Get caught in the race
Of this crazy life
Tryin’ to be everything
Can make you lose your mind
I just wanna go back in time
To American honey
—Lady Antebellum, “American Honey”
I was on a mother-daughter retreat when another woman’s daughter slathered a glob of foundation all over my face, took a step back, and said, “That looks much better.”
This happened during the Mary Kay portion of the retreat, and I remember thinking, even then—at the age of 13—that something about these women peddling makeup and skincare products in a church basement was kind of bizarre. (Or maybe I’m just bitter that one of their kin completely ruined the illusion that my bare face could be enough for the world, who’s to say.)
Regardless, I remember feeling several emotions following the Mary Kay party, with the most obvious feeling being that I felt bad.
I felt like I was supposed to be wearing more makeup, and like I hadn’t been taking care of myself properly. (Reminder: I was only 13.) While, on the other hand, I remember experiencing a kind of anger that I didn’t have the language for yet; a sort of sixth sense that said: Who even are these people delving out unsolicited advice about self-care?
Of course, as an adult, I know now—those people were distributors for multilevel marketing companies, or MLM distributors. And, as I’ve observed more and more acquaintances joining these companies, via social media, my curiosity surrounding MLMs has grown. Like, I’ve just got to know: What is it about multilevel marketing that I find so unsettling?
I know it probably goes without saying, but MLMs do not have a very good reputation. Some have even been exposed as straight up cults. (See NXIVM.) However, my reason for writing this isn’t about exposing the corrupt nature of the MLM business model or proving that these companies—at heart—are the same across the board.
Information exposing the sinister side of MLMs is easily accessible. (The multilevel marketing industry has been linked to some of the most corrupt government officials, including Donald Trump, the DeVos family, and Ronald Reagan. MLMs get slammed with lawsuits, and they fail when their markets become oversaturated with distributors. They use cult-like tactics to inhibit distributors from leaving or speaking out against them, and many business experts advise that, even if you don’t believe multilevel marketing companies are pyramid schemes, you should still be wary of them. So, my reason for writing this isn’t to argue that MLMs are scams that create more devastation in people’s lives than not, because they are—in my opinion, it’s just the truth. And I want to emphasize that, when making an investment in your future, information and research are your friends. Any company that tries to steer you away from reputable sources—like the FDA, licensed cosmetologists, or your doctor—by lowkey shaming you with toxic positivity, or by redirecting you to company propaganda, does not have your best interest at heart. Inciting paranoia around educated experts is a major red flag that you’re being manipulated into second guessing your gut, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.)
Therefore, what I really want to focus on is how MLMs target young women, specifically, and how women are generally more receptive to MLMs because of the myriad of ways that Corporate America has already failed them.
First off, I decided that women in MLMs was an issue I cared about when I learned about the types of women that MLMs target in particular: young mothers, military wives, lonely young women in rural and suburban areas, and women who are disenchanted with Corporate America, but lack the means, education, or support system to build their own businesses from the ground up.
Now, I don’t meet all the criteria listed above. I’m not a young mother, or military wife. However, I am a young woman, who is also very feminist, living in a rural area where the general mentality toward feminism is still very stunted—something that often makes me feel both lonely, and isolated—and I am also very, very, disenchanted with Corporate America. Therefore, my loneliness—my feelings of social isolation—combined with my disenchantment with your normal nine to five, or service job, automatically makes me vulnerable to MLM recruiting tactics.
In fact, I was recently targeted.
Over the summer, I was beginning to become closer friends with an acquaintance who is involved in an MLM. She didn’t bring it up much when we hung out—she only ever brought it up in passing—so I never really gave it much thought. However, I eventually went through a bout of depression—as I am wont to do, because that’s just who I am at this point in my life—and I spilled everything to her, thinking she was a safe person to talk to.
I told her that I felt I had an innate inability to maintain friendships, and that this feeling made me incredibly sad, and lonely. Basically, I started crying and told her that I’ve never really felt a sense of belonging, anywhere. And she responded with something along the lines of, “That’s why I think you’d make an excellent addition to [insert MLM here]. These women are so supportive, and you won’t feel that way anymore.”
I abruptly ceased to be upset, almost as if she’d slapped me.
I thought: Wait, really? I was just vulnerable with you, and you’re going to try to sell me something? (Most MLM distributors make a majority of their money—if they’re making any decent money at all—not from their products, but from signing up new recruits. Though this is something many practicing distributors will likely deny, if you listen to the stories of former distributors of any MLM, they will all say that there was a greater emphasis on recruiting than there ever was on selling the actual product.)
