The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand is a marketing narrative. It’s meant to sell products. But what it also does is use the political language of revolution and the personal desire for growth to define the expectations of women, inside and out, personally and politically . . . Be hotter, tauter, richer, more positive, more productive and more serene. In other words, be more of what our mainstream media and culture already demands of women.
-Kelly Diels, kellydiels.com
MarketWorld is an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo. It consists of enlightened businesspeople and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government, and think tanks . . . MarketWorld is a network and community, but it is also a culture and state of mind.
-Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All
In this grand time of social and political chaos amid increasing inequality and ever-quickening technology innovation be weary of answers—especially easy ones. Be mindful of the ideologies you grasp onto in attempt to knit together a bit of the gaping wound. Be careful with dangling carrots that promise quick hits to take the edge off of your growing discomfort. For nothing may be as it appears nor able to fit into the narrative that you have known.
Sometime around 2012 I began to experience this looming entity attached to my work that I could not name. It had something to do with social media and marketing. It had something to do with my place as an independent teacher and practitioner in a larger marketplace—that I both felt inside of and on the periphery of. It felt as though I was in a particular circle but certainly not in the center of that circle. It seemed I was supposed to want to get to the center of the circle—and maybe even that my career depended on it—yet I felt strangely ambiguous if not outright resistant to achieving it.
I had been working as a yoga teacher, birth doula and women’s health educator for close to a decade and suddenly I felt that in order to survive in my profession it was less about showing up to teach and more about my marketing skills. At the same time I saw what appeared to be a road to “success” in this arena. A much less organic way of building my student base through the slow, steady pace of teaching, speaking and writing and a much more strategic and potentially quick way through branding, marketing and selling. There were so many examples of overnight success stories; viral videos that elevated one to celebrity status and marketing copy that ensured a six figure income.
There is an essential skillset that every woman innately has, and has also been trained through socialization to ignore. I learned this skillset, as I imagine many women have, the hard way. This skillset is feeling, listening to and then responding from instinct. The instinct that things are not what they seem. The sense of knowing on a visceral level that what is being presented and what lies beneath the surface are not lining up—that there is a lack of integrity here. While our bodies are flashing danger! danger! our minds rationalize away the bad feelings by internalizing the problem and looking at what we are doing wrong or what our weaknesses, fears and other not enoughness-es are.
This looming feeling connected to my work was like that. There was a disconnect between the message and the invisible orchestrators of that message. It didn’t feel right but I told myself I had to get on board. This was the way. I had to learn to play the game. I had to work harder and not only continue to develop my skills as a facilitator and conduct research in my field but I also had to learn the skills of entrepreneurship.
There was a part of me that was deeply attracted to the glitter and glam; a quick fix to a lifestyle that while offering a certain amount of freedom, provided no sense of stability and had me in a perpetual state of survival. It was tough times when I moved to LA in 2008 just as the economy crashed. Yet, a few years in, I was starting to find my way. I was having more consistent work and was building a client base through my teaching.
I started to develop visibility through word of mouth and started to get invited into the circle with opportunities to speak and teach at festivals and conferences. My experience with one of these venues elucidates the fast changing landscape in the businesses of wellness, empowerment and consciousness.
In 2012 I taught at one of the early yoga and music festivals. I was paid $900 for teaching three classes, provided lodging and food for the weekend along with two additional passes that would go to my co-teacher and assistant who were also provided food and lodging.
Three years later, in 2015 I was invited to teach at the same festival again. This time the festival offered me two tickets to sell in exchange for teaching four classes. So just to be clear, the festival was not paying me anything to come and teach there but I could “get paid” indirectly by personally selling two tickets to the festival to my community of friends and students. This time I also was not provided lodging but instead was given a camping pass to camp with all of the other festival goers. If you have never been to a festival camping is loud, overcrowded, and often in locations with very unpredictable weather. You are lucky to get several hours solid sleep at a music festival. They also offered to provide me one meal a day on the days that I was teaching as opposed to providing all of my meals in 2012. In sum, they wanted me to teach 5 hours of quality and engaging classes on virtually no sleep and for no pay. In addition to paying to go to this festival and offer my professional trade as a transformative facilitator, they also expected me to advertise for them by requiring that I send two dedicated email blasts solely advertising their festival to my newsletter subscribers along with a specific number of social media posts.
