Ms ZiYou Beauty Tax Peacock
Feminist

Resisting the Beauty Tax of Patriarchal Capitalism

So, it’s 2018 and here in the UK, some women have had the right to vote for 100 years. All women have had the right to vote for 90 years. We’ve acknowledged that women work, and equal pay legislation has been passed for years – albeit this year’s gender pay gap reports show that companies are getting more and more creative about avoiding it. Did you know the Dagenham machinists went on strike for equal pay to men for a similarly skilled – but not identical jobs. Yet we still routinely classify some skilled jobs as women’s jobs and pay them less.

Yes, it’s really a still a patriarchy

We live in a patriarchy, when men hold more power and money than women, in every single country despite the improvements we have seen in the last few centuries. And this capitalist patriarchy has created the society we live in, with the voices of women being heard less than those of men and males controlling the majority of resources. Men still typically have leadership roles, and women are caregivers. In the UK, we now have the lowest male representation in the House of Commons, down at 68% males governing the country. On the private side,  94% of FTSE CEO’s are male – there are more Daves at 8% than there are women of any name. There are also more Steves at 7% than women of any name also. So men still firmly grasp the reins of power.

What is the Beauty Tax

The beauty tax is the notion that in order to keep to societies accepted norms, women have to spend time and money on beauty products that men do not. In order to flesh out these points, I have quickly mashed together an essential beauty tax list; I propose that in developed countries this is what we generally expect of women to meet the expected social conventions and be accepted in society.

Beauty Tax Essential List
  • Have long hair
  • Brush and Style Hair each and every day
    • unruly hair must be tamed
    • curly hair must be straightened or styled into perfect curls
  • All grey hairs need to be removed/coloured, especially if under 40
  • Remove all facial hair
  • Underarm hair to be removed
  • All leg hair  must be removed
  • Bikini line hair  must be removed
  • Apply makeup to cover up eye circles/blemishes/paleness/lack of colour
  • Add mascara to cover natural eyelashes
  • Pluck and add colour to get natural eyebrows

Beyond these essentials, women can earn bonuses by going over and above and improving her appearance. Each additional step a woman takes will increase her social capital and allow her to integrate with society.

Beauty Tax Bonus Point List
  • Makeup to emphasise your features
  • Reapply makeup and touched up throughout the day
  • Modifying your look to the occasion
  • More and more complex hairstyles
  • Getting filler on wrinkles as you age

Why does this matter?

So what I hear you so, that’s just the way it is. Why are you complaining? Don’t you know women in Saudi have it much worse? Indeed they do, but that does not stop me from doing what I can to raise issues here, that impact women. For example, when it comes to daily hair care, let’s compare a man’s to a woman’s daily chores.

Man’s hair:

  • Daily Chores
    • Wash and go
    • Minimal styling
    • Time taken: a few minutes
  • Maintenance
    • A quick nip into the barbers every 8 weeks

Women’s hair:

  • Daily Chores
    • Wash
    • Blow dry with a special brush
    • Straighten
    • Style with product(s)
    • Take supplies with you to sort hair when out of the house.
    • Time taken: anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour.
  • Maintenance
    • Grey hair growth needs to be touched up and dyed
    • Cut and Style hair to make sure it is not natural or unruly in any way

When your natural is not acceptable in public

People can fall many places on the hair maintenance scale – some women are my role models and have gone short and get the male advantages – although this sorts out the day to day chores, the grey becomes a bigger problem with short styles. Some women have hit the hair jackpot, and have hair that washes and air drys into an acceptable style with minimal intervention needed.

Others like me have naturally unacceptable hair. My natural hair is so unacceptable, you never see hair like mine in public. Or on the internet.  Hair that naturally looks wild and takes significant effort and products to tame. I can only speak for my own experiences, and people with Afro-Caribbean hair have it much worse – with more complex and time-consuming hair care needs.

And not forgetting, of course, that #notallmen have short hair. Some choose to grow it long and spend hours styling their hair. I would argue that in 2018 this is a choice for men, and not something society has imposed on them as a condition of acceptance. Hence these men are volunteering to pay the beauty tax, they would be accepted into society if they did not.

Policing Adherence to the Beauty Tax

The beauty tax is real and impacts women time-wise and financially. Women are hence in a Catch 22 situation:

If a woman does not adhere to every item in the Beauty Tax essential list, she will be judged and questioned on it. The Daily Mail sidebar is the perfect illustration of this.

Yet if a woman chooses to adhere to everything in the list, this will cost her in time and money.

Do we not want to compete on the same terms as men and say no to the beauty tax?

No matter what your personal opinions about her politics or her treatment of the other woman, Hillary and her scrunchy are a perfect example of this bias – women are judged in ways men are not based on their hair.

