Feminism for sale

When feminism becomes a commodity, no one is empowered.

Dove real beauty campaign

As acceptance of feminism grows and rightfully asserts a greater presence in public consciousness, there is no doubt that some have attempted to capitalise on its popularity using perky, feel-good slogans. Feminism currently runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a commodity, a slogan helping the sales of $4.99 bottles of Dove body wash emblazoned with “love your body”. But “love your body” is a hollow imitation of true empowerment, which requires resisting the social structures that objectify women in the first place. Conflating the two, dangerously, renders true empowerment inaccessible.

Feminism was supposedly the topic of a TEDxLA conference I bought tickets to. During the event, businesswomen, dancers, and activists shared their struggles with self-love in their education, careers, and relationships. Undoubtedly, self-love is an important topic — women commonly report experiencing imposter syndrome. However, these speakers never presented their self-doubt as the product of an oppressive, judgmental patriarchy whose expectations objectified and de-emphasised women, but instead characterised it as some inherent realisation of feminine weakness.

The solutions presented to such struggles were equally disconcerting. One panellist suggested that empowerment could be attained through regular meditations in a forest, as if we could dismantle the intersections of racism and sexism that cause said issues with self-love if only we, as a human species, breathed in more mildew. Another speaker argued the issue of self-love arose from a world in disharmony, and that harmonisation could be achieved by ending consumption of genetically modified foods. Seeing my disbelief, she urged me to visit an organic farm in Santa Monica and plunge my hands into the soil of a vegetable garden.

Most disquieting about this expensive conference was my realisation that I had attempted to literally buy empowerment. I believed that, so long as I could purchase a ticket and passively absorb this knowledge, I would become a more active agent in the fight against sexism.

Self-love and feminism share similar methodologies in that they encourage autonomy and resistance against a damaging social standard. But self-love, while crucial to mental health in the fight against sexism, can only go so far without addressing the root causes of such social standards. While using Dove body wash and consuming wellness tonics in the name of self-love is not intrinsically harmful, they cannot be conflated as methods for addressing entrenched, systemic sexism and achieving empowerment. The popularisation of a wellness-tonic-fix-all mentality has created a false equivalence between a product and tangible social change.

Empowerment now vacillates between making space for yourself in a society that is institutionally engineered against you and as a hashtag to send your social media posts to the top of the newsfeed. I don’t profess to own ‘authentic’ feminism — but concern still arises in considering the role of self-love driven commodification in watering down feminism’s intent. In attempting to make feminism more ‘accessible’ by aligning it with the capitalist aims of modern society, it ironically renders it inaccessible for those who cannot afford it.

Consumer palatability cannot be the main goal of feminism. When feminism fights against a system of oppression, that system — capitalism, and society even — will not benignly destroy itself to pave way for egalitarianism. When such systems reduce feminism into a product, we trade intersectionality for purchasing power.

The TEDx conference was the epitome of said commercialisation — it ceased to be accessible to the minorities it purported to represent. It disassembled feminism into platitudinal self-love messages, using rhetoric easy to comprehend by a mainstream, capitalist society. This is not to bemoan that accessibility. But said proliferation of feminist ideals must remain loyal to nuanced, socially responsible outreach. The popularised version of feminism should not be privileged. Everyone should engage in feminism — without having to pay for it.