Empowerment is a word I hear thrown around every day. It pops up in commercials for soap, makeup, clothes and cleaning products, all claiming to turn me into the best version of myself. But what does “empowerment” actually mean? When I first asked myself this question, the phrase conjured up images of stock photos of impossibly perfect and powerful women laughing in millennial-pink offices, too busy being hashtag-girl-bosses to worry about the opinions of men. It was good, but it was this vague, distant concept that somehow was the ultimate goal of, well, everything in my life — my college degree, my Girl Scout troop, my robotics club and even my freakin’ razor. It felt like everything I did or learned or bought was supposed to imbue me with this mystical feminist power, but I still didn’t know what it actually meant. So, I went on a mission.
First stop: Google. The search engine hit me with two standard definitions:
1) authority or power given to someone to do something.
2) the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.
Those sounded pretty good to me. I’ve always been all for building girls’ confidence, so gaining the power to control my own life and rights sounds pretty sweet. I could see how organizations like Girl Scouts and Her Campus that taught me new skill sets could be called empowering, but what did any of that have to do with soap advertisements? Sure, smelling nice makes me feel more confident, but I wouldn’t exactly call switching out my brand of body wash the next big step towards equal rights.
I dug a little deeper. Turns out, there’s a good reason why phrases about love, equality and body positivity pop up so frequently in ads targeted at young women — they work really, really well. One study from 2016 found that over half (52%) the women surveyed had specifically purchased a product because they liked how its ads represented women, and nearly all (92%) could recall a brand that used positive messages about women in their campaigns. It’s fairly clear that feminist messaging makes a product stick in the minds of women, something that translates into billions of dollars of extra profits, as in the case of Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty.” Being an advertising major, I’m familiar with the concept of an emotional appeal to your audience. And ads aren’t going away any time soon, so isn’t it better that they send women and girls messages that are meant to uplift them and make them into more confident and self-assured people?
I still wanted a better understanding of what exactly “empowerment” meant. I turned to my peers and reached out to women from across the country, each from different backgrounds and walks of life, to find out what it meant to them. I was delighted that so many people were willing to share their thoughts. Here are only a few of their answers:
- “Empowerment to me is the freedom to do whatever it is that I want without being afraid. Sometimes women are scared to do certain things because we worried about how we’ll be perceived, but if we empower one another that fear goes away.” Ashley, 19
- “Taking power back from the entities that otherwise would see for you not to have ‘power’ or success.” Whitney, 21
- “Being confident & embracing others whenever you can!” Mallie, 20
- “The freedom and encouragement to do whatever you believe in.” Jaida, 20
- “Empowerment means that I feel comfortable and inspired to be myself.” Jacquelyn, 20
- “Empowerment to me is the concept that people are able to encourage others to be their best selves and to be confident in their pursuits and what makes them happy.” Abby, 19
- “Supporting and motivating people of all appearances, cultures, backgrounds, and any other sort of status or identity.” Melina, 18
- “Empowerment means finding strength within yourself to conquer obstacles and stand up for what you believe in. When one feels empowered they are able to lead themselves on the pathway to their dreams. Empowerment comes from within and branches out to those you share it with.” Amanda, 20
In the end, empowerment can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, but I think it all comes down to supporting and uplifting one another. It’s helping one another to understand what we are capable of, giving them the tools to succeed, and then paying it forward. I’m glad to be a part of organizations and have people in my life that help me to learn and grow, and I try to do the same for them too. What’s important is that you can empower yourself and others to make better choices and stand up for what you believe in (regardless of what soap you use).