Multi-Level Marketing’s Feminine Mystique: A Reading List

Women attend a Tupperware party, 1955. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The commodification of female friendship began in the living room, often with a small party or a conversation between neighbors. Then the goods came out: cosmetics, vitamins, jewelry. The multi-level marketing scheme was a suburban phenomenon, a way for homemakers to earn some money among friends. In the 1960s and 70s, Mary Kay, the pink-hued cosmetics company, dominated the market; in the 1980s, it was the Pampered Chef, with its kitchen tools and cookbooks; in the 2010s it’s LuLaRoe, a clothing company with coveted patterned leggings that are sold primarily through social media.

Today, multi-level marketing is booming online, with entire transactions taking place in the comments sections of Facebook posts, and aspiring entrepreneurs dispensing tips on YouTube about unloading their inventory. The products may vary, but the tactics don’t. Products are displayed, promises made. And whether a woman calls herself a consultant, a retailer, a partner, or distributor, there’s always a thinly veiled sense of desperation beneath the pitch.

Women who participate in MLM companies make a hefty up-front investment. To profit, they’ll need to recruit others to invest, and once drawn in it can be difficult to get out. Take a look at any website for an MLM company, and you’ll see sparkling promises of wealth for women. They don’t just sell products; they sell fantasies of empowerment, control, and financial freedom. Thanks to the stories below, it’s easy to understand how and why these companies target women, and what happens when they do.

1. “How a Single Mom Created a Plastic Food-Storage Empire” (Jen Doll, Mental Floss, June 2017)

It’s easy to associate Tupperware with beehive hairdos and grimy leftovers, but the company—pushed to success by social networker Brownie Wise—set the stage for today’s MLM culture. Doll tells the story of how Wise grew the company from a food storage novelty to an unstoppable national phenomenon. Why did hosting home parties as a Tupperware consultant appeal to so many women? For many, it meant a chance to work again, after the loss of employment after World War II.

Most of Wise’s Tupperware recruits fit neatly into the stereotypical role of a proper housewife. But, in reality, they surreptitiously represented a new kind of female empowerment. During World War II, many women had no choice but to enter the workforce. At its end, many of them had no choice but to leave it. Suddenly, selling Tupperware at parties allowed women to straddle both worlds. They were employed, yet they didn’t appear to challenge their husbands’ authority or the status quo. This pioneering entrepreneurial model allowed them to inhabit a workforce outside of the one the hustling salesman inhabited, and, in many cases, to do even better than he did. And that power relied specifically on a network of female friends and neighbors.

The parties weren’t just a way for women to keep occupied—it was a way they could contribute to their family’s bottom line. Most women who worked outside the home had low-paying jobs in fields like light manufacturing, retail, clerical work, and health and education. The money—committed dealers could bring in $100 or more per week—was a revelation. The opportunity for success was so great that the husbands of some Tupperware ladies left their own jobs to work with their wives.

2. “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” (Virginia Sole-Smith, Harper’s, August 2012)

For decades, Mary Kay has sold a two-sided promise to women: You can buy cosmetics for youth, but for actual power, you should sell them. When Sole-Smith became a consultant for the cosmetic brand, then nearly fifty years in business, she witnessed the revival-style tactics used consultants to recruit women. She also saw a flip side of the brand for women who found both friendship and financial peril in their new roles.

Lynne resigned from her directorship soon after, but she stayed on as a consultant. She had over $15,000 in credit card debt and a basement full of unsold products inching closer to their expiration dates. It took three more years to fully extract herself, paint over the pink wall, and get rid of the products. In 2011, her husband filed for divorce, citing as one of the reasons their “different attitudes towards money.” “He meant the whole Mary Kay thing,” Lynne said. “We just never got past it.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying. When her husband first began to talk about leaving, Lynne cleared every last Mary Kay product out of the house, selling much of it at a loss and throwing the rest in the trash. “I didn’t want him to see so much as a bottle of lotion and be reminded,” she said. “I didn’t want to be reminded either.”

But she hasn’t left Mary Kay behind entirely. The consultant who debuted with only two guests at Lynne’s party remains one of her best friends and is her son’s godmother. Lynne’s new career in real estate allows her to apply her sales knowledge, and the commission checks are at least bigger.

“Oh gosh, we were all so happy,” Lynne said as we looked at a picture of women in sequined cocktail dresses and layers of Mary Kay makeup smiling into the camera, their arms slung around one another. “I guess I didn’t know who I would be without Mary Kay to define me.”

