How Empowered is ‘Girl Empowerment?’ Shifting Normative to Transformative // Angelica Puzio

Empowerment – more often than not, it’s hard to hear this word without its automatic attachment to the word girl. You can picture her in your mind, a confident, agentic, authentic young girl who is limitless within the boundaries that her culture erects. She refuses to buy into a system that tells her that pleasing others comes before her own pleasure, that being silent is better than being wrong, that being female means being feminine, and that power and worth arise from anywhere but within. Each of these cultural messages – and they extend far beyond this short list – tell her exactly how to feel, how to act, how to be.

But what if some of the ways we try to reverse these norms work within and even perpetuate the status quo? Here, I explore the everywhere-but-nowhere status of girl empowerment in search of a paradigm that fits into the lives of diverse girls without leaving behind the very values that ‘empowerment’ sought to foster in the first place. My thoughts are another echo in a clarion call from feminist psychologists and girls’ studies scholars: girls deserve models of empowerment that go beyond lip service and dare to be subversive.  

When I asked my graduate cohort how they define empowerment, most said something along the lines of the cultivation of a confident sense of self. Others said the word implies the creation or recreation of previously absent personal agency or power. I think this is a fair definition, but something felt off. What empowerment – the word itself – fails to capture is that girls do not lack power in a fundamental sense, nor do we need to restore that agency or ‘cultivate’ it as if it were something they don’t already own. If I could rewrite the definition, empower would mean the cultivation of social knowledge that allows those whose agency has been systematically denied and devalued to identify toxic messages, deconstruct their contents, and challenge the power structures behind them.

Words like deconstruct don’t lend well to typical visions of 11, 14, and 17-year-old girls, so what does this really mean in the context of their worlds? Author Jessica Taft gives us two ways to think about empowerment: normative and transformative. She tells us that we can recognize transformative empowerment when organizations “engage girls in a sociological analysis of the conditions of their lives, believe that girls should have public authority, and encourage girls’ involvement in social change projects.” Normative empowerment portrays a girl’s world as full of barriers that to be need surmounted, but fails to provide her with real tools or teachings to do so.[1] 

Normative empowerment strategies are guised in good intentions. Like a fad that’s caught on, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find girl-centered products or media that don’t promote some kind of girl empowerment. As I walked through the girls’ department at Target, the examples were overwhelming. Shirts touting ‘Anyone can be anything,’ ‘Just be you,’ and ‘Fierce’ came in pink and lacy trim – it felt like a twisted attempt to celebrate girls, but only within the limits of what one should be (i.e., pink, pretty, precociously sexy). Make-up kits for 9 and 10 year olds claimed they would ‘bring out your inner sparkle,’ reminding me that companies can survive by identifying insecurities she may not have even formed yet – creating long term brand-loyalty to appearance altering products – all within the package of bringing out the empowered girl within. I use these examples for the sake of clarity, but variations and subtleties of these artificial empowerment attempts are everywhere.

Transformative empowerment is both radical and realistic. It doesn’t require us to jettison all things we’ve come to know as ‘girly,’ nor does it stipulate what is good or bad for girls. Rather, transformative empowerment exists in the moments that girls are challenged to think critically and independently about the messages that compete for their attention. It can happen in little and big ways – from conversations in the car to the strategies of girl-centered organizations. Lyn Mikel Brown and Sharon Lamb share transformative conversation models in their book Packaging Girlhood, offering parents ways to engage with their daughters about stereotypes based in listening, questioning together, and re-investing attention in things that matter. Organizations like Girls Inc. work to foster media literacy. This program helps girls develop the tools they need to recognize patriarchal messages and encourages them to advocate for and even create media that is more reflective of their diverse lives. 

Transformative empowerment lets girls decide for themselves. It works outside of systems that benefit from keeping girls’ lives contained within the status quo. Its possibilities are liberating and endless. When girl culture finally shifts from normative to transformative, I can only imagine what their voices will teach us. 

[1] Taft, J. (2010) Girlhood in Action: Contemporary U.S. Girls' Organizations and the Public Sphere. Girlhood Studies, 3(2), 11-29.

**Thank you to Kate T. Parker for your beautiful image. To see more of the Strong is the New Pretty collection, go to

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