This blog post details my feelings of exploitation and how the predatory nature of “girlboss” culture negatively impacted me on a personal level. I was finally able to put these thoughts into words after reading THIS article. It’s a long and personal post but before I can go forward on this blog and my life, it needs to be said.
#girlboss culture and it’s predatory marketing destroyed my teen years
When I was 15, I published a blog post on this very blog that included a reading recommendation of the book #girlboss by Sophia Amoruso. The book was released on May 6th, 2014 near the end of my freshman year of high school which was one of the worst years of my life. Fast-forward today: I have since then deleted the post, initially out of embarrassment, but looking back, I realize that I should not have felt ashamed or embarrassed for citing that book as a source of inspiration.
The book’s message entranced me. Sophia wrote about how she started with nothing. She detailed how the first item she sold was a book she stole and how she built an empire from that one sentiment. Amoruso’s book was the latest entry in a chronicle of rags to riches stories told by successful people like Steve Wasniack and Steve Jobs who started Apple in a garage and Mark Zuckerburg who started Facebook in his dorm room. As a young girl very much in the rags phase (being bullied in high school, working at a deli and sewing my own clothes at night in my childhood bedroom) I felt like Sophia knew who I was. Perhaps most importantly, she knew what I wanted to be- a young woman doing what she wanted on her own terms.
By 2016 I realized I was not a “#girlboss”. I had always had reservations about the “girl” part of “girlboss” culture. I wanted to live my life on my own terms and not be defined by gender, but I eventually placed my judgments to the side and begrudgingly accepted the “girlboss” label because it felt like a gateway into a secret club full of success, glamour and friends. Despite my admission into the all-exclusive club of “#girlboss” culture, there were just some feelings I couldn’t repress or put aside. I felt like an outsider looking in and I cringed at my own involvement in the culture. Over time, “#Girlboss” conjoined with influencer and blogger culture and morphed into, or maybe just finally revealed itself as, a predatory capitalistic sorority.
It led groups of girls to create Facebook groups known as influencer pods which were dedicated to liking each other’s posts to deceive brands and mimick organic audience engagement. It led to brands promoting their female founders over their products (yes you, Glossier). It even led to creating elitist clubs (*ahem* The Wing). “#Girlboss” culture even allowed for swarms of girls, who, touting their new-found celebrity-like status, to go on trips or get invited to luxurious, excessive events (looking at you Revolve). It was all black, white and millennial pink with big sans-serif capital letters telling people to “hustle” each other and make every day count. The cut and copy branding these companies churned out paired with bigger than life founders was enough to blind anyone. All that selling and marketing claiming to be in the name of feminism and female empowerment. Forcing consumerism on girls, solving problems with products and perpetuating the work non stop mentality isn’t exactly in the definition of feminism. The term hustle got “girlboss” washed into something cute when it’s not. The definition of “hustle” is to “force (someone) to move hurriedly or unceremoniously in a specified direction,” and I was being hustled out of my teen years.
Despite disowning the terminology, the mentality was now hard-wired in my brain. By the age of 17, my thoughts were so warped that despite working, going to school, building my own clothing line, blogging, applying to colleges for college and for scholarships, I would still collapse into a fit of guilty tears at the end of every day because my dreams “weren’t coming true” since I wasn’t rich yet. I was valuing my worth as a human being based on my productivity. Yet every day, the same women who made me feel miserable would present me with an onslaught of positivity quotes from Pinterest. I couldn’t understand how all these women pretending to be “transparent” and discussing body positivity or sharing their success stories were just as bad for my mental health as marketing released from big corporations in years prior. The only difference is that these women were marketing themselves and their image of “work hard and eat healthy and love yourself and your hustle and maybe you could be successful too.” I let myself stay strung out like that for 4 years from age 15 to 19.
Besides all the wannabe girl bosses and “micro” influencers (girls who weren’t influencing anyone), the thing that made me question the movement the most was the girlboss panels and girlboss rallies and tours. Telling your story online is understandable. But how can you justify charging people an entrance fee for your cult (and a $299-$499 entrance fee at that???) No. What is this, Coachella? Are you Beyonce? That is exploitation of young girls’ hopes and dreams. And I have many friends who went to these things and felt they had just met celebrities or maybe even gods. These events were so far away from the rags to riches story that I identified with.
I learned about fast fashion late in 2016. To my dismay, girlboss culture was as toxic to the planet as it was to my developing teen brain. The tee shirts, mugs, desk plaques and more that adorned every girlboss were created by child labor and exploitation. They were pumped out in the cruelest conditions and the girls championing them in the name of feminism didn’t care. At this point, still obsessed with the fashion industry and hoping it was just a few bad brands such as Zara and Forever 21, I continued to brush elbows with girlboss culture while trying to build my own blog and style. I struggled a lot with this because it seemed my original content never reached anyone while a stupid OOTD would pull in bigger numbers. I kept telling myself that eventually I would get enough likes and followers that I could break away and start discussing what I wanted to actually discuss on my blog and social media.
