Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cosmetics and gender inequality: Part II

A paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology this month titled "Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline: Mating, Spending, and the Lipstick Effect" tried to document and analyze what motivates women to buy beauty products, even when resources are scarce. The researchers referred to the phenomenia of women's increased spending on beauty products during a recession as the "lipstick effect." The paper's hypothesis is:
"[...] conditions of economic resource scarcity should prompt individuals to increase effort directed toward attracting mates, particularly for women. This means that despite dampening consumer interest in most classes of products, economic recession cues may lead women to have heightened interest in products that enhance their desirability to mates, thereby prompting the lipstick effect."
Sarah Hill et. al., "Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline: Mating, Spending, and the Lipstick Effect," 103 J. Personality and Social Psychology 275, 275 (Aug 2012). The paper used US Census Bureau data and five separate experiments to demonstrate that women increase their spending on cosmetics and beauty products during a recession.

The paper's primary conclusion was that women are primarily motivated by a psychological and 'primal' instinct to find a mate, as rich as possible, and to reproduce. During a recession, this instinct is heightened  and women cannot resist the urge to spending on cosmetics in hopes of increasing the chance of finding a mate. In fact, the instinct to buy lipstick in bad economic times is so prevalent, the researches conclude that it is an reliable indicator of an economic recession. Lipstick, in particular, seems to be a good indicator because:
 “[Lipstick is] very primal... It's part of the uniform of desirability and attractiveness." Perhaps nowhere is this primal response clearer than for someone like Melissa McQueeney, a 34-year-old unmarried teacher in Connecticut. In the face of increasing bills and economic recession, she adamantly refuses to stop buying lipstick. Continuing to shop at Sephora during the recession, she triumphantly walks to the register with a new lip gloss: “I didn't even try it on. I'm just splurging.”
Id. citing Schaefer, K. (2008, May 1) "Hard times, but your lips look great." The New York Times.

The paper is persuasive in demonstrating that women buy relatively more cosmetics overall, and particularly in a recession, than men. The premise of these blog posts, that women are devoting more of their resources to beauty products, seems to be valid. The fact it increases during times of economic recession is even more troubling. It indicates that when all people become more vulnerable during a recession, women double their economic  risk. Women more rapidly decrease their pool of resources relative to men, risking their health, and further devaluing their self-worth during bad economic times.

Although the statistics documenting women's cosmetic purchases were convincing, the analysis of the motivation behind the purchases was not. What I found woefully lacking in the paper's analysis of the "lipstick effect" was a more complete and diversified approach to what motivates women to spend money on cosmetics. The researchers were too dependent on their assumption that women are always looking to finding a mate. They failed to address what motivates anyone to buy cosmetics: such as constant misleading and pressuring advertising, social constructions of femininity, pressures at work to fit a certain stereotype, and myopic media portrayals of beauty. I would appreciate an article that tackles these motivations.

Let's be clear, I'm not saying don't buy mascara. There is a place for cosmetics in our society. They are fun, creative, and can be an effective means of self-expression. I'm saying that cosmetics shouldn't be dominating such a huge portion of the economy, and that this is especially detrimental towards women. The negative impact on women of such a market are multi-fold and include economic, health, and social implications. Why women spend such an astonishing amount on makeup is complicated, much  more so than than the writers of "Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline" suggest.


CET said...

I completely agree that this paper overlooks a myriad of other factors that affect why women buy cosmetics, particularly during an economic downturn. I also agree that advertising and social pressures are largely at play. I'm curious, however, if the paper considered that a lot of these women might already have a "mate." I find it hard to believe that only single women buy more makeup during hard economic times.

Many women put on makeup to feel more feminine, whether they are single or not. Additionally, I would guess that many women who are unemployed, or otherwise downtrodden because of economic hardships, put on makeup to feel better about themselves. Using makeup as a pick-me-up is completely unrelated to finding a mate and can have more to do with making one feel good about oneself. I recognize that this in itself is up for debate (why do women need makeup to feel good about themselves?), but think it's our current reality.