That being said—I won’t even lie—for a glimmer of a second, I actually considered joining whatever it was that this girl was pitching to me. I thought: Maybe I’m just being judgmental. And: Maybe this will bring me the sense of community that I’ve always wanted. But then—thank god—I backtracked and heard my intuition screaming: CATHERINE YOU HATE GROUP MENTALITIES AND SELLING THINGS! So, luckily, instead of joining an MLM I went home and made this meme:
Regardless of what my acquaintance’s intentions were—whether she sincerely believed joining her “team” would be beneficial to me, or merely felt indifferent to that possibility and was just trying to make a sale—it definitely made me question her authenticity, both as a friend and fellow human being. Furthermore, it was my first experience, as an adult, with an MLM distributor that reinforced my initial feelings as a 13-year-old girl with the Mary Kay women: Something about pressuring your friends and family and followers into buying expensive mystery goo is… not nice? Especially when it’s being framed, not as a business investment, or means to get discounted quality products, but as a means for acquiring friendship.
I’m glad I was able to get a grip on my own desperation in the moment and say: No thanks, that’s not for me. However, the whole experience made me wonder about the young women who do get roped into MLMs due to a moment of vulnerability, and with a sneaky sales pitch that is tailored to their specific circumstances and insecurities. Because, based on everything I’ve read, all MLMs seem to gain recruits by doing exactly that—by preying on geographic isolation, and one’s most deeply seated anxieties. (Which is basically just like experiencing high school all over again if you ask me.)
Bringing me to my next topic: Corporate America, and how it relates to women in MLMs.
I see it all the time in the MLM community. Distributors make this argument that says working a corporate job is almost the same thing as being involved in a pyramid scheme.
Recently, I watched a YouTube video in which one young female MLM distributor
gracefully stated, “You have to basically suck dick to get to the top in a corporate world… you’re working your ass off to make someone else rich.” And, based on my experiences with a number of very toxic, sometimes sexist, work environments—especially within retail companies—this argument that she was making, at least the premise behind it, is not exactly wrong when it’s applied to women in the workforce. (Though—damage control, lol—I completely recognize that the women making these kinds of statements are very, very, misguided, considering an MLM is capitalistic exploitation on steroids, and joining one is basically the antithesis of sticking it to the man. Not to mention, holding down a corporate job means receiving guaranteed pay for the time one puts into that job, whereas MLMs and pyramid schemes do not offer the same guarantee—no matter what they promise. And furthermore, this sentiment is incredibly insulting to women who have worked very hard to get an education in their field, have built their businesses from the ground up, or have spent years working their way up in an institution or company.)
Though we are living during a time where women comprise a larger portion of the workforce than men, women aren’t exactly making more money. In fact, as healthcare, the cost of living, and student debt increases, not even holding down a steady job will necessarily result in financial security—for anyone. And this is especially true for women, as our patriarchal society still hasn’t shifted to accommodate the current workforce, or two income households. Furthermore, more women make up the population of minimum wage workers than men, due to the fact that many women with children require more flexible work schedules and are more likely to accept low paying service jobs. (A.K.A. American society still does not value service work, or more condescendingly worded, the work of “care.”) Therefore, the two industries benefiting the most from the upswing in female employment are healthcare, and—dun, dun, dun—retail.
Nothing has made me view Corporate America as one giant pyramid scheme—where you work hard just to make someone else rich—quite like the 9 years I spent working in retail. (The experience was wild: I worked for companies that were caught whittling hours off mine and my co-worker’s paychecks; for companies that blamed customer service complaints on individual employees rather than corporate enforced understaffing, and would even impose tasks on us that were not only omitted from our initial job descriptions, but were also completely beyond our paygrades.)
Working for retail stores often felt like being involved in a pyramid scheme since it seemed, at least to me, that any given store’s failure was not the result of poor management, or a faulty system, but was the personal failure of its lowest paid, and least powerful, employees. Furthermore, retail stores all seemed to foster work environments where having a stunted high school mentality—one that validated bullying and backstabbing as the most efficient ways to get ahead—was not only enabled but rewarded. (Something that pyramid schemes, and MLMs do—but I’ll get to that later.)
I worked for Claire’s briefly back in 2012, and I vividly remember working with one of the least down to earth people I’ve ever met in my life. It’s not her real name, but I’m going to call her Madison. Madison was an assistant manager brought in from a neighboring store to help manage the Claire’s I was hired to work at until the store manager—who had unexpectedly walked out—could be replaced.
