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.


Sam said...

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

I think we need to be careful to distinguish between cosmetics as artistic expression and cosmetics as self-destructive “self-improvement.” I can easily imagine cosmetics – or any other method of altering your physical appearance – as being an empowering act of self-expression. The examples that come to mind are usually ones that cut against stereotypes: dying your hair purple, men wearing eyeliner, or women shaving their heads. But I would go further and claim that even traditional uses of cosmetics are good if they are in the service of authentic self-expression. If it’s in the service of expression, I would say that it is worth the $80 billion. Unfortunately, it is difficult to distinguish between authentic self-expression and the expression of inculcated, internalized social norms.

"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 a prevalence of self-objectification by women, which is then accepted throughout society."

I’ve been thinking a lot about the implied claim in these kinds of statements: that it’s OK to value people on their intelligence, education, or success. However, the ability to succeed in these areas may be just as unobtainable through hard work, and just as dependent on – to borrow a Rawlsian phrase – the “natural lottery” as physical attractiveness. To me, it seems that the issue is not focusing on the body rather than the mind, but the differential valuation of humans in general. There is no “correct” way to value others, and I see no reason to not value all humans equally – regardless of both their physical or mental “success.”

Jihan A. Kahssay said...

There are economic benefits to women that come out of the Cosmetics industry as well. For one, how many women do Cosmetic companies employ through all the ranks of seniority? For many women, Cosmetics is a career, an area of expertise, and a creative expression of themselves. Eliminating the industry as a whole could result in a loss to many women benefiting from that industry.

Jihan A. Kahssay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa R. Pruitt said...

A couple of related posts that might be of interest are here:

and here:

Sophie said...

This post was very thought provoking. I have a love/hate relationship with make-up personally. Some days I love to wear it and other days I just don’t feel like putting it on (so, I just don’t)! One of my biggest issues with women and wearing make-up is the response we get when we aren’t wearing it one day. Whenever I don’t wear it, I can always count on at least one person to say, “You look really tired today” or “Are you okay? You look sick.” I find it so insulting.
The comment about the economic benefits to women was also eye opening. I’d never thought about the cosmetic industry as a major employer for women and also an area of expertise where they can really excel. At the end of the day, even though the cosmetics industry is a huge money-making industry, I still think it’s important to look at the benefits of it and how it can also empower women.