And I’ve not even going to touch on clothing and fashion, which is another can of very similar worms. As one Australian newsreader found out, no-one noticed he wore the same suit every day for a year, but when his co-host re-wore a blouse four months apart people complained.

Solidarity – no judging of other women

Everyone is in their own place in their journey, and a key tenet of feminism is solidarity. If a woman chooses to subscribe to the beauty tax, that’s her choice. It’s a complex societal problem that we all have been born into, and there is no place for judging others – you don’t understand their position or their motivations.

Why target women?

Anyhow, in this article I wanted to highlight the construct of the beauty tax. How did we end up in so screwed a society that we impose a beauty tax on one sex? How did we end up reinforcing these double standards in 2018? If capitalism’s aim is to maximise shareholder value and make as much money as possible, why don’t we double the market and sell beauty as an essential to men? Seems a no brainer right, a large market ready to be conquered?

Why do we sell to women only? The truth is we live under patriarchal capitalism, which thrives on these social standards and will happily tell women their natural is not good enough, but would never ever do that to men. I would say that male representation is a key reason for this. Over the years men have had agency and power to make these decisions, and reject any standard they don’t like being imposed on them. Women have not had this agency, hence we are now subject to the beauty tax.

Like DeBeers inventing the need for diamonds as engagement rings, beauty companies have invented the need for these products to make women’s natural states unacceptable. But natural men are still to be encouraged. And patriarchal capitalism has allowed them to make natural women unacceptable.

My resistance

I am personally trying to resist the beauty tax as much as possible. I believe the tax is unfair and impacts women both time-wise and financially. Moreover, the outdated idea that women have value as pretty objects, rather than, you know as actual people is reinforced by the beauty tax. And this matters a lot. I firmly believe we need to value females for more than their bodies.

So I abandoned makeup a few years ago, which I thought would be hard but the time saved alone makes it so worthwhile. At the moment I’m on team scrunchie and tie my hair back, but I am very close to cutting it all off – it’s only the grey that’s stopping me. On depilation, in the UK this is only a summertime activity. However, as I complete this unnecessary activity that men are not required to do I feel equal parts guilty and angry. Another one that’s on my list to give up.

Other Resources

Over to you

  • What are your thoughts on the beauty tax?
  • Do you happily or reluctantly subscribe?

Thanks for reading – please leave a comment below and join in the conversation. You can also connect on Twitter or Pinterest.

Looking forward to your thoughts and ideas – all are welcome. 

39 comments on “Resisting the Beauty Tax of Patriarchal Capitalism

  1. I fought against it in my 30’s having got to the point in being fairly confident in my career. Gave up makeup for the time saving, the faff and the negative affect on my skin. I did occasionally wear makeup when presenting to senior managers, more as a sort of war paint to give me confidence but gave that up as well. Wouldn’t ever go back now.

    I created my own workwear uniform years so I didn’t succumb to the whole fashion thing of wearing latest styles and have only 2 base colours (navy & black) which involves only 4 trousers and 3 jackets now. Blouses rotated regularly and worn at least fortnightly. I figured if men wore the same suits, rotating only 2 or 3, why shouldn’t I?

    1. Hi tuppeny – our styles are alike. I also have uniforms except since I live is a very casual city, I do merino wool button up jackets that look very OK at my office but also excellent for travel. I only wear jeans. I have a couple henley shirts and tops that look exactly the same to wear inside my merino wool jackets. My colors r blue and beige and green.

    2. That’s a great story Tuppeny, glad to hear you have also rejected makeup!

      I live in dresses and cardigans at work, as I can get away with it. Fashion? No idea what that is, I just wear what I like!

  2. I’ve never worn makeup and always just kept a basic haircut that allows a simple shower and dry on it’s own, or a blow dryer in the winter. I just never transitioned into the beauty thing and developed my own style, which does include colorful, artistic earrings and brightly colored clothing. It has always seemed that my style is fun and unique Maybe it is because I worked in engineering, around mostly men, but I found that I advanced in salary and project assignments according to my skills. I’m outspoken and feisty though!

    I believe that each of us should make our own decisions. In some ways, it is similar to pursuing FI. You have to decide to dare to live like no one else and not buy into the advertising pressure.

    1. Hi Susan – love your approach to hair and makeup. And you won the hair lottery with natural hair that works.

      Your wardrobe choices sound fun, brightly coloured and artistic earrings sound ace.

