Some time ago a picture of Kim Kardashian and Emily Ratajkowski (models and actresses) came out. They are photographed with bare breasts, raised middle fingers and the phrase “Have nothing to wear”. Some consider these acts as a sign of emancipation, while others consider them just another symptom of gender inequality. The models argue that their actions can help women in the women’s empowerment process, but what is empowerment?
The word empowerment does not hold a unique meaning and may indicate a path of self and group improvement. It is based on increasing self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-determination in order to bring out the individual resources that make you fulfil your potential.
The empowerment construct has been crucial in the feminist political movements since the Sixties. Liberal ones were trying to change the common notion that women are radically different and inferior to men and forced into caring for others. Using a psychological lens, specifically of social psychology, and political behavior, the goal of the feminists is to change the woman’s social identity. This is to ensure that the differences between the two genders are reduced and the similarities emphasized, going against the categorization mechanisms between groups described by Tajfel in Social Identity Theory (1974; 1984). Today feminism has changed and now the movements focus on underlining the peculiarities of women rather than equality. Among the authors of the Sixties we can find Kate Millett or Anne Koedt, while among the modern stand Christina Hoff Sommers, Mary Lefkowitz and Cathy Young.
Another key concept is the definition of the word “gender”, which is often used inappropriately. When making statements about gender, it is the very definition of that word that many do not grasp. Gender defines a part of a person’s identity both in the individual and in the collective dimensions. It is a socially determined construct that categorizes and separates women from men.
Gender is related to social role, not only to biological sex, even though they apparently seem to overlap. The former is defined and taught in the act of socialization and individual growth as a cultural construct, indeed children, who have a lower level of social determination than adults, see the opposite sex as equal to them more easily. The latter is determined by the random merging of chromosomes in the procreative act (Sartori, 2009).
It has been and it still is fundamental for women to empower themselves, especially in places like Italy where misogyny is still common, in order to enhance their resources and escape the constriction of the role socially assigned to them. One evidence is about the number of women in the workforce who occupy top positions. Today that number has increased significantly compared to fifty years ago, but women are still fighting against “glass ceiling”, meaning situations in which advancement is prevented because of racist or sexist discrimination, that is still very present in organizations (Camussi, 2011). (To learn more, Cecilia Ridgeway (2001) helps to better explain the many obstacles that women must overcome, caused by different social expectations between the sexes, and Gherardi (1997) to outline of the “archetypes of women at work.”)
There is also the problem of women’s self-exclusion: lots of them only value themselves as deficient rather than aware of their skills and potential. A greater presence of women at the top should be the norm. Intervening from the outside appears to be the only solution to stimulate greater insight and equal empowerment of women in their abilities making them explicit. Equal opportunities policies have been put into practice in recent years, regarding the leveling of the presence of female figures in organizations, which want to push for greater representation of women in the workforce. This increase, which is now determined from the top, should become normal vision over time, or at least that is the goal we hope to reach soon (Sartori, 2009).
According to Dallago (2006), the work to promote the development of empowerment is based on the sharing of certain characteristics in social and working groups:
- Working considering more aspects of the problem;
- Valuing the group and individuals by strengthening their social skills and cooperation;
- Valuing the experiences of life and work, through the use of engaging methods and activities;
- Encouraging the active participation of stakeholders and increasing motivation by creating spaces for sharing ideas and skills;
- Creating networks of institutions and individuals that are able to share efforts, resources and ideas, and to become a new resource for the community;
- Promoting the culture of evaluation by underlining the importance of collecting data about processes and results of operations;
- Ensuring that the work will continue and become heritage of the community.
The construct of women’s empowerment is meant to promote a joint reality model that enhances how gender relations should be rather than as they are in everyday life (Francescato & Puppets, 1997). After the Beijing Platform (1995), the word empowerment has taken its official status to promote and implement policies on equality and equal opportunities between the sexes, in order to achieve a politically more equitable development. Women need to enhance their skills, knowledge and experience to be able to override a system in which more responsibilities and power can only be given to them by a grant from the upper position (Sartori, 2009).
Policies and women’s empowerment must contribute to the construction of a concept of shared gender equality. This does not mean being the same in the strict sense, but given the unique characteristics of the individual, everyone will be assessed on an equal footing. Despite all the efforts in the last decades, we are still far from equality between the sexes.
Returning to the photo of the two showgirls: the freedom to perform certain shots should not be challenged, instead we should wonder if the message they convey is really what has been shown previously. What would be the value added by these post on Instagram in the enhancement of women’s role in society?
Kim and Emily’s main concern in the photo is what to wear. This is one of the stereotypes that female gender tried to fight for decades: the woman as consumerist and vain, depending on the judgment of others to be appreciated, and whose only concern is to appear. Flaunting beauty standards, dictated by stereotypes such as thinness and big cleavage, with thousands of Euros invested in make-up, hairstyle and clothing, does not count as female emancipation but rather as self-segregation in the weaker sex role. One must distinguish between the awareness of one’s sexuality and the categorization of the social role of women. The two showgirls succeed very well in the first attempt, because the woman has the right to do whatever she wants with her body, but they fail in the second. The social representation that results is not associated with the claim of women’s freedom, but rather with the use of their bodies and names as a brand named Kardashian & Ratajkowski. This construct is found in the theory of social representations described by Moscovici that consists (1) of the anchorage, which categorizes, names and explains something unfamiliar, and of (2) objectification, which means giving concrete body to abstract patterns and concepts. It turns what is foreign into something familiar; it relates what is distant to our own experience; and it ultimately allows a continuity between what is old and what is new.
This continuity causes a change of values and feelings in time and in people who manage to change their social representation (Colucci, 1998). In fact, the world has changed as a result of feminist movements and the subsequent social representations. In the photo taken by the two women, there isn’t a modification or a new vision of the social representation of women’s emancipation.
In conclusion, we can say the Kim and Emily’s photo does not show a woman releasing from a role limited to her mere appearance. Many supporters of these behaviors can justify them through the concept of having a conscious relationship with your own body and sexuality. In fact, we do not want to judge their choice, however that photo appears as the product of a company investing its own resources. It looks more like an action that draws its revenues by posting photos on Instagram rather than an emancipatory action.
Graduated in Psychology of Social and decision processes and of economic behaviors at Milano Bicocca University
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Camussi, E. (2011). Donne in pubblico: il rapporto con le altre.
Colucci, F. P. (1998). Limiti e potenzialità della teoria di Moscovici sulle rappresentazioni sociali. Giornale italiano di psicologia, 25(4), 847-884.
Dallago, L. (2008). Che cos’è l’empowerment? Roma: Carocci.
Francescato, D., & Burattini M. (1997). Empowerment e contesti psicoambientali di donne e uomini d’oggi. Roma: Aracne.
Gherardi, S. (1997) Il Genere e le organizzazioni. Cortina
Ridgeway, C. L. (2001). Gender, status, and leadership. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 637-655.
Sartori, F. (2009). Differenze e disuguaglianze di genere. Il mulino.
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Tajfel, H. (1984). Intergroup relations, social myths and social justice in social psychology. The social dimension (Cambridge: University Press) 2: 695–715.
Zimmerman, M.A.(2000). Empowement Theory. Psychological,Organizational and Community Levels of Analysis. In Rappaport,J., Seidman, E., Handbook of Community Psychology. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers