Photo by Dominique Godbout.

Dressing It Up in a Recession

Photo by Mark J Sebastian.
Money-stresed women are more likely to spend money on cosmetics, which can put a toll on financial well-being. Photo by Mark J Sebastian.

What do you spend money on when you’re broke? If you’re a woman, cosmetics and sexy clothes are the winners for splurge purchases. Men don’t care about dressing it up. They buy computer accessories and headphones.

This issue got my attention while I was looking for general information on budgeting. The YWCA had a campaign a few years ago called “Beauty at Any Cost.” It studied the targeting of young women by the beauty industry and the negative repercussions it has on them financially and emotionally.

The YWCA did a little math and found that when the $7 billion-a-year beauty industry is amortized over all the women in America, we’re spending about $100 each every month on cosmetics. This might be skewed a little high for the “average” woman, who probably isn’t rocking a $1000 weave or silicone breasts. Not only is this bad for the budget, but it’s emotionally bad for non-standard beauties and women of color who feel even more pressure to conform.

Engulfed by a popular culture, saturated with images of idealized, airbrushed and unattainable female physical beauty, women and girls cannot escape feeling judged on the basis of their appearance. As a result, many women feel chronically insecure, overweight and inadequate, as these beauty images apply to an ever-shrinking pool of women. Moreover, the diet, cosmetic and fashion industries are often too willing to exploit these narrow beauty standards so women and girls will become cradle-to-grave consumers of beauty products, cosmetic surgery and diet programs.

The bottom line is that the YWCA recommended that girls wash their faces and go to college. Like boys do.

They did a little more math and came up with this equation:

  •  One full year of tuition and fees at an in-state public college is equal to almost five years of saving $100 a month normally spent on cosmetics and beauty products.

  • One year of tuition and fees is $6,185; five years of beauty products savings is $6,423.

It would take close to 25 years of not wearing makeup or having a manicure to pay for college, but hopefully you’d see financial returns based on a higher level of education before that.

We get the point: an obsession with an impossible standard of beauty isn’t healthy, and we’re all probably spending too much on cosmetics anyway. Besides, natural beauty is beautiful. Say some affirmations and work on your self-love.

But then there’s this other study “Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline: Mating, Spending, and the Lipstick Effect.” If you were hoping to feel better about the place of women in human primate society, this is not the study for you. It’ll only make you depressed.

The gist of it is that when the economy tanks, we get a lot more competitive. This means that young women are competing harder for mates with jobs (and getting jobs themselves). There’s a lot more riding on an attractive appearance, and the ladies are in it to win it. Sexy clothing and accessories and personal care products and cosmetics are seen as investments rather than luxuries.

Photo by Dominique Godbout.
Are cosmetics a frivolous expense or an investment? Two studies come to different conclusions. Photo by Dominique Godbout.

Po’ Folks, I’d like to be able to tell you that this is only a misguided perception women have about themselves, but the science is against that. Dressing it up may very well be an important investment for your financial well-being. The only words of comfort I can give are that the formulas for expensive and inexpensive cosmetics are basically the same and all you’re really buying is marketing. Same with clothes. You can spend a lot less and get the same effect. Also, when the financial climate is more stable then women prize other male qualities higher than earning potential. It’s a win-win.

Tressie Mcmillan Cottom wrote a terrific personal essay about this phenomenon “Why Do Poor People ‘Waste’ Money On Luxury Goods? “in the wake of this incident.

Needless to say, this is a very contentious subject. I’m pretty sure that you can wear eyeshadow without becoming a tool of the patriarchy, and I also think that judging people by their appearance is misguided. Wherever you fit on this spectrum, Po’ Folks, there’s some science backing up your decision.

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