Friday, August 31, 2012

Cosmetics and gender inequality: Part I

Anyway you slice it, the cosmetics industry is huge. Huffington Post recently pointed to a study that found that anti-aging products alone are a $80 billion market, and predicted to be more than $114 billion by 2015.

 My first thought: imagine what else we could put $80 billion dollars towards: education, medicine, food, or even leisure activities!

My second thought: image what this savings could do for women. I couldn't easily find any current statistics, but it seems likely that women account for a far greater percentage of those sales. It baffles me that such a substantial amount of money is spent on beauty products, especially when you consider the true costs women incur to support such an industry.

The way I see it, the costs of such an industry are multi-fold.  The portion of income that women are spending on cosmetics makes them poor relative to men. A woman's time spent meeting an unobtainable definition of beauty is time she could have spent on education, work, or relaxation. The economic impact is also in the work place, including bias against women who do not fulfill their duties of a now 'standardized' daily makeup routine.

Costs beyond the pocketbook include women's health. A huge part of the cosmetics industry is devoted to looking thin, including diet products with startling health implications. Not only only are the products in themselves harmful, they encourage unhealthy dieting. The YWCA published a report in 2008 titled "Beauty at Any Cost." The YWCA report cites to a study that found that nearly 10 million women in the US suffer from an eating disorder. Compounding the implications of having so many women abusing their bodies, people with eating disorders also tend to suffer from low self-esteem. Low self-worth can limit a person's aspirations and dreams.

The YWCA report also points out that cosmetics are not subject to testing by the US Food and Drug Administration. It cites to studies showing that several ingredients found in US cosmetics products contain ingredients that are shown to cause damages to the liver and reproductive system.

Another non-economic cost is the creation of a culture that devalues women.  Selling cosmetics requires selling the message that a women's worth is, at least in part, based on her physical attractiveness as defined by the cosmetic companies.  This focus on the physical leads to self-objectification by women, which is then accepted throughout society.

What could drive so many women to spend so much money, risk their health, and devalue their self-worth in exchange for a promise to stop wrinkles? The answer is complicated, and I will attempt to address it in my next blog post.