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The Empowerment Dilemma

Empowerment is the big buzz word for women, whether she considers herself a feminist, a traditionalist, or “other.” But just like everything else in the world, enough people are working to cash in on the concept that it would probably benefit you to think a little bit about what exactly that word means.

“Empowerment” is an interesting word. Not the least because we could be using it a little narrowly.

The Brass Tacks: Defining Empowerment

Empowerment has come to primarily mean having more agency yourself, the ability to control your own life and circumstances, but the usage can also extend to giving someone else that power, often power to act on your behalf. The question you must ask yourself is, “Am I more in control of my life and living it as I desire, or am I ceding responsibility for those choices to others?”

Why is this important? Because empowerment requires an increasing self-knowledge, and a sense of responsibility toward others. When you work to empower yourself, it’s perfectly possible that you are either disempowering others, or giving away certain rights and responsibilities in order to make a quick, mostly superficial gain.

When the women’s movement picked up steam in the 60s and into the 70s, there was the kind of conflict we see now between women who, quite naturally, wanted different results from their empowerment. But by the 80s, we were witnessing women holding a sense of entitlement and, yes, empowerment never seen before in history. It’s easy to forget in the flurry of shoulder pads and novelty pop songs that women in the 80s were working more diverse jobs, holding more responsibility, making more money, and were more prominent in many of the arts than at any previous time in history. In the media, we were treated to more diversity in ethnicity, age, and look.  The badass women of the 70s made it okay to have a voice, and by the 80s, most women were trying it out for themselves.

And then the world struck back. By the end of the 80s, I saw the death of the women’s movement, the trivialization of feminism, and a return to the idea that a woman’s only worth came from her youth, good looks, and compliance.

We have the chance now to continue on the path set in the 80s, before the return to darkness, but only if we understand what empowerment means, and what it DOESN’T mean.

What Empowerment Isn’t

Empowerment is not the ability to use the existing system to manipulate others. It is not the ability to work out, use lots of makeup, and make people do things for you because of how you look. It is not the ability to commodify yourself for the sake of material gain or positive response by molding yourself into the image that an exploitative system suggests.

Empowerment is substance, not surface.

I read a post today about a woman who wanted to know how to stop her daughter from sending nude selfies to boys when, as she put it, “Kim Kardashian does it.”

It broke my heart, and even more to read the responses that put a huge amount of guilt and blame on the mother for not being a good parent. If anyone understands the enormous pressure to commodify one’s self for the sake of popularity or other gain, it’s kids growing up in the age of pervasive social media.

Posting a nude selfie is an automatic way to get noticed, and liked, and any number of seemingly positive responses. It’s also meaningless if what you’re looking for is empowerment.

To empower yourself, you must know what YOU want, and that should eventually, hopefully, go beyond combating your own insecurity with superficial responses to a superficial offering.

To empower yourself means to look at yourself as a whole person. If you can’t, how do you expect anyone else to? I divide the human experience of growth into four parts that function kind of like a three-legged stool: three legs and a seat. If you want to be empowered enough to sit down at the end of the day, or stand up on the seat to get a look at what’s next, you need to think about balancing the aspects of your parts to make a harmonious whole.

Me, I was an intellectual kid, older than my years in comprehension and understanding. Spiritually, I ran deep too, thinking about others, about world events, trying to make a difference around me. I also wrote letters to the editor of my local paper about injustices I’d seen, and what I’d tried to do to make things better.

Physically, I was active until my early teens when the stunted nature of my emotions began to take me down a dark road into depression. I repressed what had become a seething, irrational, constant anger and stopped being able to feel much of anything. My energy drained away and a few years in, I stopped leaving the house.

If you look at the three-legged stool, I was so unbalanced I was never at rest, never at home, and never content. I was never happy except when I was nearly hysterical, and never felt good without it immediately turning into bludgeoning pain.

This is how I picture the three-legged stool: it’s made up of three legs, emotional, intellectual, and physical. All of those are necessary functions of the human psyche. We need to think, feel, and move to be happy. I had neglected one leg and let a second atrophy. My intellect was strong, but all its strength did was make me more unbalanced.

The seat on top of the stool is your spiritual component, whatever brings your parts together into a harmonious whole. Here too I felt reasonably confident I was doing okay. I was compassionate, empathetic, and had a “big picture” of the world where everyone mattered, or no one did, in the words of Michael Connolly’s detective Harry Bosch. But with that one spindly leg trying to hold it up? With no physical strength to live my convictions or the emotional maturity to be the person I needed to be? I was on tippy ground.

This is why you need to check your empowerment as much as your entitlement. Not because you should be less than you are, but because you deserve to be more.

What Empowerment Is

If you can balance out those three legs, and attach them to some kind of concept of higher purpose, you can truly become empowered to be yourself, and to make the world a better place around you.

Kim Kardashian has worked a lot on her physical appearance, and has used the system in place that allows women to make money out of superficiality. That’s all I know about her. I don’t consider her empowered. I consider her entitled, and entirely unchecked in that entitlement.

Her entitlement makes others forget about empowering themselves, in favour of working on one leg of that three-legged stool to the detriment of the others. That’s my answer to the mother who worried about her underage daughter sending nude pictures to boys. Empower your daughter for real. If she understands how brittle success is when it’s built entirely on external appearance, she won’t be susceptible to the things boys say when they want her to send them. When a boy says, “I won’t go out with you unless you do,” she’ll tell him, “If that’s all you want, you’re not good enough for me.” That’s empowerment.

So when you consider the women’s movement, or feminism, or racism, or systemic poverty, and it all seems too big to tackle, here’s the cure. Remember that three-legged stool, and how it can lead you to empower yourself. When you’re entitled, you steal empowerment from all the spaces you inhabit. When you are empowered, you empower others.

Also, you have a nifty place to sit down whenever you get tired.

Lots of love & strength, to learn and grow and live.

Jade English has some good thoughts on empowerment and social media