Despite breaking up with the term girlboss, I went to college for business still determined to be a successful business PERSON (not girl). At FIT, I was overrun by the competitive culture of girls gone rampant thinking they were all the next Yael of Reformation, Sophia Amaruso of Nasty Gal or Emily Weiss of Glossier. They were quite literally frothing at the mouth- stretching themselves too thin, working retail jobs and buying designer clothes to wear to class just to say they were “living their best life” in the city. Even if some of these individuals didn’t fall under girlboss because of their aesthetic nuances, extreme capitalist and consumerist culture was everywhere I looked.
I became annoyed by the second half of girlboss, the “boss” aspect. The boss part was the root of the problem. It didn’t matter if you were a girl if you profited from exploitation, capitalistic greed and a disregard for humanity. I distinctly remember a discussion on pricing garments in one of my product development courses where I asked how we would calculate fair wages and still have an affordable end price for the consumer. My professor chuckled and answered that the business world wasn’t “there” yet. Where yet? At a place where people should be treated equally? Everyone was obsessed with increasing the number of sales and lowering the cost of production instead of fixing work conditions or making better quality clothing. Needless to say, instances like this contributed to me leaving FIT after finishing my associates degree. I was quickly falling out of love with the industry that I had been obsessed with working in for my entire life. It was the worst heartbreak of my life.
From 19 on, I bopped around a few jobs that paid the bills but didn’t reflect what I wanted to do. I stopped blogging, and my dedication to everything in life wavered for a majority of 2018. I have fought with feelings of being trapped after being educated and setting a career path for an industry that failed me having found that all the motivations for pursuing my career were fake. I still wasn’t famous or rich at 21, the age when most of these entrepreneurs I idolized in my teens were on Forbes 30 under 30, and I felt like a failure for it. Even though I didn’t idolize these women the same way I did in my teens, I still felt that I might as well be on my deathbed in my early 20’s. Then, I watched every brand I had admired close or become racked with scandals involving corporate racism and exploitation. Now, finally, I think the industry might be ready to change.
Girlboss is a term that has been overused for many years. However, after working in the fashion industry, I realize that if girlboss culture didn’t exist, I would have been exploited by other marketing tactics and ploys in my youth as well. The girl bosses are by no means innocent, but they are not entirely to blame for the damage caused by their movement. They were primarily white, primarily middle class or upper middle class, they had connections and privilege and prayed on young people and excluded others. Of course people like me are mad they were exploited and they want to see culture burn. #girlboss should be destroyed, but once it burns away, underneath the #girlboss flag will be another flag and another. Right now, sustainability is the new ploy. Maybe we will eventually realize that massive over-consumption and capitalistic exploitation is the real issue regardless of what gender is doing it.
I’m glad girl bosses are on the way out, but I want Amazon and URBN and every other company exploiting labor and young minds to be exposed and forced to change as well. I want, and I think the world is reflecting these wants, inclusion, representation, intersectionality, I want better. I want less clothing produced at higher quality. I want wealth caps. I want to have kids be kids and I want people to know that their hobbies don’t have to become a “hustle”, that they don’t have to turn their passions into projects.
I don’t want to be a girlboss. I don’t want to be a member of anyone’s club or have exuberant amounts of money. I want to be able to afford the cost of living in my twenties and make my younger self proud. What I wanted to do when I was 12 sewing my old soccer tee shirts together on my grandma’s sewing machine was to create eco-friendly reusable shopping bags and what I want to do now at 21 is almost the same. (I literally have been sewing old denim together to make bags). I lost a lot of years to girlboss and capitalistic ideals, but I can say I have come out the other side. I’m 21 years old and I still have so much time left. I’m going to continue to work on my project, RAF Shop, and create PRACTICAL and beautiful apparel and accessories for people to use. I’m going to continue to release extremely small batches, minimize my waste and impact on the environment and work on educating others on the industry. I’m not going to measure my worth based on productivity or try to have a cult following. I’m not going to mark my pieces up just because I can or use exploitative labor to keep my prices low. I’m going to continue to be a human being who respects other human beings and reconcile my dreams of the past with my dreams today. I have a lot of unlearning to do and it has been a process that has been ugly and done primarily behind closed doors. I have to have patience with myself, learn to trust the process and not expect instant gratification.
What are your thoughts on #girlboss culture?
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