Just to paint a mental picture: this woman was a compulsive liar who walked around the store barefoot like it was normal. Every conversation I had with her involved some very unlikely, story, like, “My family is in the mob, and the mall I work at is shaped like a gun. And I know that, because my family owns it.” (I’m pretty sure the first rule of being in the mob is you don’t talk about being in the mob, but whatever.)
Basically, she spent her shifts telling lies, and withholding the job I had been offered when I was initially hired with excuses like, “Your sequins headband sales are suffering.”
I thought for sure that the other women I worked with would recognize this person for what she was: passive aggressive, and potentially delusional. But—nope. They hung on to her every word like scripture.
So, for the most part, I tried to be as diplomatic and tolerant as possible when responding to Madison’s antics—her withholding a job that I’d been hired for, etc. But then I eventually reached a point where a legal boundary got violated, and a co-worker tried to tell me that lunch break laws didn’t matter.
“Madison says they exist, but they’re not really enforced.”
She said it with a smile on her face, devoid of any real thought or feeling; perfectly groomed to accept her aching feet and growling stomach as a testament to her work ethic, and not as an obvious manifestation of her own self-hatred.
I said, “No, I promise you, that is one hundred percent not true.” (Claire’s was eventually sued for not compensating their employees after several women came forward, claiming they had not been paid for the hours they’d accrued when they should have been taking their lunch breaks. I received a notice about it, in the mail. Guess those laws are enforced after all, who knew!)
I put in my two weeks’ notice shortly after that conversation. Madison showed no interest in ever training me for the position I’d been hired for, and the whole mentality surrounding the store—that Claire’s, the company, was worth manipulating people into free labor for—just didn’t align with my moral code.
However, that one young woman, so eager to accept Madison’s claim that lunch breaks weren’t a worker’s right, has always stuck with me. Like, dude, she was really going to let some barefooted lady manipulate her into selling scrunchies when—even the law agreed—she should have been resting her feet. Why? Why was she so okay with that? Why was she so willing to repress her own rights for the sake of a company that was clearly willing to exploit her?
This is one example of how pyramid schemes—or MLMs, because I don’t believe a tangible product is enough to separate the two—and Corporate America are comparable, both in terms of how they take advantage of women, and their general code of ethics.
They exploit women by taking advantage of the fact that society, in general, still does not support working women—especially working moms—and they manipulate them by targeting many driven women’s most deep-seated insecurities: a desire to be respected, valued, and recognized. Furthermore, many large companies try to steal—whether directly, or via the refusal to give raises—from their lowest, most vulnerable employees, and then they turn around and guilt those employees into believing that they either deserve to be stolen from, or that they haven’t been working hard enough to warrant any complaint. (This happened to me and several people when I worked for a major convenience store of the Walmart variety.) It’s a very nasty form of systematic greed, and I saw it a lot when I worked for corporate run businesses.
All of which is to say: MLMs treat most of their distributors—more specifically, the least successful ones, which is 99% of them according to Federal Trade Commissions—in the same way. And they encourage uplines—distributors with recruits beneath them—to treat their downlines in the same way, under the guise of “tough love” as motivation, and co-opted feminist ideals. (A.K.A. systematic manipulation.)
Bringing me to my next point: if there are more women in the workforce than ever, and if many of those women are working for meager wages in undervalued service jobs, and if society at large is struggling to adjust to the fact that more women are receiving higher education than men, or the fact that more young mothers want to work, then—yeah—an MLM is probably going to look more empowering, and like an ideal option, to many women.
However, the success that MLMs claim they have to offer is an illusion that only financially benefits a select few, and those select few—behind the scenes, and at the very top—are very aware that they are taking advantage of all the added obstacles women face in the traditional workforce, which is perhaps the most stomach churning thing about multilevel marketing companies.
According to the Direct Selling Association, 74% of the 18.6 million Americans distributing for multilevel marketing companies are women, and that isn’t a coincidence. (Women being the main targets both as consumers, and distributors, of multilevel marketing companies goes back as far as 1886, when David McConnel founded Avon. Back then, it was considered inappropriate for women to allow men into their homes if their husbands weren’t also present, so McConnel saw an opportunity in using women as door-to-door salespeople. And—since there weren’t many women in the workforce at the time—there was no pressure on McConnel to pay his saleswomen competitive, or fair, wages. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether any of these women ever got paid at all, since Avon—like most MLMs—keeps a lot of its financial information under wraps. However, from that point on—ever since 1886—women have continued to remain the main targets both for distribution, and consumption of MLM products.)
