Photo by Ryan VanWilliams via Flickr Creative Commons

Somewhere between the realms of extreme booty shaking and intense empowerment conferences, a very thin line exists. This barrier encourages women to ask about a problem that troubles women everywhere:

What is “exploitation” and what is “empowerment”?

This line stretches across all racial and cultural boundaries. So whether a woman is blue, black, brown, white, or purple, she is going to see it and shudder. There will also be many times when a woman will make a choice that launches her onto one side of this line or lightly nudges her to the other. But is this line fair? And how should a woman know when she crossed it?

The other day, a friend of mine was celebrating her birthday. After school we piled into cars and made our way to the park. We were lounging around in the Alabama heat, and gossiping over sandwiches and stuffed mushrooms when another friend of mine who is pretty fashion-forward brought up the topic of a fellow student attempting to petition for a school dress code reform. Knowing the preferred fashion choices of high school students in general, her petition was most likely in favor of looser restrictions. 

We swore over our sandwiches that the dress-code the school had in place was already fair enough and then our conversation frayed into a conversation over the crop top, the shirts that show your midriff.

All of us agreed that wearing crop tops to school was unnecessary, especially since it was very easy to make them distasteful. The conversation ended with my fashionable friend saying:

“Well if people think you look good in it then it’s fine. But otherwise…” 

She trailed off.

When I got home that night I thought a lot about the motives of teen-aged fashion. Between my friend’s comment and the rumor of a petition supporting a more “liberal “approach to the dress code, I wondered who exactly girls were trying to dress—well undress— for. Teenagers are barely grasping to the ropes of adulthood, and we don’t know ourselves yet so it’s not likely that the average teen-aged girl would dress for her own happiness. Sometimes we think it’s all about what other people think looks good. So if we dress scantily for the public’s approval, is it exploitation?

Look at the media and tell me what you imagine of when you think about female exploitation.

I imagine the woman in music videos: Women who dress sparsely and do provocative dances by the approval of the male singers and rappers. Women who are valued for physicality over mentality.

For me, these are the hallmarks of female exploitation in the modern age.

But then I think, is it always exploitation if you’re hyping up your sex appeal?

Female pop artists are good examples for this side of the argument. Look at Beyoncé. Even though she does the same provocative dances as the video girls and sings a dirty lyric or two, the public still regards her as an empowered figure. Why is that?

Perhaps it’s because Beyoncé owns her sexuality. Owning sexuality is still a vague concept, but I think that it can be done. I’m just concerned about the abundance women who use this explanation as an excuse to be scandalous.

Does owning a scandalous outfit mean owning female empowerment? 

Well in a way. Yes, and no.

Syllabification: (em·pow·er) 
 Pronunciation: /emˈpou(-ə)r/ 
[with object and infinitive] 
 to give (someone) the authority or power to do something 

Showing your body is not the one true way to enable yourself to do great things because you aren’t empowering yourself, your clothes are. Sometimes wearing suggestive clothing does absolutely nothing in a world full of “slut shaming” and other struggles women face. Risqué clothing is so often associated with strippers, prostitutes, and other women who sell their sexuality not because they enjoy it or its fun. Those women don’t dress for their own satisfaction. They dress because they need to eat. Their lifestyles are unnecessarily romanticized.

But on the other end, a conference room full of stuffy, highbrow women in pantsuits doesn’t represent empowerment either. Some women feel like empowerment is like wearing a chain mail diaper. They believe that you can only be respectable and decent if you hide your arms and your ankles and the mace the nearest man as fast as you can.

So what the heck is exploitation, and what is empowerment?

It’s simple. An exploited woman is a woman who lives for someone else and an empowered woman is a woman who can wear a crop top and shorts just because they like the texture of the cloth, because its a quick change for them, or because it’s more comfortable. Not because they need to know that the public thinks that they are pretty. An empowered woman shouldn’t be bothered by an administration’s decision to prohibit revealing clothes, because if they really had authority over themselves, they could find an approved outfit that made them feel just as great.

The provocative dancer isn’t empowered because millions of men are gluing their eyes to her backside. She might be empowered because she is best darn dancer in the state of Alabama—or wherever she is—and to be the best at anything is definitely empowering.

Empowerment is an internal force—and there is no amount of Beyoncé music videos that can prove how miniskirts and leather bodices help women own their sexuality and be empowered. Queen Bey can only do things that make her feel empowered and her method isn’t applicable to everyone else.

She can’t find empowerment for you. Even if you really want her to…

We still struggle to understand how the fine line separating exploitation and empowerment works. Perhaps the separation is too fine of a line to build a solid conclusion on and that’s why it’s so open interpretation.

Well, what do you think? What is exploitation and empowerment?

Lauren Harris is a high school senior at an arts school. She is an advocate for the educational enrichment of African-American children and is also very interested in researching how African-American women are perceived by themselves and by the rest of the world. She enjoys online shopping, curly hair, macaroni and cheese, “The Twilight Zone”, and Friday nights playing The Sims. Please read more of her work at her blog