“She Looks Like an Instagram:” How Empowerment Became A Brand

I’ve always loved makeup. I’ve gone through many phases with makeup over the years—and I’m sure there are many more to come! 

Over the last few years, though, my makeup routine has involved wearing less. Most days, I wear a tinted moisturizer, bronzer, eyebrow tint, and mascara. On a day I need to be camera-ready, I’ll add in some eyeliner and concealer. But even then, I don’t appear to be wearing makeup when I’m on Zoom.

I’d love to tell you that this is all some sort of feminist resistance to the shoulds and supposed-tos of the beauty industry. But it’s not. It’s the no-makeup makeup look.

Sephora–the 50-year-old beauty retailer with more than $10 billion in annual revenue–has a whole buying guide to no-makeup makeup. They recommend a 9-step routine–each with a corresponding product: hybrid primer, dewy skin tint, sun-kissed bronzer, cream blush, natural glow highlighter, mascara, eyebrow gel, lip stain, and lip gloss. That will set you back about $250, conservatively. And, of course, you’re going to want all the skincare serums and creams to make sure that your bare skin is ready for all that no-makeup makeup. Another $250 at least.

Bobbi Brown, the makeup artist who pioneered no-makeup makeup while I was still a kid, left her own eponymous cosmetics line to start Jones Road Beauty a few years back. An ad for their Miracle Balm followed me around Instagram for months before I finally buckled and bought the Miracle Balm and 2 Face Pencils. 

Here’s how Brown describes the line, “Jones Road is a growing collection of simple, smart products for all ages, skin types, and skin tones that help women achieve the no-makeup makeup look naturally- and an evolution of how good makeup can actually feel (as well as look).”

If you look around the Jones Road Beauty website, you’ll see a diverse range of models. Different ages. Different complexions. Different races. But they all have one thing in common: they look like an Instagram.

Selling Empowerment

Today, we’re exploring the tricky business of selling empowerment—both how it’s used against us and how we can avoid replicating the harm that’s done. Specifically, we’re going deep on the Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand

This article is the second installment of our series, Self-Help, LLC. In this series, we’re taking a close look at how self-improvement has taken over our lives and businesses—often in unexpected ways.

A couple of quick notes before we get into it: first, this isn’t just for women. This phenomenon has parallels across the gender spectrum. And second, we’re talking about the female lifestyle empowerment brand as a certain aesthetic and marketing strategy—not as a representation of femininity or a gender essentialist perspective of women in general.


So that said, what is a female lifestyle empowerment brand?

Kelly Diels, who coined the term in 2016, defines it this way:

“She’s The Perfect Woman, in the form of a business or a brand. She’s everything we’re supposed to be in order to be socially acceptable — white, thin, pretty, straight, cis, able-bodied, uber-positive, and smiley…⁠

The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand is what our culture insists women embody AND a business blueprint that leverages privilege to create authority over other women.⁠”

I’ve known Kelly for over 14 years. I’m pretty sure she was the first person I ever talked to—on the literal phone—“from the internet.” And so when I started to put this series together, I knew I wanted to talk with her. Today, Kelly is a writer and culture-maker who uses marketing and business strategy to question our assumptions about gender, size, disability, race, and other identities.

The female lifestyle empowerment brand is an attitude, an ethos, and it’s an aesthetic. You know what the female lifestyle empowerment brand looks like, even if you’ve never come across the term before today. Maybe you have a specific person in mind. Or maybe you just know that general social media aesthetic when you see it.

Jia Tolentino put it this way in her essay collection, Trick Mirror:

“She looks like an Instagram—which is to say, an ordinary woman reproducing the lessons of the marketplace, which is how an ordinary woman evolves into an ideal.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being tall, white, thin, blonde, conventionally attractive, etc. The problem, as Kelly told me, is when the female lifestyle empowerment brand takes “all of those privileged statuses” and amplifies them as marketing assets. Essentially, the female lifestyle empowerment brand turns visual cues in profile pics, Instagram posts, website images, and videos into a source of credibility—and with it, power

Kelly told me that the female lifestyle empowerment brand relies “more on broadcasting wealth, whiteness, or conventional attractiveness than the substance of their work.”


Images Are Powerful

When we choose to post an image to our Instagram feed or shoot a video for TikTok or use a photo to compose an ad, the image communicates with the audience. Every image contains layers of messages–some explicit and overt, others implicit and covert. Those messages are deliberate and constructed.

Yet, the way we interact with photographs and videos leaves us with the sense that we’re viewing something real and objective. So when we see the image of “empowerment” as that tall, thin blonde, conventionally attractive woman—the one who looks like an Instagram—we start to naturalize the message that this is what empowerment looks like. This is how empowerment presents itself. It’s the message of the medium.

