pine for an item of clothing, or make-up brand. Do I want it, or do they want me to want it.

  6. Erica Jackson says:

    This was a wonderful article, I’m grateful for having read it. I wish I had read it when I was twenty. I wish all young women would read it. Thank you for your honesty and insightfulness

  7. The photo you included in this article of the word ‘feminist’ on underwear and captioned as “Empowered sexism. Examples of the mixed messages sent by the fashion industry” isn’t a fair example to include.

    That photo is part of a brand (‘It’s me & you’ is their name) which is a group of women collaborating to encourage one another and create community. As much as wearing underwear with the word ‘Feminist’ on it isn’t achieving anything alone, this brand is made up of, and supported by, a group of women in the US who are creating active change in their work, especially in the realms of fashion photography.
    The image alone if you care to consider it, isn’t exploitative, it’s picturing a regular size and not underaged model, and the gaze is female.

    Please be aware of the people you target/include.

    1. Hi Savannah, thank you warmly for your comment. I was aware of the source of the image, and wanted to include it (along with all the other photos) not to single out any one particular brand or photographer, but rather to paint a picture of the kind of media women are exposed to every day. I understand that the image was created with good intentions, but no matter the intentions, it is a small part of a larger cultural snapshot that can be extremely confusing to women. The images I selected are meant to make you question the effect of seeing these types of photographs, especially when consumed all at once. I wanted to simulate a typical Pinterest/Instagram/Google Images browsing experience. I hope that clarifies things! X

      1. Totally agree with you Natalia; Savannah, I think it’s important to step out of ideology. I hate that T.Swift quote of “there’s a special place in hell for women who put down other women,” or whatever it is. That’s missing the point.

        In the words of Diane from Bojack:

        “I’m a fan of her [Sarah Lynn’s] early work, which both satirized and celebrated youth culture’s obsession with sex. But I do wonder as a third-wave feminist if it’s even possible for women to “reclaim” their sexuality in this deeply entrenched patriarchal society. Or if claiming to do so is just a lie we tell ourselves so we can more comfortably cater to the male gaze. On the other hand, I worry conversations like this one often dismiss her as a mere puppet of the industry, incapable of engaging in this discussion herself, an infantilization which is itself a product of the deeply misogynistic society we live in.”

        It’s tricky, hence why we’re so kon-fuzed

        Also this incredible article: ugh, Petra Collins

        http://bluestockingsmag.com/2013/10/01/in-review-gynolandscape/

  8. Well shit… then, where do we go from here?!

  9. This article was amazing to read. It encapsulated a lot of what I’ve been thinking and feeling for a while without being able to articulate it. Every point you made here is one I’ve considered before. Thanks for wording it so perfectly!

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