What’s the Best Way to Deal With the Unfair Makeup Tax on Women?

Women who wear makeup are subject to what some researchers have dubbed the ‘makeup tax.’ Oleg Gekman/Shutterstock.com

Studies have shown that women who wear makeup get paid more and are promoted to a higher level. One of these studies showed that people perceive a woman as being more competent and likeable if she’s wearing a certain amount of makeup while another study found that women wearing makeup were perceived to have a higher earning potential and to receive more prestigious jobs than those without. Men tip more when waitresses wear makeup, and countless economic studies have shown that attractive people do better in life in general.

“Society puts more value on women’s appearance; if they’re attractive they get promoted more and receive higher pay.That means women should do something about their appearance, as they need to live up to standards that society doesn’t place on men. Women are expected to spend money on makeup and beauty products,” says Margaret Badore, New York-based editor of Treehugger.com, which covers food, fashion, health and sustainable living.

Olga Khazan, staff writer at The Atlantic covering gender and health, recently wrote a piece on the makeup tax. Khazan believes that all women are affected by it in some way. “For women who wear makeup, there’s a real time and financial cost to it. And women who don’t wear makeup tend to be judged harshly so, in a way, you pay if you do it and you pay if you don’t,” she says.

And it is a gender-based issue. “It’s not really the same for men, since men aren’t expected to wear makeup. Both sexes have to shower, both have to dress nice, both might even have to do their hair, but only women wear makeup.”

Furthermore, Khazan finds the fact that subtle makeup use seems to be associated with competence (even though we sometimes think of makeup as a silly, girly thing) paradoxical.

What consequences does this have for women? According to the US television program Today, women spend on average a whopping two weeks every year on their appearance. The makeup tax has been getting some high profile attention recently. In a Facebook Q&A session with Hillary Clinton in July, Facebook staffer Libby Brittain posed a question about the makeup tax: “Every morning, as my boyfriend zips out the door and I spend 30+ minutes getting ready, I wonder about how the ‘hair-and-makeup tax’ affects other women—especially ones I admire in high-pressure, public-facing jobs,” Brittain wrote. “I know these questions can seem fluffy, but as a young professional woman, I’d genuinely love to hear about how you manage getting ready each morning (especially during your time traveling as Secretary of State and now on the campaign trail) while staying focused on the ‘real’ work ahead of you that day.”

Hillary’s empathic response was: “Amen, sister! You’re preaching to the choir.” But while admitting it was difficult to keep up with a high public profile job and the appearance demands this entails, the presidential candidate didn’t suggest any remedies to the issue.

Looking at it from an economic point of view, we might also consider whether there are other factors at play here too. The economic advantages derived from wearing makeup could be externalities of other characteristics that coincide with a higher propensity to take care of one’s appearance to a higher degree. For example, makeup wearers’ ability to stick to a makeup routine could show that they are more organized in the morning and perhaps in general (as they are willing to wake up earlier, and able to execute the procedure within time constraints)? Or, perhaps those individuals who wear makeup to work are more ambitious? Or they enjoy their job more and therefore care more about how they appear while performing it? All these rationales could co-exist in varying degrees among different individuals and makes the debate more complex. “Indeed, these studies are unable to account for other factors. There’s an economic concept called early-birdness and all of these things could contribute,” says Daniel S Hamermesh, an economics professor at both the University of Texas and Royal Holloway, University of London.

It’s patently unfair that women are judged more by their appearance and need to spend a longer amount of time getting ready in the morning. But is this a problem in economic terms? And, if so, what’s the solution? Prof. Hamermesh doesn’t think it is an issue. “The effect of makeup on overall appearance is not that great,” he says. According to Hamermesh, other factors are more important, such as education and looks (although they’re not heavily affected by makeup). “There have been studies on the perceived situations of people wearing makeup, but not studies of their actual earnings,” he explains.

Hamermesh is also the author of “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful,” which examines the economic advantages that attractive people encounter throughout life. The advantages of beauty range from a higher likelihood of being employed to receiving more substantial pay, obtaining loan approvals, negotiating loans with better terms and having more handsome and highly educated spouses.

According to Hamermesh, the conclusion that makeup enhances the perception that a woman can do a good job makes sense because “we conflate looks and a willingness to take care of yourself with a willingness to take care of other people.” He takes a pragmatic view and says that while it’s not fair that society treats good looking people better, as an economist, he sees why people would use this to their advantage as it makes sense from an economic point of view to improve your looks. That includes wearing makeup. “Makeup wearers are essentially people who are more concerned about getting ahead,” he says.

Hamermesh’s study, “Dress for Success –  Does Primping Pay?” co-authored by Xin Meng and Junsen Zhang, shows that women’s spending on beauty-enhancing goods and services raises women’s earnings, as additional spending on clothing and cosmetics has a generally positive marginal impact on a woman’s perceived beauty. But such spending pays back no more than 15 percent of additional unit of expenditure in the form of higher earnings. So it’s pretty marginal.