If we learn to see empowerment depicted that way, we start to recognize that we too need to reproduce the lessons of the marketplace in order to claim our own power. We need nicer clothes, better hair, finer shoes. We need to live in locations that photograph well. We need art on our wall that makes us look hip as teach a workshop on Zoom. And we might start to recognize that the look of empowerment is expensive, exclusive, and privileged. Not to mention hard work.

The no-makeup makeup look brings this representational reality into experiential reality. No-makeup makeup allows me to show up to an event looking empowered—that is, looking “healthy,” youthful, and resistant to oppressive beauty standards even as I conform to thell. Never mind the lengthy application process and the $100s I’ve spent to get that look. This is what empowerment looks like, right? 

Or, as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom put it, “Beauty isn’t actually what you look like; beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order.” Someone who doesn’t look like the ideal woman, who doesn’t look like an Instagram—or, at the least, isn’t trying to look like an Instagram, doesn’t belong on top of the social hierarchy

Ads rely heavily on images because of how much can be communicated through a single photo. You don’t need a page full of text to explain your product anymore. Far from the text-heavy magazine ads with cringey slogans that were popular through the 1970s, marketers know how to select every last detail to communicate what they want you to know.

And that’s fine and good when we’re presented with an ad in a magazine or YouTube commercial. We know we’re interacting with marketing, even if that marketing is acting on us in covert ways. But social media has changed our spidey senses when it comes to images and advertising. The media environment is now saturated with images that appear to be candid snapshots or casual video diaries. But these, too, are ads. Our bodies no longer reproduce the lessons of the marketplace—they become both factory floor and marketplace. We can’t help but optimize our production and presentation. 

Beauty culture, journalist Jessica DeFino tells me, is a set of beliefs that’s “dispersed throughout society in many ways.” It reproduces itself through politics, traditional media, social interactions, and advertising. DeFino says that beauty culture teaches us two key lessons. First, “being physically beautiful is the most important thing you, especially as a woman, can be.” And second, “defines being physically beautiful through these really sexist, racist, ageist, classist, and consumerist beauty standards.” 

Beauty culture reinforces social hierarchy—and it does so with a bait and switch. “Part of the way that beauty culture gets us is that it tells us that conforming to this ideal of beauty is self-love; it’s self-worth; it’s self-expression; it is empowerment. And then it proceeds to siphon away your actual sources of power.” After all, our true sources of power—time, money, effort, mental space—all get zapped by that no-makeup makeup routine.

Over our lifetimes, we’ve learned to spot the status symbols that convey power. Subconsciously, “our automatic response is to fall into an obedience groove,” Kelly told me. We process that old familiar story of who is better, who is more powerful, and who is more respected without even realizing that’s what’s happening. This pattern reinforces inequality in every corner of society—but, for our purposes, it poses a particular problem when it comes to marketing and sales. 

The female lifestyle empowerment brand, consciously or not, leverages its status markers to build credibility and desire in its marketing. Because those visual status cues are so strong, that means they don’t have to work as hard to explain what they’re offering, why they’re the right person to offer it, or who their offer is for. Customers end up buying for proximity to power as much as they buy for the supposed value proposition.

The female lifestyle empowerment brand—really any marketing message that’s aesthetic rather than substantive—serves as a constant reminder of what we lack, even as those same messages claim to offer solutions, to apply Micki McGee’s argument. While people who make success look so easy tell us that we can do it, too, they’re also often broadcasting all of the reasons we haven’t achieved success yet. “When we look at someone and see those signals, we want to emulate and obey them so that we too can have” their power, Kelly told me.


The Cost of Aesthetic Labor

If you were socialized as a girl, you likely learned certain codes about how to appear in order to be accepted—or rather, acceptable. Maybe you learned that high heels lent a woman credibility, or that blemishes on your face should always be covered to signal health. Maybe you internalized the attention you got when you put on a form-fitting outfit or did your hair a certain way. 

This is the aesthetic labor inherent to existing as a woman in the world. My husband rolls out of bed, throws on some clothes, and goes straight into his office. Meanwhile, I shower after my workout and apply my no-makeup makeup before I can get to work. I’m reproducing the lessons of the marketplace and doing what I need to do to signal that I’m a quote-unquote successful, quote-unquote healthy woman.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote women aren’t born, they’re made. And as women are made, they learn the lessons of the marketplace—and how those lessons translate to the board room, the bedroom, and the beach vacation. As women learn, they notice all the ways they do or don’t match the expectations of the marketplace. They notice the things that need to change or be hidden. 

When I was growing up, this was largely transmitted through magazines like Seventeen and Sassy. But today, it’s transmitted through Instagram. And so part of the way women are made—a never-ending process, by the way—is through the coded messages of the female lifestyle empowerment brand.