      I love this quote

      “You have to decide to dare to live like no one else and not buy into the advertising pressure”

  3. Hi Ms Zi You, another great post! Like Tuppeny and Susan, I have never done much make up either – just impossible to do mascara, plug eye brows that kind of thing even though I tried. As for hair removal, I opt for long pants and at least short sleeves Ts. I still use fancy shampoos and conditioners though.
    One additional resource is episode #12 from the fairer cents podcast. I am not done listening to it but it’s a relevant topic.

  4. The beauty tax is such a time and money suck, but like the other commentors, I don’t really subscribed to it. Never had the knack or interest for it. A few years ago I cut off my waist length hair for a more low-maintenance style around my ears, but I must admit I miss that long braid and am saving up again.

    I am already struggling enough with my boss from a different culture and his ideas about being “nice” to me because I am female. I refuse to pander to him by subscribing to a more media-approved version of femininity. Long trousers and blouses or sweaters all day, every day at work.

    1. Hi Kristine – lovely to hear from you, I’ll glad we’re a community that is rebelling against this tax! Waist length hair? Sounds awesome yet high maintenance as well.

      Your boss sounds weird, especially if he expects females to dress ultra femme. I’ve had a few bosses that seriously believed women were either madonnas or whores and struggled to understand all women cannot be confined to two buckets!

      1. I am very lazy, so it wasn’t terribly high maintenance as I would just comb it, braid it and be done with it!

        Yeah, there are some culture clashes. Like in the beginning he insisted on pushing the trolley with chemicals to the lab if we were walking together (not that I let him). It is a constant struggle to try to make him see me as any other coworker, not primarily as a woman.

        1. Braiding is a cool idea and seems very Scandinavian and exotic to me! But yeah, can see how it’s low maintenance as well.

          That’s bizarre that he thinks you can’t push a trolley when it is part of your job. Hopefully you can make small steps towards him seeing you as a coworker.

  5. I’m one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to do anything with my hair, but then again, it refuses to do anything else, so that’s a good thing 😉 I wore makeup every day when I was younger but it has gotten less and less frequent every year, and now I pretty much never wear it. I have considered what I would do if I was ever looking to be hired at a new job though, because not wearing make up can still be considered unprofessional. So frustrating.

    1. Hi Angela, that’s cool you won the low maintenance hair lottery. Yes the connection between women makeup and professionalism is annoying, and it’s certainly worse in the more polished formal workplaces in the city in my experience.

  6. I was raised (very) religious where beauty was what made you valuable because the ultimate goal was to be a wife and mother. Despite not being called to be these things in any sense of the word, ideas of what you look like as your worth seems to have been chiseled into my mindset and I am slowly sanding them away. It is also a double blow in this type of community to an extreme in that you must be attractive but not too attractive so as not to “cause a man to stumble”. It was our fault you know. I have so many conflicts with beauty industry and it is a slow transition in mindset. I love skin care and home made masks for self care, but I also subscibe to makeup during the week for work.
    There was a time I would put on a full face everyday. Now it is much more minimal. To answer your question, some days my makeup is my war paint and I do it because I want to and it’s fun. Other days it is not and feeds into insecurity. I will say going without makeup this past year or so has been liberating and a good practice for myself. So much more to say here, but I will stop and thank you for your post as always!

    1. Hi Bethany – love to see you here. And it still shocks me that females are brought up with the sole goals of getting married and having babies – that must have been so hard for you. And the not being too attractive thing makes my blood boil even more!!!!!!!

      I’m fully onboard with the fun side of makeup, and people using it cause they want to express themselves. 100% love this idea. But the idea that women are not complete without makeup, and natural women are less professional than natural men really grates.

      1. I’m a regular reader and HUGE fan of your blog. #feminist I’m just really bad at commenting. :/.I always give Angela serious props for commenting regularly.

        I completely agree. I suppose I do feel a ‘need’ for it work. When I don’t wear it I’ll be asked if I’m sick or tired or told by students I’m not looking my best. Thankfully I have a remark that goes like “ Good thing I’m here to share what’s in my brain not on my face.” LOL. Anyways, it is a problem that goes beyond the pink tax and should be considered for all feminists. I was just thinking about profit from self hatred the other day as well in looking back at some old posts I touched on it.

        Another thought on this as I closed up shop for teaching today:When I’m teaching, if a student says something rude or off we say “Give two put-ups” menacing two comments to lift the other person up and right the negative. When girls or boy give “put ups” to other girls or female identified students it was almost ALWAYS about looks. Like “Your eyeliner always looks perfect. You have great cheek bones.” While if towards a male it is about personality or strengths. So now I have to define that it must be about non superficial things.

        1. I love the #feminist hashtag Bethany!

          I agree Angela puts us all to shame by commenting everywhere AND having a kid. She is superwoman indeed!

          And I absolutely love your response to students on your looks. But the gendered compliments are really weird – I think we need to start commenting on male looks more and complimenting them.