That’s why, as the makeup itself is not that important for the overall impression, Hamermesh says people should only wear makeup if they enjoy it and it makes them feel good. “I like wearing nice ties, but it probably doesn’t improve my earnings,” he says. “Makeup doesn’t pay off, but people will do what they wish to do. So it’s stupid to do it for any other reason than it being enjoyable. For example, people get their hair done to feel better about themselves, not to make money. Some things make people happy and satisfied, but it doesn’t matter from an economic point of view.”

Deborah Rhode is a Stanford law professor and the author of “The Beauty Bias.” In the book she proposes a legal regime in which discrimination on the basis of looks is as serious as discrimination based on gender or race, and makes a case for an America where appearance discrimination isn’t seen as an inevitable part of human nature. What’s her take on the makeup debate? “I find the term makeup tax effective in catching women’s attention and raising women’s awareness about the price they pay for society’s double standards,” says Rhode. “By double standards I mean that men and women don’t face the same beauty requirements for performing the same job, for example.”

There’s a lot at stake behind perpetuating these standards, according to Rhode. “The fashion industry and women’s magazines have financial interests in keeping up the demand for makeup,” she says. “The makeup industry is the driving force behind the notion that women’s self-esteem or job performance depends on using makeup.”

“Women pay a price both financially and in terms of time spent on applying makeup, something that men don’t pay,” Rhode adds. But she concedes that it would be difficult to apply regulatory measures. “A large part of the decision whether to wear makeup or not is internal. It doesn’t coincide with external factors such as race, age, income, socio-economic status etc.”

“I’m surprised by how many women don’t see it as a burden; many women see it as a positive form of self-expression and take pleasure in it. Which it also could be. I’m trying to not make women feel guilty for wearing makeup. I think focus should be on drawing attention to the social forces that pressure women into using it.”

As far as critics of the makeup tax goes, Rhode notes that, factually, in no way is it the same for men and women. Women account for the vast majority of beauty product consumers. At the same time, Rhode contends that she doesn’t put it at the top of her list of feminist or women’s rights issues that need to be dealt with. “Obviously there are more important things such as economics, poverty and sexual violence that I would put much higher, but the makeup tax falls into the category of what sociologists call micro indignities. That women are expected to wear makeup in many instances,” she explains.

Apart from the gender-based inequality and economic factors, Badore points out that we don’t know how safe many makeup products are, especially if they are being used over a long period of time. “There are many chemicals that can’t show how safe they are,” she says. “There are many substances that are grandfathered in. In the US, the burden of proof that products are safe lies with the makeup companies themselves. And even if there are small levels of dangerous chemicals that could cause cancer or that include hormone disruptors, they accumulate over time as the skin is very porous, or get into the bloodstream,” she explains.

Badore says she’s received feedback from several men who think the makeup tax is not an issue, but contends that “there will always be people online who disagree with what you say.”

“When I wrote about the makeup tax, people were like: ‘no one studies that!’ But obviously there’s research taking place at Harvard about this, partly because of a demand from the makeup industry. The surprised reaction is pretty telling, makeup is not expected to be a research topic because it’s a women’s issue, just like with tampons. There’s a lack in regulation around tampons because it’s a women’s issue and thus receives less attention. Products used for women are seen as a non serious issue. Hence, the question ‘is makeup safe?’ is seen as less important than if certain foods or drugs are safe,” says Badore.

There are other potential side effects of makeup too. Professor Rhode points out that due to certain dynamics, in the long run makeup could lead to a different kind of potential health risks. “There’s a short distance between makeup and cosmetic enhancement. It’s the same forces that drive women to wear makeup that drives women to undergo plastic surgery,“ she says.

For Badore, it’s important to source products carefully if one choses to use them. “Beauty standards operate on many different levels. There are also many companies that make sure to only make safe products. But as individuals we can always ask ourselves the question: why am I picking this product? Society expect me to use eyeliner. There are also many people that wear makeup out of fear and pressure to conform,” says Badore, who doesn’t wear makeup herself, apart from concealer and mascara. “I naturally have quite dark circles under my eyes and if I don’t wear that for meetings with people I don’t know they might ask if I’m ill, ” she says. “When I do shop makeup I’ve become increasingly conscious about brands.”

How do we solve the larger issue of decreasing our collective makeup tax then? “The best way is to raise public opinion,” says Rhode. We need individual women to put pressure on institutions that require makeup. Media and stories such as this one could also make a difference; it’s about raising consciousness. I was speaking on the radio recently about the makeup tax for example.”

And lastly, an appeal to all women out there. “It would be good if more women choose not to wear makeup. That’s where role modeling come in. For example, if the mother doesn’t wear makeup it may be less likely that her daughter will,” concludes Rhode.