Evidence of “hustle culture” seems to be everywhere. There are countless Instagram photos captioned with hashtags like #riseandgrind and #nodaysoff. Elon Musk’s tweet encouraging people to consider working in technology warns that “nobody ever changed the world working 40 hours a week.” A photo of a cucumber-infused water cooler at the shared working space WeWork depicting the words “Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when you are done,” seems to perfectly epitomize how workaholism and exerting yourself until you eventually burn out are normalized and glamorized. There is a certain facet of hustle culture that is attempting to marry feminism and capitalism by promoting female-run companies and products. This “girlboss” culture and its effects have been marketed as disruptors of the “boys clubs” that often make up businesses, which have historically kept women from achieving success.
Many women have felt empowered by the girlboss movement to pursue business opportunities. “They’re hosting networking sessions for female entrepreneurs, triumphing over chronic illnesses and encouraging women to lose weight with a few simple tricks,” writes Christina Cauterucci for Slate. “They’re selling yarn, pizza, hair extensions, luxury garments, vitamin powders and bath products made with marijuana.”
By attaching a seemingly feminist label to products and services that claim to promote both personal and societal good, companies and individuals are able to gain both financial and social capital. These attempts at building a sense of authenticity and community are lucrative marketing tactics. However, to make the claim that businesses led by women or with “feminist” practices are in some way more moral ignores the blatant problems that have been caused by businesswomen and the products they create and market.
Thinx, a company that makes underwear to be worn as a substitute or supplement for menstrual products, has marketed itself as a business based in feminism, health, wellness and giving back. These associations have allowed Thinx and other companies to align themselves with ideas that consumers might value. “The marketing of the ‘female founder’ and the use of feminist- and wellness-based language can lead customers to adopt a rose-colored-glasses approach to the product,” writes Rachel Charlene Lewis for Bitch Media.
However, a company’s practices may not match the philosophy they claim to operate under. Former Thinx employees reported that they were paid $30,000 below the industry standard and that they were discouraged from asking for raises. Employees at ThirdLove, a bra and underwear brand that offers half sizes and fit-finding technology on their app, also reported that they were being paid below-market wages, but were unable to negotiate their salaries.
Thinx employees said their work was made much harder because of the company’s co-founder and former CEO Miki Agrawal. They said that their work was often impeded by Agrawal’s “erratic behavior and refusal to shoulder blame for problems with the business while taking credit — often in very public forums — for its successes.” Additionally, high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were discovered in Thinx underwear, including on the inside layers of the underwear’s crotch. Certain PFAS have been associated with health complications, including cancer, decreased response to vaccines and decreased fertility. A company should not be able to mask their internal issues and potentially dangerous products behind a veil of performative “girl power.”
The idea of the “girlboss” argues that feminism and capitalism should coexist. It often benefits a certain kind of woman who already enjoys certain privileges. A company that is run by a woman can engage in unethical practices and mistreat employees. Buying a lotion or a $860 Dior T-shirt that reads “We Should All Be Feminists” should not be labeled as a feminist act. As Lewis writes, “A thing cannot be feminist (feminism is a lens and a goal, not a shoe).”
Annick Tabb is a senior double-majoring in German and English.