The Fall of the Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand
The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand (FLEB) usually looks like any other photo you scroll past on Instagram. Except the woman in the photo is white with shiny bronzed skin, wearing or standing next to some symbol of wealth, slim, able-bodied, cis, and straight. She’s toxically positive. She’s everything you’re supposed to want, everything society says you’re supposed to be. But what you’re really looking at is a business whose foundation and marketing rests on white supremacy and oppression.
The past summer, antiracism protests swept the U.S. and the world after footage of George Floyd’s arrest appeared online. Sparked by yet another black man’s death at the hands of the police, the protests continue to foster discussions of racial equity, policy, and culture. Everyone was and is called to look at their own privilege and racism. Online, the scene grew chaotic. Female Lifestyle Empowerment entrepreneurs—life and business coaches, marketers, bloggers, lifestyle brands—scrambled to reshare political posts, condemn other entrepreneurs, and post that little black square. Some, however, rose up as leaders to challenge and dismantle the culture of white oppression in the online space.
When she first entered the online as a business owner, U.S.-based black executive mindset coach Topsie VandenBosch witnessed “a lot of tone deafness, a lot of cultural appropriation happening”. In a 2020 interview on the “Make Your Passion Pay You” podcast, VandenBosch said, “I think so many women have really been stifled from the patriarchy and maybe from other women as well who have been impacted by the patriarchy…to only show up a certain way.” The FLEB image influences new business owners who continue the culture of glorifying whiteness and harmful business practices because this is the image of success they’ve seen. “Many people who have wielded and used their power in an inappropriate way and that have directly or indirectly affected the opportunities of black people and people of color to get equal opportunities… they’re being called out for their behaviors and they’re being called to the table.” Vandenbosch said.
Canada-based feminist business consultant Kelly Diels, who coined the acronym FLEB for Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand, has worked for nearly a decade helping entrepreneurs and organizations build feminist and anti-oppressive practices into their business. “We are both the vessels for a culture and we are the shapers of a culture. So we all, every day in every interaction, we’re shaping a culture. And often we’re just letting it flow through us uninterrupted. So what I want people to do is take responsibility for their immense power to shape our culture” said Diels. And again, she added: “You are not the problem. Your mindset is not the problem. There are actual systemic realities here limiting you. And that's what needs to change… We're not the problem, but we can be the solution.”
For business owners, Diels’s first suggestion is to ensure your business has financial accessibility built into it. This is not about lowering prices so much as including a more accessible tier for those who are at the mercy of systems of racism and oppression. She offers a simple tip: “One of the first things we can do if we have an anti-oppressive business and we have a feminist business is not charge people more for accessing payment plans, because what you're doing is penalizing people for being low income.” Coaches sometimes charge an added percentage—sometimes up to 30% per month—for those who want to pay with a payment plan.
Jenny Jay is a Canada-based South Asian photographer, videographer, storytelling coach, and educator. “Being a storyteller really is about being able to find the ways to authentically share our truths. And I think what has shifted in this year, especially noticeably online, is that we recognize how many stories are not told or are silenced. So I think a lot of my work, especially moving forward, is centering those stories, centering the education to help folks who haven’t even been taught how to tell their stories in a way that will get people to listen.”
Jay has seen shifts in how she’s shown up as a leader online. “I tone police myself less. There are things that I would have never said on panels or conversations that I feel so much more comfortable saying now.” The biggest shift she’s seen is the new level of sociopolitical accountability online leaders—FLEB or otherwise—are being held to: “Even if they believe in the ideologies around white feminism and around these things that serve them and their privilege, there's still also this underlying understanding that if they don't get it right, their platform, their product, their, whatever they sell will crumble.”
It’s time for lasting change. “If you don't see the representation, you can be the representation, but allow yourself to dream bigger than that.” Jay said.