Of course, recruiting tactics have evolved overtime to both maintain and ensure a steady supply of women within the multilevel marketing industry. And the most powerful tactic, now, at this point in time, is by presenting women with an ideal form of empowerment; one where independence and personal agency reign supreme by being one’s own “girl boss.” (Basically, MLMs are capitalizing off what any struggling woman looking to make ends meet wants most: power and freedom.)
As the top 1% continues to accrue more and more power in America, I sympathize with those women. And I think the fact that women continue to be lured into MLM schemes, hoping that it’ll be the answer to their financial, social, or personal problems, is proof that society not only continues to fail women economically, but in their dreams as well.
Like: Why does a sense of female support and community need to revolve around a product? Why does a woman have to work toward a luxury car and six figure income in order to consider herself a queen of her own empire? Why does anyone ever feel the need to call themselves—frankly, very cringey—terms, like “girl boss” and “She-EO?” What does any of this have to do with what women want and desire, as individuals? What about any of this is truly self-empowering?
Aidy Bryant’s Hulu series, Shrill, does an excellent job of commenting on this MLM fueled capitalization on feminism in an episode from the latest season that is satirically titled, “WAHAM.”
The episode begins with Annie (Aidy Bryant’s character) heading to a women’s empowerment conference called “Women Are Having A Moment,” after she’s been assigned to write a story about the event for her work.
Once Annie arrives at the conference, she enters a world where everything is aggressively pink, aggressively positive, and event shirt sizes do not surpass a size medium.
As she makes her way through the venue, she is bombarded with a series of ridiculous, overpriced products, such as leg makeup, marble dildos, and eye cream that is branded as “Snake Oil.”
Eventually she meets with WAHAM’s founder, Justine, and Annie confronts her about the event’s hefty ticket prices, which start at $300.
Justine explains that they offer a sponsorship to low income women, and when Annie asks if she can meet with one of those women, Justine abruptly exits the conversation. Meanwhile, Justine’s assistant interjects and explains that the “sponsored low income” woman wouldn’t be present at the event “because she couldn’t get off work.”
Then, later, during Justine’s lecture, a woman in the audience named Connie stands up and shares that the reason she loves WAHAM is because of all the friendships she’s made. After that, blue and white confetti fall from the ceiling, presumably intended to represent a glass ceiling being shattered, and all the hype fueled delusion surrounding Justine continues to ensue.
Annie leaves the conference, confused and unsettled. At the end of the episode she articulates her true feelings about the experience, to her boss, saying, “It made me think that there’s a reason men don’t need to be constantly told that they are powerful—because they’re in power. And women… we’re like, screaming in pink letters that we’re powerful, just to try and convince ourselves, you know? And all the statistics [WAHAM] gave about how bad things are for women, it’s like, it’s a thousand times worse if you’re a woman who can’t afford to be slathered in $100 oils… but there were also all these women there who were genuinely getting something out of it. But, to me, it just felt like it was about money.”
And that is precisely how I feel about “girl boss” culture, and MLMs that co-opt feminist ideals: it’s just about money. And if it’s not about money, then it’s about image, or social status, or materialism. No matter what way you look at it—it doesn’t matter—it’s not about anything real, and it’s definitely not about empowering women to realize their own, personal, visions of the American Dream. And that’s why I find multilevel marketing so unsettling.
In the process of writing this post, I came across a video of a young—presumably millennial—female MLM distributor, asking, “Why can’t I have the dream house that I want? Why can’t I be the person that I’ve always dreamed of being? Why can’t I have the things that I’ve always wanted? Why can’t I travel all the time? Why can’t I do what I want to do?” And I know that a lot of people would probably watch this video, and then write this girl’s frustration off as entitlement, but I think it’s more complicated than that.
Though I don’t agree with her “business,” and though I view multilevel marketing as an unethical way to make money, her frustration isn’t irrational, or unfounded.
I recently read an interview with a Stanford sociologist, and a Columbia professor of organizational management, for the New York Times, in which both of these professionals revealed that studies conducted across America found that employers were more likely to contact a female job candidate with average grades, over a female job candidate with exceptional grades. They also found that when women asked for higher wages, and were granted those wages, they also paid a social price, as other people were less willing to work with them after the fact, implying that other people do not want to work with women who are confident enough to ask for higher pay. And, finally, in a survey, they found that employers preferred competence in men, and mere likability in women. Which: holy shit.
This young woman, asking, “Why can’t I have the things that I’ve always wanted?” is probably just experiencing a frustrated confusion that lies buried away in every young female trying to make a living, and pursue the American dream.
