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Consumption as a Means of Empowerment

posted by Debb Thorne

I'm leading a tutorial with Bethan Eynon, probably one of the brightest college students I've ever encountered. She's working on an honor's thesis that explores the connection between feminism/women's empowerment and consumption/capitalism. Specifically, she's studying magazine ads to uncover how the empowerment of women (which includes the second and third waves of feminism) has been constructed as their penchant for consuming stuff.

She has shared with me some compelling evidence. For example, the advertisement wherein women are encouarged to buy and wear expensive diamond rings on their right, rather than left, hands. These "right hand rings" supposedly symbolize a woman's empowerment and independence. She has also talked to me about the grrrl power movement of her generation--probably the early 1990s. As she has described it, much of that social movement hinged on consumption. For example, she told me how the Spice Girls (a girl band) were embraced by girls her age as symbols of girls'/women's independence. However, when we closely examined what the Spice Girls were all about, they were primarily a group of young women who were hypersexualized (which hardly promotes female empowerment) and who promoted little more than consumption as a means of identifying with the group.

So what does this have to do with debt? A lot. When we tolerate and leave unchallenged a culture that braids our daughters' (and our own?) identities with what they own/buy/consume, we almost insure their indebtedness. The message is subtle but undeniable--to be taken seriously as a female, one must buy stuff--lots of stuff--even if it is stuff that we cannot afford. We are doing our daughters and ourselves a true disservice when we let this garbage pass for truth.

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