Has any woman, in the history of anything, ever thought to herself “if only I could be more empowered“. Empowerment – that ambiguous, Oprah-esque substitute for genuine power – strikes me as pretty low on a woman’s list of priorities. Choice, freedom, respect, yes, empowerment, no. And yet we’re still being told that it’s exactly what we need.

Empowerment is liberation turned into victim-blaming. Once you’re “empowered” everything’s in your hands and privilege ceases to exist. Empowerment is part of the reason why no one believes in workplace discrimination any more. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we no longer entertain the idea that employers might still be sexist. These “empowered” women, well, they make their own beds and they can damn well lie in them.

Empowerment is particularly toxic because it’s so vague. Ten years ago The Onion produced an article proclaiming Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does:

“From what she eats for breakfast to the way she cleans her home, today’s woman lives in a state of near-constant empowerment,” said Barbara Klein, professor of women’s studies at Oberlin College and director of the study. “As recently as 15 years ago, a woman could only feel empowered by advancing in a male-dominated work world, asserting her own sexual wants and needs, or pushing for a stronger voice in politics. Today, a woman can empower herself through actions as seemingly inconsequential as driving her children to soccer practice or watching the Oxygen network.”

It’s a very funny piece, but only because it’s so miserably close to the truth.

Today I’ve been reading a piece in the Guardian about a movement set up by makeup mogul Bobbi Brown. Pretty Powerful has been “created to celebrate the diverse and unique beauty in all women”. Aah, that’s nice, isn’t it? You can even buy a book, featuring both “real women and celebrities”! Hurrah! I’m being sarcastic, of course, but to be fair to Bobbi, I own one of her products – the gel eyeliner – and I’ll be honest, it’s quite good as long as you remember to clean the brush. But from my limited experience of the Brown range, I’d say it has sod all to do with diversity and being unique. Sure, I could have bought the liner in a different colour, but it’s all about drawing the same old boring lines along your lids because your eyes aren’t deemed to look good enough on their own.

Brown is working with a US charity called Dress for Success “which helps unemployed women get back into the workplace through mentoring and transformative makeovers”. What’s more, next week “a formal corporate partnership with Dress for Success London will be launched in Britain”:

Based in Islington, north London, the small-scale venture – where Samantha Cameron  volunteered in 2010 – helped 1,250 women last year. That’s a fraction of the 1.09 million women unemployed in the UK, but Brown hopes that, by raising awareness of the scheme and supporting it with practical resources and funds, it might grow to be as prolific as the US operation.

Hmm. I don’t wish to be mean and cynical, but the very mention of Samantha Cameron is setting alarm bells ringing. A charity which seeks to help unemployed women with – what? Lipstick? What kind of answer is this in the face of outsourcing, short-term contracts, workfare, exploitation, unworkable shift patterns, unaffordable childcare … just what?

Brown argues that what she’s giving these women isn’t just make-up, it’s self-esteem:

“Their self-esteem is at rock bottom, and even if they have relevant qualifications and résumés they just don’t have the confidence to sell themselves as the right person for the position. If you don’t feel good about yourself, how can you expect others to invest in you?”

When these women go to Dress for Success, they have a session with a trained stylist who helps put together an outfit, with accessories, that makes them feel good (they get to keep it). “Then we teach them how to do their makeup so they look polished and professional,” says Brown. “With that, they feel they can accomplish anything. It changes their life.”

Well, that’s just great. Master the eyelash curler, conquer the world.

I don’t doubt that having a makeover can help women feel better about themselves, especially if, for reasons which presumably have nothing to do with the cosmetics industry in the first place, they value themselves primarily on the basis of how attractive they are. Even so, while a nice outfit might make a woman feel she can “accomplish anything”, it doesn’t mean she can, nor should it mean it’s her fault when she still finds her options restricted. The makeover offers a boost, that’s clear, but it’s a temporary one, and one that’s situated within a broader cycle of ever-decreasing self-esteem as women try to look “acceptable” to the unforgiving culture that surrounds them, and fail ever more dramatically as the so-called “ravages” of time take their toll.

Dress for Success isn’t the only example of a project where vulnerable women are “helped” to regain their pride by a benevolent cosmetics giant. For instance, the L’Oreal Foundation describes itself as committed to “restoring dignity and confidence” through “socio-aesthetic workshops” for women with cancer and make-up sessions for (I kid you not) “young patients of anorexia”. Because obviously, that’ll help (I had years of hospitalisations and CBT; if only I’d been given more advice on finding the right mascara). Even if these things are not harmful to the individual – I wouldn’t be surprised if many women appreciate these gestures – I’m still troubled by it all, and I’m not the only one. Complaints from female breast cancer sufferers about the crass “pinkification” of their disease have increased in recent years, and it’s hard not to see cheery cancer “makeovers” as part of the problem. In Smile Or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich notes how being positive has been come to be seen as almost the cure for cancer, placing too great a responsibility on the sufferer. Empower yourself with pink ribbons! Restore that “lost” femininity, ignoring the fact that no one had the right to tell you it had gone to begin with!

I don’t want to be someone who rants about charities, or indeed make-up. I’m rather fond of both. But this particular combination – and the way in which prettiness and image-boosting are presented as serious answers to female unemployment and sickness – seems quite ugly to me. Just stick to the eyeliner, Bobbi, and work on developing a brush that cleans itself.

POSTSCRIPT: I am sure, from comments below, I got it wrong about Dress for Success (see comments). I am sorry. And embarrassed, seeing as I’m accusing other people of being too cynical …