In America, we are told that if we just work hard, and persevere, good things will be granted to us. However, everything I’ve read about what employers are looking for in a female employee seems to communicate the exact opposite of this sentiment; seems to state that men are the ones whose hard work is recognized as an asset, and that women are expected to be average, and likable—to understand their place by falling under the radar, and never asking for anything more than a seat at the table.
Therefore, this girl screaming into her iPhone, “Why can’t I have the things that I’ve always wanted?” is probably angry because she’s been lied to. And now she’s stuck working for an MLM company that’s just lying to her even more by presenting itself as the answer to all her problems, while also taking her money. (It probably goes without saying, but she didn’t strike me as the happy fulfilled person that many MLM distributors boast about being.)
To be frank, realizing this reality that normal everyday women still aren’t widely recognized and accepted as fully formed individuals in pursuit of the American Dream, and are still regarded, merely, as aiding apparatuses that get used up in its pursuit, just sucks. And, more often than not, I think women deny this reality to themselves, because it’s just so much easier to survive and exist when you don’t look beyond the surface. (To look beyond the surface, means to be angry and frustrated; it means falling into bouts of hopelessness, and bearing the agonizing weight that is knowing your worth in a world where a revolving door of people are going to reject you for having that self-awareness. So, yeah, it’s easier to be positive; to remain likable; to pretend that the brand of female empowerment that capitalism is constantly spoon feeding us is truth.)
See, I have this theory that, as Americans, and especially as American women, what we love even more than money, or status and nice things, is to be convinced. If we didn’t, people like Donald Trump would never become president. People like Billy McFarland—the mastermind behind the infamous Fyre Fraud—would not be heralded as visionaries, and geniuses. And different variations of con men wouldn’t constantly be used as symbols for the American Dream in our literature, and films. (Please see: The Great Gatsby, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, American Psycho, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Honey, et al.) Basically, we love our illusions. When someone, or something, walks into our lives and promises, “Whatever you need me to be, I’ll be.”
And, honestly, I’m not hating. I get it. It’s such a romantic promise. To quote the rap artist and alleged Fyre Fraud victim, Ja Rule, “I too [have been] hustled, scammed, bamboozled, hoodwinked, led astray!”
I love hearing what I want to hear just as much as the next American Girl. But as I’ve gotten older, and as so many words and actions have failed to add up, my anxiety has increased, and I’ve felt less and less fulfilled by empty promises. At some point, the truth—however unsavory—has started feeling better than even the coziest lie. And I’ve found that, perhaps, all the times I’ve felt most empowered weren’t when I was “hustling” or saying “yes,” but were all the times when I stood up for myself by calling something what it was, or by saying no.
Despite what Corporate America, or multilevel marketing propaganda might tell us, there is dignity and power in saying, no, I don’t like that idea; I don’t agree with you; I didn’t experience it that way; I’m too tired; I’m too stressed; I don’t have the money; I’m not going to do that; I’ve already worked very hard; I deserve more for what I’ve already done; I’ve given enough.
There is dignity and power in thinking critically about the spaces we occupy, and the systems that surround us; in admitting—both aloud, and to ourselves—that things could be different, or better.
And, furthermore, there is dignity and grace in clocking in and out of your nine to five, everyday; in going home and curling up on the couch; in being a stay at home mom with no side hustle; in cultivating a craft, or hobby, that might only ever result in penniless joy; in forming female friendships and support systems, simply because you love being around other women; in caring about life and other people, beyond the bottom line.
No one should have to excuse or explain these things to anyone.
And, what is perhaps the most profound lie that we are all tasked with unlearning as Americans, in general, is that we need tangible things to prove our own inherent worth to the rest of society. Or that tangible things are even related to our inherent worth, in the first place.
The one thing that I don’t find completely soul crushing about the illusion of the American Dream–and perhaps this will sound contradictory to some of the points I made earlier—is that it is an illusion. Like, doesn’t not getting everything you’ve ever wanted maintain some mystery in life? Is this not what stories about the American Dream, like The Great Gatsby, were trying to teach us? Isn’t there beauty to be found in lacking, and failing, and losing, and being rejected?
Right now, I’m thinking of that Margot Wolfe Hungerford quote, so cheapened by mindless regurgitation, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” And, it might sound lame, but that’s what I believe about the American Dream—each person’s own, human right, to individual freedom.
It’s all in the imagination of the dreamer.
Sources for learning More about MLMs
Podcast, The Dream, season 1
Movie, American Honey, on Netflix (Just because I love it.)