There’s the potential for new tasks of aesthetic labor every time we look at our phones. Every casual glance at our feeds reveals a success strategy that “implicitly relies on being white, tall, thin, able-bodies, upper middle class or higher,” says Kelly. If we lack any of those traits, we often work to become closer to them. We learn the camera angles, the lighting tricks, the outfits, facial expressions, location secrets… all of which is work. Of course, all but a very small group of people, have identities that exclude them from the desired aesthetic—no matter how much aesthetic labor we perform. Yet, the female lifestyle empowerment brand continues to sell strategies that leverage their privileged appearance. Kelly asks, “If you’ve got a recipe that relies on those qualities and you’re selling it to everybody, how is a disabled trans person going to make that work?” How, indeed. 

Helen Gurley Brown put it this way: “people who are not prepossessing, not pretty, don’t have a particularly high I.Q., a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets—can come a long way in life if they apply themselves.” So, I guess if you don’t look like an Instagram, you’ve got some work to do.


We Need a Break

“Basically, there is more work on women’s shoulds than ever before and fewer resources available to them for sharing that labor or offloading that labor,” says Kelly. This has been true for the last 50 years, of course. But the pandemic amplified and accelerated this inequity. Women left the workforce at much higher rates than men did. And while men’s workforce participation completely recovered by January 2022, women are still way behind in “getting back to work.”

Women are overwhelmed, exhausted, and overworked. And the female lifestyle empowerment brand promises relief. We see images of well-rested and well-resourced people who garner respect and power. “It’s like catnip,” Kelly exclaimed, “I’m totally attracted to it.”  Kelly and I both come from working-class backgrounds. Kelly told me that the women in her family were housekeepers and caregivers. She was the first person in her family to go to college. 

For people like us who didn’t know what living without constant financial stress looked like before we became successful, these depictions of women can be valuable in their own ways. Kelly offers up the Real Housewives franchise as an example. “Seeing women on vacation, having fun with lots of money, enjoying themselves, and having leisure time—it is a foreign language to me. It is completely fascinating and seductive.” So whether it’s a housewife in Beverly Hills, a girl boss CEO, or the influencer you follow on Instagram, we learn that being an ambitious woman doesn’t have to mean misery and endless labor. That’s valuable.

In the first installment of this series, I unpacked the winner-loser narrative that makes up so much of the foundation of contemporary self-help advice. This narrative, as with the justification of capitalism and neoliberalism, assumes that there will always be losers. There will always be people who are in service of the winners—either directly or indirectly.

Here’s how Micki McGee put it:

“If everyone is busy making sure that they get to ‘be all they can be,’ then who will clean the house, cook the dinners, diaper the babies, and nurse the infirm, not to mention labor in the factories, sweep the streets, drive the taxis, and load the sanitation trucks?”

That’s what Kelly’s getting at here. While watching The Real Housewives can be fun and valuable in terms of watching women not being miserable (at least some of the time), this depiction of carefree abandon and overwhelming wealth comes at the expense of the oppression of others. Kelly told me that one of the big stories being sold is one that casts the viewer as a queen deserving of support and care. “And for someone who is like doing everything for everyone and is emotionally exhausted and is fitting like seven days of labor to five, that is a really compelling message.” But once you’re sold, you learn that becoming the queen of your life “actually involves outsourcing and downloading all of your labor onto other women who are getting paid even less than you, so that you can retain the excess.” 

Kelly told me that message isn’t as subversive as it’s made out to be. “That is just patriarchy. Old patriarchy in a new bottle. It’s you switching place from prey to predator and I want something better from us. I don’t think the only two roles available in this world are prey or predator.” Women are used to being prey. The chance to become a predator is enticing. And the move from prey to predator is often marketed as a feminist move. But it’s not. It’s simply squeezing yourself into the old system, the existing rules. Kelly calls it “rebelling [your] way into the status quo.”

Female lifestyle empowerment marketing tries to convince the target that they can have it all. They can be beautiful, desired by men, nurture their families, and they can have access to the resources and power that come with “success.”

I’m not a “having it all is a lie” kind of thinker. I simply think that what we’ve been sold as “having it all” is a ridiculous expectation that harms others and ourselves. I do think there’s a world where we can have relationships, resources, families, and meaningful work—all of the things that make for a rich life. But to attain them, we have to want those things as much for others as we do ourselves. We have to be willing to help others access what they need at the same time we’re accessing what we need.

After all, reproducing the lessons of the marketplace doesn’t change anything for anyone. It merely entrenches a deeply unsatisfying status quo. Maybe “having it all” isn’t about being on top of the social hierarchy and, instead, about having enough.


Marketing that Actually Subverts the Status Quo

Earlier, you were likely able to imagine what the female lifestyle empowerment brand looked like—even if you’d never heard the term before. You knew there was a certain feminine aesthetic that exudes power and success, even as it relies on privilege and status symbols to do so.

