by Tori Greaves and Kaylen Tanner

In Southern California, the way a woman dresses says a lot about who she is. Does she fit the businesswoman mold – expensive, trendy, and perfect? Or is she thrifty and creative? There are many different ways in which women can adapt or change their styles. The more options and freedom one has, the more empowered she is. At least, that is the common thought. But can empowerment truly be measured by what is visible? Can it be measured at all?

Those are important questions, today, as this generation aims to promote women’s empowerment throughout the globe. As one of the Millennium Goals, women’s empowerment is receiving a lot of attention and support. However, widespread action is meaningless if that action is not also relevant and complex, tailored to women’s needs in each specific context. Just as styles of dress vary all over the world and symbolize widely different themes, so too, empowerment of women will look different in different places. It is critical to recognize that fact and not oversimplify the problems and their solutions.

To begin to understand a little of this world’s incredible variety and the cultural differences in the way women’s dress is viewed, we interviewed a number of women with different cultural experiences. Examples from Germany, India, Bolivia, Taiwan, Spain, Japan, Tanzania (?), and the US give just a small sample of the ways fashion is used around the world. Yet even in such a small study, great complexity is revealed. If it is impossible for just a few to agree on what the empowered woman looks like, how could the world ever define her? What must we do so that the pursuit of women’s empowerment is never reduced to a simple answer?

the empowered woman from Kaylen on Vimeo.

Diversity and complexity is part of what makes this world exciting and beautiful. It would be tragedy to lose that in a mindless attempt to help the rest of the world look and function more like the “West”. Yet we cannot abandon the cause women’s empowerment just to be culturally sensitive. We must find a way to promote their dignity and worth in ways that are meaningful and specific to each context. The journey toward women’s empowerment is longer and more difficult than anyone can imagine, but in the end, hopefully we will not have to choose between diversity and equality, vibrancy and dignity.