No, You Don't Own a 'Small Business'

Ashley Cleland

Photo by Jealous Weekends on Unsplash

I love it when an old friend and I reconnect. A surprise blessing of this uncertain time is that I’ve been connecting with a lot of old friends lately. Our messages to each other are sweet, filled with nostalgia and laughs, and warm my heart.

Then there are the messages flooding my inbox that seem like one of these outreaches at first. But it is far from a friendly check-in or an invitation to a walk down memory lane.

The messages all read the same:

Hey girl! I know we haven’t talked in a while…
But you [look amazing/are doing great/your family is so cute]
As you may not know, I am a *small business owner* and I’d love your support!!
I sell [stretchy pants/lip gloss/essential oils/weight loss products or groups].
One thousand emojis.

If it seems like direct selling or multilevel marketing (commonly referred to as MLMs) are blowing up on your social media feed right now, you’re probably right. In addition to spending more time online to be connected, lean financial times draw more people (often out of necessity and desperation) into MLMs, side hustles, and scams.

And of these people — 75% are women, according to the Direct Selling Association, a lobbying group for direct sales and multi-level marketing organizations. In my life, every single person I know that is involved with MLM identifies as a woman, and many are low-income, stay at home parents, military spouses, or veterans.

As a feminist, I see how the intersections of these identities make my kind, hard-working friends more vulnerable to MLMs which have been criticized for their use of cult psychology to promise prosperity to desperate people and retain them, despite most making little to no money.

The episode “Women’s Work” on The Dream podcast, sums up the unique toll this takes on women:

“They say you can work from home, you can pick up your kids from school, you’ll never miss a soccer game… You can be the stereotypical mom, American mom, and make a living. Except that you can’t. You now have women doing all the emotional labor of mothering, and unpaid labor of running a household, and you have them working nights and weekends to pay for their cell phone. It’s like being in jail.”

For a deep dive in MLMs, I highly recommend listening to season 1 of The Dream. You can also read FTC advice regarding direct-selling and MLMs here.

While you are free to make your own judgments about the spectrum of these organizations (some are certainly better than others), I don’t support the vast majority of MLMs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these messages, our connections, and about close and not so close friends who are wrapped up in the MLM life.

Yesterday, I was packing for my mid-pandemic move and found a card my best friend in the whole world had given me in college.

She wrote:
“I am sad that you are hurting. I hate what [ex-boyfriend’s name redacted] is doing to you. But I am here for you and I love you, even if I don’t support this relationship.”

I was in an abusive relationship at the time. I lost many friends when I was sucked into a cycle of abuse and manipulation, but she stuck with me and we are best friends to this day. Her card and the actions that followed sent me a clear message:

I support you, but I don’t support this relationship.

Many MLMs are abusive partners.

They make grand, unrealistic promises, especially in the beginning.

They tell you if friends don’t support your relationship, your friends don’t support you.

They remind you they are the only people who really love you.

When you fail or have conflict, you are the only one to blame. Its because you’re stale and you didn’t want it badly enough.

They accept no responsibility.

The cycle of highs and lows, forever working to be ‘good enough’ for their affection or for your safety leaves you broke, empty, and depressed.

I’ve witnessed this cycle with so many friends and acquaintances. What do we do when our loved ones seem trapped in MLM and want to bring us in too?

Be like my best friend. Vocalize support but also vocalize clearly what you don’t support. Despite what an upline may tell you, true friendship is not tacit agreement with every life choice you both make.

My equation for feminist friendship: Support + Honesty = Empowering, Lasting Connections

Listen, I’m no saint. Who among us hasn’t been seduced by a cute kitchen item you could probably also buy at Walmart or been tempted by a miracle weight loss product? Who hasn’t wished for more money, especially when financially insecure like right now?

Just like anyone can be in an abusive relationship or experience domestic violence, anyone can be manipulated by shady business practices. No shame, I continue to support the people I love but I will not support MLMs.

Empowered women empower women — and that means supporting our friends but not supporting organizations or companies that take advantage of them.

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