In 2018, my Facebook feed was filled with colorful knit leggings. It seemed like everyone I knew in Iowa was wearing them. Pairing the leggings with loose tunic tops and long chunky jewelry.
“You can buy some right now on my Facebook live,” the posts read. I also got messages asking me if I was interested in going to a pop-up shop for the leggings. A friend from church texted me almost everyday: “You are so friendly. You’d make so much money in sales at LulaRoe!”
I’m a white woman who lives in the middle of the country. I know all about multi-level marketing schemes. My mom sold Pampered Chef. Our friends sold HerbaLife. At church, it seemed every woman I met was selling something, Arbonne or Norwex or Young Living.
I politely went to the parties. After all, how else could I meet friends? But I rarely bought anything. Finally, in 2017, I sat down with a dear friend who had cycled through three MLMs. I told her I couldn’t come to her parties anymore. I’d be happy to hang out with her any time, but no more parties.
She responded that I wasn’t being a “good feminist” and supporting a small, woman-owned company. She later started selling LulaRoe.
The leggings and the company behind them are the subject of a wildly popular documentary on Amazon Prime. The show adeptly looks at multi-level marketing companies, their recruitment strategies, and the culture around them. It’s a wild show and Katy Perry makes an appearance.
But what struck me the most was the language of empowerment that the women used to promote a product that disempowered and bankrupted so many women.
The female part of the couple who founded LulaRoe, DeAnne Stidham, talks about how her mother was a model of strong womanhood. As evidence she talks about her mother’s book The Secret Power of Femininity, which includes this passage of advice:
“Stand before a mirror in the privacy of your room and say to yourself, ‘I am just a helpless woman at the mercy of you big, strong men.’ . . . Stand before the mirror and say to yourself, ‘I expect you to pamper and humor me.’”
It’s not empowerment, it’s willful subjugation packaged as a great idea.
And so was LulaRoe’s empowerment. It’s Girlbossery, #workingmama ethos was not freedom and it certainly wasn’t or isn’t feminism. In the documentary, Mark Stidham brags that DeAnne has broken glass ceilings. But it’s not breaking a glass ceiling if you just mend it once you get through to the top.
All too often the corporate successes we celebrate come at the expense of the subjugation of others. Sheryl Sandberg wrote an entire book to inspire a new generation of female leaders called Lean In, while her own success at Facebook was based on the manipulation of and the mining of our personal data. A company whose success has undermined our democracy and our free press.
Too often, as a culture we let women wink and hide behind the language of feminism, while they undermine its precepts.
I get it. Selling empowerment is a big business and so is wrapping up goods and services in the co-opted language of feminism.
Too many business leaders think that equality means the same exploitation but with a woman leading the way. It makes it easier than rethinking the structures and systems that enrich us but empower others.
The lesson, then, of LulaRoe is: Just because it works, doesn’t make it right. And just because you are empowered doesn’t make it empowering.