They are women whose entrepreneurship represents the pinnacle of hard-fought financial freedom. They call themselves “Boss Babes” and “CEOs” in a society that has favored men in the workplace their entire lives. They run their own businesses from home and some aim to “retire [their] husbands.” They have frequently quit their day jobs to achieve this. They are often mothers. It sounds like the ultimate dream of the self-starting woman.
Except it’s all a lie.
Plexus, Younique, LuLaRoe, Beachbody, Rodan + Fields, Herbalife, and so on. If you have been anywhere near social media, you have most likely been exposed to any number of these Machiavellian multi-level marketing (MLM) schemes, commonly referred to as pyramid schemes, though the FTC draws a distinction. (This is not a new concept--you have probably heard of the MLM company Mary Kay, which was founded in 1963 and made more sense at the time when consumers did not have immediate access to certain products.)
Modern day MLMs work essentially like this: A new salesperson purchases wholesale inventory from the company at a discount, while also paying a variety of other startup fees (for training, seminars, etc.). Then they turn around and sell those products at a markup, while also recruiting new sellers to work below them (in their “downline”). The idea is that most of the initial seller’s profit will come from commission from their recruits and their recruits’ recruits, etc., but only if a certain quota is met. These days, a great deal of the selling and recruiting happens on social media where vastly larger networks can be targeted.
Thus, the so-called “Boss Babes” and “CEOs” (80% women in 2011) don’t actually work for themselves at all. And, of all the aforementioned MLM companies, the CEOs are men, with the exception of Rodan + Fields. The majority of these companies’ executive teams are made up of men as well.
I by no means wish to suggest that all women, or even a majority of the women involved in MLMs, show up on the premise of “being a feminist.” But I think many show up with the desire to be independent and self-reliant, and to turn a profit. And if anywhere in the process someone were to stand up and be honest--these women would realize being part of an MLM actually does the opposite of all those things.
Women who participate in MLMs work for the higher ups in the company--companies that pretend to empower them--and will likely never turn a profit. They lose money, family, friends, homes, and good health in the interest of pushing their brand. (Much more on that here.) They are sold an image of self-reliance and other feminist values only to realize they’ve been duped long after they have bought into the hoax. The only people benefiting from these companies are those at the top who have masterminded manipulating millions of people (again, mostly women).
According to the president of the Consumer Awareness Institute, 99% of participants in MLMs end up losing money, with those at the uppermost levels making the only significant profit.
In addition to my own research on MLMs (including reading through their training slide decks) I am also in a 10,000-member Facebook group which many former MLMers and associated victims treat as a sort of online therapy. If you scroll through the members, the vast majority are female-identifying. Their stories are staggering. They write about their guilt and shame, about plummeting into debt with closets still full of inventory they can’t sell, about being encouraged to take out loans or forgo paying certain bills by those who recruited them. They talk about how quickly the excitement over running their own businesses turned into compulsively cycling through different MLMs and ultimately ended in failure.
There are arguably a lot of things with which to take issue in MLM schemes. Beyond ethical concerns, potential financial ruin, and the forfeiture of supportive social networks, some products and the way they are touted, are actually dangerous. Sellers with no medical training push products they claim can replace pricey but necessary prescription medications. Many non-regulated products are also promoted to new mothers whose mental and physical health can be extremely precarious. As I learned in the group, the results can be devastating.
But these are not the only ways MLMs are harmful. MLMs sell lies to vulnerable women. Their products are specifically marketed to women struggling with their families, finances, health, and body image. MLMs sell women products they don’t need by playing to a desire to feel and look good, and encouraging those women to target other women by undermining their self-confidence as the system continues to self-perpetuate endlessly.
When you step back and look at the big picture, women are treated as nothing more than prey.
Feminism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people but I am positive it doesn’t mean limiting women’s potential. I am positive it doesn’t entail encouraging women to buy products that purport to keep them looking young, thin, and beautiful. Surely it does not involve proselytizing with the purpose of dragging down other women. By now, lots of women have already paid the hefty price of getting caught up in multi-level marketing. Like many things hindsight has taught women about the ways they are continually kept down in our society, hopefully we can learn from this one.