3. “How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety,” (Rachel Monroe, The New Yorker, October 2017)

When Monroe embroiled herself in the wild world of MLMs that sell essential oils, she found that it meant more than money for its sellers. Part of the appeal of grassroots-style selling came from consultants’ belief in their products. And when it comes to essential oils, it could feel like a matter of life or death.

Lara distributed a handout that listed various ailments and their oil treatments: eucalyptus for bronchitis, lavender for third-degree burns, cypress for mononucleosis, rosemary for respiratory syncytial virus. Diffusion “kills microorganisms in the air which helps stop the spread of sickness,” the pamphlet read. Oils “repair our bodies at a cellular level so when you are not sure which oils to use, don’t be afraid to use several oils and the body will gain a myriad of benefits.” Lara told the people in the room that doTerra had oils that were “very antiviral” and could knock out bronchitis in twenty-four hours. She shared essential-oil success stories—her migraines gone, her friend’s rheumatoid arthritis reversing, a colleague’s mother’s cancer in remission. A blond woman at the back of the room raised her hand. “Cancer?” she said, sounding both skeptical and hopeful. She explained that her sister-in-law had recently been treated for breast cancer, and was taking a pill to prevent its recurrence, but the side effects were terrible. The blond woman was hoping for a more natural solution.

“There is an oil for that,” Lara said cautiously. “There is some research. It is an option. It would not have those side effects.”

4. “The Truth Behind Rodan + Fields (And Its Takeover of Your Facebook Feed),” (Lauren Lipton, Allure, September 2015)

Women can become involved in MLMs for both friendship and financial gain. But what happens when everyone you know is involved in a sales scheme? After all, there are only so many showcases and special sales a person can attend, and for some, it might feel like an entire friend group has morphed into eager saleswomen. As Lipton learned, not everyone is thrilled about those endless invitations and events.

There’s a fine line between inspiring and annoying, and not all Rodan + Fields consultants tread it well. In fact, if you sell Rodan + Fields and think your friends might be dodging you, they probably are. “This is the suburban scourge,” says Rachael Pavlik, a Houston mother and the blogger behind rachriot.com, who says she goes out of her way to avoid anyone trying to sell her anything. “At first I would buy all of their stuff because I was kind of guilted into it….What is that? That’s not friendship.”

Pavlik is more outspoken than most. Most women we spoke to can’t bring themselves to hurt their friends’ feelings, so they roll their eyes privately, secretly blocking Rodan + Fields consultants who clutter their Facebook feeds and deftly fending off clumsy come-ons. One East Coast mother says she’s been approached multiple times by everyone from the woman who does her brows to childhood acquaintances she hasn’t seen for decades. Last year, an old high-school friend asked her to lunch — for reasons that soon became all too clear: “It wasn’t long into the conversation before I realized that this was a thinly veiled attempt to make me join her team,” she says. “She’s not trying to be friends with me; she’s trying to build her empire.”

5. “Multilevel-Marketing Companies Like LuLaRoe Are Forcing People Into Debt and Psychological Crisis” (Alden Wicker, Quartz, August 2017)

Wicker’s deep dive into the business practices of retailer LuLaRoe finds women grappling with everything from disappointment to financial disaster. On its website, LuLaRoe hypes not a company, but a movement—one that offers retailers a happy ending complete with balance, flexibility, and personal fulfillment. However, Wicker finds that the ending can happen quite differently for most consultants.

When consultants wake up to the fact they’ve been hoodwinked, many don’t warn their friends to stay away. That’s because if you speak out against any of LuLaRoe’s rules or mishaps, the community could publicly shame and harass you for being negative. “I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian,” one retailer wrote to someone trying to sound the alarm. “Where is the Jesus in you? I have to block you due to your constant-gross-delusional-uneducated opinions of LLR.” If you reveal you are struggling to make sales, you might be told to stop playing the victim, that you’re not putting in enough effort, to be more enthusiastic, and, of course, to buy more inventory.

“Success as a retailer results only from successful sales efforts, which require hard work, dedication, diligence, leadership, and perseverance,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “Success will depend upon how effectively these qualities are exercised. As with any business, results will vary. In addition to the factors above, retailer success is influenced by the individual capacity, business experience, expertise, and motivation of the retailer.”

In other words, it’s not the system that’s broken — you’re just not trying hard enough.