For me personally, when I'm feeling especially gross these days (i.e. covered in spit-up and dried breast milk with no time to brush my teeth or shower), putting on a little makeup sure does improve how I feel about myself and life in general. I admit that this probably is the result society dictating what is beautiful, but this is a different issue that has little to do with me trying to find a mate or trying to keep my current partner interested.

Attisaurus said...

Thank you for following up on your part I post, heather! I'm really glad someone is writing about this.

I hate to feel like I'm pointing out the obvious here, but has anyone EVER considered that women put on makeup NOT because we are vain or victims of society's convoluted and problematic beauty standards, or because we are all overly emotional harpies having panic attacks about not being married by age 30, BUT that we put on makeup to help us get JOBS? Maybe?

This could be just me, but I keep reading these damn psych studies about how women who wear makeup at interviews/to work are consistently rated by their peers/supervisors (male AND female) as more competent, detail-oriented, and generally better at their jobs. So yes, when I go to an interview or to work in the morning, I begrudgingly drag myself out of bed 5 minutes early and stab pigmented chemicals into my eyelashes and pinch my cheeks Gone-With-the-Wind style before heading out into the corporate world. I buy makeup, especially during a recession, because I want to get HIRED and I'll take every tiny bonus point I can get.

I put on makeup not because I am trying to attract a mate. I know this is hard for some people to believe, but not everything I do is about making myself more sexually attractive to the opposite sex (hard to improve on perfection, for starters). Sometimes Atticus is just trying to get a job/promotion/raise/the trust and confidence of my coworkers and bosses.

Additionally, if this article was really onto something, wouldn't we have seen an increase in marriage rates since the inception of the recession in fall 2009? Not according to the Pew Research Center ( ). Marriage rates were declining before the recession, and continue to decline today. So why do we always default into the assumption that women do X activity that women do because we are emotionally and financially dependent and sit around all day watching that bioclock tick-tock away?

I definitely recognize that there are women who lose their jobs in a depression and get married instead and start popping out babies, and I fully respect their right and prerogative to do so (such is feminism). But I grow weary of certain sects of feminist theory that criticizes the amount of time and energy women spend on their looks. Some of us honestly don't have the luxury of choice.

Mo said...

Heather, I heard this great story on NPR the other day and thought of your posts: The report details an evolving trend in South Korea: men who wear makeup. It touches on some of the issues you addressed here and in your first post, as well as some of those set forth in the comments above. The trend apparently arose in the wake of an economic downturn, during which many women were fired before their male counterparts were. This, according to the reporter, enraged women and caused them to question “the kinds of men society told them they should find attractive.” I’m not sure I buy that reasoning so much as the apparent catalyst, though: in 2002, male cosmetic use was endorsed by a certain group of male celebrities and celebrity-athletes known as “flower men -- a group of exceptionally good-looking, smooth-skinned, fashionable” guys. Since then, male cosmetics have been creeping in to the marketplace and “men using makeup is now commonplace.” Unsurprisingly, it is having interesting effects on gender dynamics and the reports from the makeup-wearing men are really intriguing (e.g., many see it as a representation of power and success). Check out the article for more details – I highly recommend it!

Charlene said...

If we want to talk about increased spending during a recession, why not the iPhone? - perhaps the prime example of this phenomenon. By choosing something like lipstick, the author naturally precludes men from most of her discussion on human motivations towards excess in a time where constraint would be the more prudent option. What about exploring the different trends in iPhone buyers and analyzing these inclinations as a human phenomenon, instead of a female one? Or pointing out the differences in female iPhone purchases as opposed to male iPhone purchases?

This only reinforces the stereotype of women as incessant shoppers, soulmate-driven, and appearance obsessed. The truth is obviously more complex and the author of the journal article shortchanges herself by not attempting to place her conclusions in a larger context before stating them.