This was the climate that created this looming entity. The digital marketing landscape fed a game that was about accumulating numbers and milking a bottom line. Quantity ruled over quality forevermore. And even as more festivals and conferences were added to the circuit each year, there seemed to be less and less opportunity. And while it was always a special privilege and insider’s game to make it into the circle, the new boom of overnight virtual teachers, gurus and coaches left us all grasping for crumbs and feeling particularly special when a scrap got thrown our way. In spite of seeing all of this I said yes to offering my professional craft for free, facilitating workshops that I would spend hours upon hours preparing and that were developed over 10 years of teaching, practicing and studying.
In 2015, I had taken a big leap in launching a practitioner training school, The Artemis School for Women’s Sexual Sovereignty. This was a natural outgrowth of having been an educator for 15 years and mounting requests from practitioners that wanted to learn from me. While it was years in the making, the launch of The Artemis School was fast and furious. The ferocity came out of both my incredible passion for women’s sexuality and body literacy education and an opportunity to build a different business model that might get me out of the survival game. I chose a risk that required I jump at every opportunity to get in front of people and spread the word about my school. So, I said yes to an “opportunity” that devalued me, not only as a facilitator, but also as a human, in hopes of a trade off down the line (which is how the whole game is set-up). Thus, was my foray into navigating the sticky and slippery crossroads of survival and integrity.
As readily as I said yes to this I was also saying no. For the next two years I awkwardly danced between playing and not playing the game. Needless to say, I was not very good at the game.
Within the virtual entrepreneurial explosion there was also a surge of all things “divine feminine” and “women’s empowerment.” Which on one hand seemed like a positive thing and on the other something about it left a bad taste in my mouth. This left me in an awkward position as the founder of a school for women’s sexual wellness and sovereignty. I was confused as hell around my own messaging and place within this suddenly booming market. I took marketing courses that were designed to speak to women’s fears, insecurities and lack of worthiness and I attempted to translate the tactics into something that aligned better with my values. I felt disoriented and disillusioned with this map for success. I feel like I’m being lumped in with this thing that I don’t actually identify with. This thing seems to actually be rooted in the very patriarchal structures that we say that we are reconstructing. It all left that uneasy feeling in my body that this is not what it seems. This scene was aptly described by one of my friends as “a lot of smoke and mirrors.”
In 2016 just as my career trajectory seemed to be hitting its stride with more teaching invitations, writing Yoga Journal Magazine’s first article on sexuality and steady growth in the financial aspects of my business—it all started to break apart. I crashed in a state of burnout after giving everything to my work and the creation of my school and then experiencing intense personal trauma. Health challenges that I had been managing for a long time came to a head and I was exhausted and empty.
On March 11, 2017 I wrote the following Facebook post which says it all:
It's all falling apart. I have been taken down in the wild ravishment of a greater plan and now rest, fully emptied, disoriented, enchanted in the sweet and terrifying space of my own death.
There is no more of that which I think I am. There is no more control of how I think it should all happen. There is no forward moving force to summon--the old tricks and tactics are nowhere to be found.
I've recently become very clear that something major has to shift. I can no longer try to do the entrepreneur game. It's not me. I am an educator, a guide, a mentor, a dreamer, an artist, a change agent, a dancer, a priestess, a writer, a scholar. I vision, I create, I research, I assimilate, I organize, I facilitate, I share. I am a community builder and a collaborator. These are many things none of which have to do with sales, marketing, administrative tasks and numbers of instagram followers. And none of which have to do with me working in a vacuum. Being a solopreneur is sucking my life force dry and diverting attention from what my soul is really here to do.
Just yesterday I declared this out loud to my business consultant and at the same time acknowledged and stood in the fact that there's no back up plan, no clear path, I'm starting from scratch.
My body has demanded that I slow down in a way I have never tasted before. In a way that goes against all of my programming of what's worthwhile, what will make me successful or bring money in. Facing all of my fears in not knowing what the next steps are and getting close to my worst case scenario--my image, my business, and my whole life falling apart--was profoundly liberating.
