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He spoke constantly of sex and gave detailed, often provocative, instructions to his followers as to how to they might best observe chastity. And his views were not always popular; "abnormal and unnatural" was how the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, described Gandhi's advice to newlyweds to stay celibate for the sake of their souls.


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The catch-all term has come to denote a watered-down feminism, popular with celebrities and advertisers alike. How did this authentic appeal from the marginalised become so abused? Feminism might not have quite finished its work yet — there are still niggly little things such as unequal pay and female genital mutilationand, unbelievably, abortion remains an actual issue in the US elections in But never has it been easier for a woman to feel empowered. Indeed, a woman would now struggle to fail to feel empowered every minute of her day, going by the current definition of the word; pretty much everything a woman does — from eating breakfast to being online — has been described as a means to empower her.

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What girl power was to the 90s, empowerment has become to the s: a catch-all and therefore empty word denoting a watered-down feminism, one beloved of bubbly celebrities and canny advertisers alike. To understand how such indignity has been visited upon this innocent word, we need to look at what it was supposed to mean in the first place.

Empowerment — referring to the idea of providing autonomy and strength to marginalised people — first came into popular use in the English-speaking west in the 70s and was used primarily in reference to black people.

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African-American magazines such as Jet and Essence used it in encouraging self-help articles, and scholarly books with titles such as Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities were published. Feminism increasingly used the term in the 80s and 90s, often referring to women and girls in third-world countries and other unquestionably terrible situations. No longer did the term refer to the idea of a demographic gaining power for the good of the group, but just one woman gaining power for the good of herself — a shift from the collective to the individual, if you prefer the lingo, and the TV programme most associated with this change in attitude is, of course, Sex and the City.

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Sex and the City is now frequently — and unfairly — dismissed as the TV programme that suggested that buying deer shoes was a feminist act in fact, as any SATC devotee could tell you, far from celebrating shopaholism, Carrie nearly goes bankrupt from her shoe-shopping habit and is only rescued from homelessness by one of her girlfriends.

However, until the show lost its mind and nerve in the last series, if Sex and the City was about anything, it was that independence is great, but be prepared to take responsibility for your actions.

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Owning and wearing dozens of pairs of shoes is a compelling way for a woman to announce that she is strong and independent, and can shoe herself without the help of a man. Yet, just as this idea of feminism as something you bought alongside your Manolo Blahniks was being denigrated, a strong mentality was emerging from fourth-wave feminismone that at least partially defines the movement: to judge other women for choosing to do something — anything — is inherently anti-feminist, because those women made their choice and therefore it is a feminist act.

To a certain extent, this is a good thing.

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We should encourage each other, not push each other down. The problem with this approach is that it le to a great big pile of nothing. In recent years, there have been feminist revisions of everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Kim Kardashiansimply because they were their own self-empowered women, even though both of them explicitly distanced themselves from the label in their respective times.

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Empowerment has become the cover for doing whatever the hell you like. It is a self-created safe space: as long as you say you are empowered, anyone who complains is trying to oppress you. We could sit around and argue about where the line lies between sexual empowerment and sexual objectification until the self-empowered cows come home.

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Buying shoes is not a strike against the patriarchy. Telling other women to shut up online is not a feminist act. Tweeting photos of your boobs is not empowering the world.

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Advertisers have, unsurprisingly, latched on to a term that suggests worthiness but has really become about promising an aspirational female identity. Most people would struggle to argue that telling women to lose weight or look thin is an empowering act.

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But, as online magazine Jezebel pointed out last weekWeight Watchers and Spanx are now selling their products in the US by promising that they provide empowerment. Unfortunately for Lopez and her PRs, the single was produced by Dr Lukewho was accused by Kesha of somewhat less than empowering behaviour around her.

But the biggest irony about empowerment is not just how utterly meaningless — disempowered, I guess — it has become as a term, but how those who claim to feel it and those to whom it is sold are the ones who need it least. It is no surprise that I see so many adverts promising empowerment, because I am precisely the kind of person to whom empowerment is now marketed: white, thirtysomething, educated, middle class with disposable income.

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Only those already in possession of quite a lot of power would feel empowered by leggings, or a TED talk, or naked selfies. Empowerment has become not only a synonym for self-indulgent narcissism, but a symbol of how identity politics can too often get distracted by those with the loudest voices and forget those most in need of it.

I should have told that to those Indian schoolgirls back in the 90s: forget the computer literacy, just know yourselves. Feel the empowerment.

From shopping to naked selfies: how 'empowerment' lost its meaning

From shopping to naked selfies: how 'empowerment' lost its meaning. Empowerment used to be radical — now it is everything from deodorant to chocolate. Composite: Guardian.

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Hadley Freeman. Tue 19 Apr Reuse this content.

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Gandhi would surely have been widely reviled, and his faults distorted and oversimplified in the rush to judge him.