Marketing is all about the image. It uses layers of meaning encoded in a single snapshot or snippet of video to draw us in and connect a product to our sense of identity. This can be done with ill intent—but it doesn’t have to be. Persuasion, Kelly told me, “doesn’t have to mean that we are nefarious and that we exploit people and trick them into making bad decisions for themselves.” Unfortunately, many of the common tracks in online marketing are “actually quite chilling when you take them apart.”

Let’s take a closer look at scarcity and how it’s used to persuade prospects to buy without critical thinking. 

Scarcity can be real. There can be a limited time to buy because of the start date of a live program. Or, there are a limited number of clients one can take on at a given time. And even scarcity symbols (“final reminder” emails, countdown times, updates on availability) can be helpful for those who require more tangible ways to think about their options. But at the same time, scarcity is often manufactured. Scarcity works on every human, Kelly says, “because as soon as humans pick up signs of scarcity in their environment, they immediately start to gather resources.” That’s how we’re wired to survive. Now, if a customer has experienced a pattern of scarcity in life (e.g., lack of money, lack of food, etc.) then manufactured scarcity may have an outsized influence on them. They have a real fear of going without because they’ve actually gone without. Scarcity tactics tend to interrupt critical thinking. Our instinct to gather resources, as Kelly put it, overrides our ability to consider whether the thing we’re buying is something we actually need or even want.

Kelly acknowledges that manufacturing scarcity works. But it only marginally increases sales. She recommends considering what you might need to replace scarcity with, as a tactic, to get similar outcomes. 

Here’s an example. It’s a common tactic to run an online course sales campaign that builds excitement through emails, social media posts, and maybe a free workshop until the “cart open” date. On the “cart open” date, the marketer reveals the sales page—which is likely the first time the details of the program, including cost, have been made public. This is effective—for sure—but it’s often predatory in that it relies on selling someone on the program emotionally before they have all of the information to buy into the program logistically.

What would happen if you ran the exact same campaign, but made all of the details of the program, including cost, available before you started to actively market the program? Maybe you send a “coming soon” email that details who the program is for, what the program offers, how it’s run, and what it costs. You might even give people the chance to opt out of marketing about the program if it’s just not what they need right now. You could keep the same “cart open” and “cart close” portion of the campaign to add some structure to what can be a nerve-wracking process for both marketers and customers—but you don’t put the weight of the buying decision on that period. 

That said, marketing tactics are only one source of marketing power. And honestly? They’re probably the least powerful.

“Everything that has been used against you can be a source of power,” Kelly told me. “If there’s an identity that our culture has a bias against, there’s a way that you can use that as a source of good information and power.” 

As an autistic person, I know that there is a lot of bias against how I show up in the world and interact with people. However, I also know that the way my autistic mind works is a huge source of power for me. Because I need to break down social concepts into rational frameworks, it means I have a much easier time communicating those social concepts to others who might take them for granted or not realize the ways they operate. 

“I’m a fat woman in a big body,” says Kelly. She’s been asked in interviews how her body affects her career. “Usually, it’s no good for my career. But what is really useful is, because I’m in this body, it means I have access to information about our culture that someone in a straight size body does not have access to. When you have access to different information and know how things work in a way that other people don’t, that means you’re a source of creativity and good information that other people in the room are not.”

Kelly says, “I actually ask people to think about all the things they’re ashamed of. It might be internal wounds, or it might be cultural injuries that are getting visited upon us because we have marginalized identities. Literally, go through them, write them all. And then to flip it, how is that a source of power? And now you have like the list of what you need to be focusing on. So I know that I need to focus on my voice, the strength of my ideas, seeing things differently, and creativity, and those are gonna be the things that I rise for.”

Kelly also suggests building out your own framework for analysis, building on the work of Dr. Barbara J Love around formulating a liberatory consciousness. How do systems work in the world? In communities? In relationships? How does power work? How does identity work? This framework gives you the tools to make your own decisions and rely on your own values, without them being hijacked by systems of oppression or exploitation. “What happens when we’re newly awakened to power and structures and oppression in our culture is we get very obedient and we start taking rules from people who we think are more fluent in the language of justice than we are,” Kelly told me.

Liberation and empowerment isn’t a product of following rules. It’s a product of critical thinking. “I want us to be able to independently come to our own conclusions.”

Every time you’re scrolling along and see someone who “looks like an Instagram” remember that there is a message embedded in that image. It’s a message about power, identity, and market forces. It’s the lessons of the marketplace, the existing social order, behind a polaroid filter of self-expression. 

Empowerment isn’t for sale—only the status quo. 

“Are your practices creating realities where other people don’t have, what they need to survive? And if that is how you’re creating your leisure, then something’s out of balance. But there’s a way to create flourishing for you that doesn’t compromise other people’s wellbeing.

That’s the spot we wanna aim for.”

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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