Today my website--which has been holding on by a desperate thread for sometime now--appears to have finally died too. I have no energy, resources or even motivation to do anything about it (although I can feel a part of me echoing from the depths that says, you've got to build another website NOW). I just laugh with the irony and amusement of this external symbol finally catching up to what has been being reworked and reorganized inside in a dramatic way for the last few years.
I've been feeling into and exploring other ways to do business for the last couple of years. I long for something more visionary, collaborative, prosperous, supportive, thriving and participatory with the rhythms of nature. I long to fully leverage and express my greatest gifts. Nothing has become clear yet, but I'm listening.
All I know is that this way of doing things is done. Along with whatever my public persona was and the projections I've been holding-- those are dissolving too. There is something more full, raw, ripe and much more clear arriving with this spring.
When I arise from this cycle of deep rest (which I now fully inhabit) I will stand more fully in my strengths as a leader, a somatic educator, a creator of revolutionary content and a social artist. I open to the wide angle vision and receptivity that will reveal the new pathways within this wilderness of change that is here and up for all of us.
In the meantime I'm going to snuggle up with my fear, tune into my womb and trust mystery's plan.
What I had built was becoming dismantled and while at first it was extraordinarily uncomfortable there was also great liberation in the yielding to it. I could frame this as a failure or reclaim my agency in taking a break and stepping back to get a wider view.
A few months after my moment of letting go and laying down I was introduced to the writings of Kelly Diels who writes about The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand. As soon as I heard it, this phrase said it all. Diels had named that thing that seemed to model what I was supposed to be doing, that shared a lot of the ideas and language that I would use and also repelled me. Selling women a cure all to a better life in order to alleviate any suffering that they had incurred—trying to subscribe to the very zero sum cultural script that this marketing perpetuated! This played into my own cultural introjects of not enough along the way. The constant pressure to work harder and longer to be visible and engaged and building an audience. As Diels describes, the Female Empowerment Lifestyle Brand is not changing the capitalist power structures that work in favor of a few while the majority under-earns at best and struggles daily to survive at worst. No, this brand of feminine empowerment does not challenge the structures of inequality and privilege, it feasts on them.
As I began exploring new avenues of collaboration and streams of work I initially became really curious about the tech industry which was also starting to mingle with the health and wellness world and the burgeoning conscious festival scene. Interestingly, tech simultaneously invaded the heart of these communities in Venice Beach and San Francisco by taking over all of the real estate and making it unaffordable for any of these/us budding wanna-be entrepreneurs to live there. Nonetheless, I could not resist the Kool-aid.
I saw tech in the way that I also used to see men that I crushed—as fantasy projections born of my desires for an ideal mate and their potential to embody those desires. Tech was sexy, cool and conscious. From the periphery I saw tech companies donning social and environmental missions, incorporating health and personal development as part of their workplace culture and being on the leading edge of thought and technology development. I was seduced by this great potential to create something new in the world. During the infatuation stage however, I failed to see the deeper structures at work.
A female colleague of mine and I had a meeting with an investor that had an interest in my work and considered himself a champion of women. His first comment during our first meeting was how beautiful both of our smiles were. This was enough to dismantle my delusion but a few more email exchanges and interviews with other men in tech sealed the deal that I was still in the old boy’s club except, in tech, most of them were younger boys. Tech, even with its lip service toward social enterprise and conscious culture creation, is largely a game of making the most money you can as fast as possible. I witnessed vast amounts of resources being squandered in ways that seemed more aligned with maintaining the status quo rather than creating anything revolutionary.
In Winners Take All, The Elite Charade to Change the World writer Anand Giridharadas gives language to the phenomena of MarketWorld, the private sector elite, the businesses and foundations that are increasingly taking on social issues and assuming decision making power over some of the world’s greatest challenges. Those that have access, influence and power. Those that decide the fates of the masses by being in control of most of the world’s wealth and choosing which causes, projects, innovations and people get funded.
I was reminded in reading Winners Take All, that 10% of humanity maintain 90% of the planet’s wealth.
I was reminded that one half of the world’s resources belongs to eight individual billionaires.
Giridharadas shares research by French economist, Thomas Piketty, that illustrates how the financial bottom half of Americans have been “‘completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970’s.’” Since 1980 the average pretax income for this group has grown from $16,000 to $16,200. This fate contrasts with the top 10% of earners who make nearly twice as much as people that held parallel positions in 1980. Girdharadas paints a stark picture of the growing inequality in the US and affirms that The American Dream of economic mobility has long ago died. The tax bracket that we are born into, more than anything else, determines the tax bracket that we will end up in.
Giridharadas describes the win-win movement of businesses that make a profit while also “giving back” without ever having to give up any wealth, power or influence. A scheme that, as well intentioned as it may be, has many blindspots and is inherently flawed. If society were working correctly there wouldn’t be poor, sick, underserved, uneducated, unhealthy people in need of the great generosity, strategic planning and “saving” of these philanthropists.
Like The Female Empowerment Lifestyle Brand, MarketWorld (think all of the big tech companies, think B Corps, think TED, philanthropic foundations and think tanks) co-opts the language of revolutionary change and opportunity while also muting the message. Many of these so-called visionaries want to make the world a better place without changing a thing about the very power structures and predatory business practices that create the economic inequality, social injustice and climate catastrophe that they proclaim to be heroes of. It is not a new idea that those that created the problem, and benefit from it, are not the ones best equipped to solve it. In 1970, Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed,
True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands—whether of individuals or entire peoples—need to be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.
No one is served by saviors, heroes or martyrs. This is all part of our dying story that runs on systems of domination and oppression tied to the accumulation of wealth. In order to see a more just and humane world some will have to give up their excess, their extravagance, their private clubs, their illusion of certainty and their power over others. Not because CEO’s and financiers do not deserve to be paid well but because half of the population deserve to be paid more. We all have a basic right to social safety nets so that no one has to become destitute because of an illness, the loss of a loved one or other inevitable life events. Because we all deserve the same amount of kindness, care and humanity and this can never be attached to a an economic quantity.
The critical thinking of folks like Diels and Giridharadas support the development of my own critical thinking and the ways that my privilege has allowed me to become complacent at times and to illuminate the places where I am complicit. I am with the times that my own survival and scarcity had me reaching for mere threads of a lifeline in the form of easy answers to complex problems. I am with the various ways that I have checked out due to my own trauma and overwhelm.
I am also with the mysterious spark that allows me to keep saying yes to my own unraveling. This continued engagement with my personal struggles while contextualizing them within a larger for-profit power system supports the decolonization of my own mind. I am becoming more free from the voices that pathologize and the eyes that objectify the ways in which I live, think and dream outside of cultural norms. In this process I become more awake to and engaged in disrupting the systemic structures of inequality and exploitation.
I have learned that there are no quick answers, no easy answers, and definitely not answers that come from the structures that depend on and reinforce injustice and inequity. I have also learned to hold multiple perspectives. To see and sit with the pain of unthinkable inhumanity and environmental degradation. At the same time acknowledging what has changed and the progress that has been made toward social justice and environmental stewardship. While simultaneously opening up my listening for what we are becoming and my imagination for the writing of a new narrative.
It can be tricky. We are all within this culture and its institutions. We have to do the painful work of seeing our blindspots and questioning how we participate. This calls us into the courageous work of challenging the status quo and trying something new (while still mining for blindspots). After a lifetime of feeling the urgent need to “make things happen” I am very recently settling into the long view of things. Nearly two years after surrendering to a sea change in my life—a sea change that I see mirrored in our collective social fabric—I am still in a liminal space of transition with mere inklings of where my life might be headed. I feel myself gaining a new kind of strength rooted in my faith in the unknown. The path to a better world may just occur with the giving up of our answers, our solutions and a bit of our comfort while living into bigger and better questions.
The Relational Leadership Circle is a community of practice with over-arching intentions to illuminate our blindspots and open up our thinking in order to embody more vitality, passionate truth and integrity. Join us here.