By: Julietta Bisharyan
Scrolling through your social media feeds, you might notice videos of your former classmates trying on new face creams or hairsprays. The caption beneath might inform you how great the product is and how much money they have made just by being a “market partner” for this brand. Behind the screen, they appear to be living the sought-after “girl boss” life right at the tip of their fingers.
Although these posts seem innocent enough, your female followers are most likely victims of a multi-level marketing scheme––a business model in which a company distributes products through a network of distributors who in turn, earn income from retail sales and recruitment (Holden 2019). MLM companies include Avon, Monat, Mary Kay, Herbalife, among many others. Each brand specializes in its own distinct products and it’s up to the market partner to determine what would be most sellable to their followers.
If you reach out to these friends or even receive a private message from them, they most likely want to recruit you into their company upline. And while that sounds like a “girls having each other’s back” moment in our journeys to success, the reality is that they are most likely trying to earn back the money they have already spent in becoming a member themselves.
In order to become a recruiter, you’re responsible for purchasing all the products that you intend to sell. And if no one wants to buy your products, then you simply lose all the money.
Women, in particular, play a key role in MLMs. They account for 75% of distributors even though 99% end up losing money from MLM companies (Bond 2019). So why are women such huge targets?
MLMs sell a deceiving image of feminism in that they entice women with promises of financial autonomy, flexibility, and the opportunity of advancement. Though tempting in this age of female empowerment, these levels are difficult to achieve and end up costing women lots of money as well as friendships. Three vulnerable groups of women, in particular, are targeted for MLMs.
Above all, new moms are main targets. With high costs of childcare, moms tend to stay home for the first couple of years in order to take care of their new children. This idea of domestication and being the “stay at home mom” no longer sounds appealing for women, especially women who are career-driven. Unfortunately, MLMs push this angle by shaming mothers who go back into the workplace after giving birth instead of staying home and being a “real mom.” MLMs thus provide an ideal option, in that moms can make money through their phones and not have to leave their children at home.
Secondly, military spouses. Due to the constant moving and jobless locations of many military bases, the unemployment rate for military spouses is high. MLMs, therefore, offer a
great way for women to make additional income in their nomadic lifestyles. MLMs can also be the only way for military spouses to meet new people and form female friendships.
Lastly, MLMs tend to target young college students. Looking at my own Facebook and Instagram feeds, I noticed a lot of my former high school students participating in various MLMs. When I asked them why the response I received was “It’s a side hustle.”
With college tuition high and schoolwork overbearing, it can be difficult to manage both a real job and school. Therefore MLMs seem like an easy way to make additional money on the side to fund your education. Unfortunately, many women get caught in the cycle of MLMs as they desperately attempt to earn their money back. The constant advertising and recruiting on social media can even push friends away as every conversation can become revolved around their new business.
The images of “boss babes” on Instagram, flaunting their paid-for cars and vacations by the company, can be toxic to other women. False income claims of over 6 figures a year can also be discouraging to others who work difficult traditional jobs to make ends meet. The phrase “boss babe” almost seems to suggest that female entrepreneurs are rare and belong in a separate sphere from men.
The best way to combat this fraud form of feminism is to spread awareness of the potential risks and dangers of joining MLMs. Instead of recruiting other women to join your upline, send women real job listings or information on how to gain financial aid. Support real businesswomen through social media and share their success stories. Feminism doesn’t have to overcompensate itself through false narratives. Women should help other women with genuine intent, not out of self-desperation and piling debt.
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