  7. A powerful and thought-provoking post, Ms ZiYou. That said, I don’t think I’m really affected as I’ve never really spent the time or the money on ‘beautifying myself. A bit of make up for work takes me 5 mins; perhaps 20 mins when I’m going out. The only thing I absolutely would not leave the house without is sunscreen on my face, I wear it all year round.

    I’m not ready to ’embrace the grey’ so go to the hairdressers every 8-10 weeks to get them covered up. Apart from that, very minimum effort, despite having long hair – I only ever half dry it because a) I get bored and have better things to do and b) it dries naturally into my ‘style’, which is a kind of wind-swept look (my family call it ‘unbrushed’ – how rude!)

    Doing legs and pits is just part of my normal routine like brushing my teeth, I don’t even think about it, so don’t see it as a chore.

    I don’t follow fashion as it seems to be aimed at either young or mature women. Like @Tuppenny, I have a work wardrobe, except that I’m ‘old school office’ and rotate tops/blouses with skirts. Work is the only place I wear skirts so it’s kinda like a uniform.

    So I don’t feel like this tax is a burden on me personally as I’m not doing anything that I don’t want to do (or have I been conditioned by society to think this way??) – I’m probably more bothered about the tampon tax, but then I guess in a few years’ time, that won’t bother me either!

    1. Love the work wardrobe weenie – I don’t know if I am old school wearing dresses, mainly I see it as lazy – less items to make match and coordinate.

      Unbrushed windswept hair sounds awesome -and given your heritage, I assume it dries straight naturally – why waste the effort?

      It’s a good question – have we been conditioned by society to do things like shave legs that men don’t do, or do we do it for ourselves?

      And yeah, the “luxury” tampon tax is another ridiculous one, never mind the pink tax on many items.

  8. Great post! I really dislike feeling subject to the beauty tax, and while it’s not something I’m forced to think about that often, it is something I see in action in my industry (biglaw in NYC). It’s noticeable that men and women adhere to different rules and expectations when it comes to appearance and taking care of themselves. Men who’ve just made partner often look especially run-down and worn out, while similarly situated women (there are very few of them) generally just… don’t let themselves get to that point.

    I’m lucky that I can get away with not doing much to my hair and the like. I do get moderately expensive hair cuts 2-3 times a year and used to get a Japanese straightening perm once every 2-3 years (the recent one backfired and really damaged my hair, so I’ll probably never get one again), but otherwise don’t need to do much with my hair. My big area of “resistance” is that I don’t do makeup for work, unless it’s a very important occasion (client meeting or court, or interviews). I don’t have great skin, so there’s usually a blemish or some hyper-pigmented spots that could be covered up, and I know how to do my full “face” (concealer, some foundation, set with powder, eyeshadow primer, and eyeliner) in about 6-7 minutes, but I’ve decided I just won’t.

    1. Hello Xin, welcome and thanks for reading and commenting.

      Biglaw is one of the places I imagine must have high image requirements – that’s interesting (but not unexpected sadly) that men can look more run down than women without consequences.

      And wow, I’m finding a great club of no makeup ladies here – I absolutely love it.

  9. Thanks, thought provoking article.
    Two things I’d comment from a guy’s perspective;

    You comment that the beauty tax is paid by women because society holds women to a different standard. My own experience has been that it is almost exclusively other women that hold women to that standard – have you found differently? Since we met I ‘diplomatically made it known’ to my now wife that it’s fine if she didn’t want to wear make-up (I’ve nothing against make up, but it feels really bad when a person can’t go out to the market without ‘their face on’ – plus the time, money etc). She found that really difficult to do for a long time, mainly because the other women in the office judged her (or at least she felt so – I don’t know if they did).

    Capitalism is described above as patriarchal, I guess because it’s that system that sells make up to women. However it also whispers to guys that they’re not a real man unless downing beers while watching the world cup, or driving a jeep, or whatever the hell else is being sold. I vividly remember being in the US and for the first time seeing full building size adverts showing make up for men (why miss out on 50% of the market). I laughed thinking it would never catch on – how wrong was I, a few years later and men are buying many of the same things that women have pushed on them. My experience has been that capitalism wants to sell, and will use whatever message works, on whoever will listen – typically those techniques prey upon our inner fears, and capitalism / marketing is very good at that.

    I liked The Escape Artist’s comment “this is a game where you’re allowed to support both teams”. Capitalism seeks to create fears and weaknesses in men and women alike, and then sell products to ‘solve’ those problems. That process tends to divide people, and I’m always very wary of that.

    1. Hi Scott, thanks for commenting, and lovely to have your perspective.

      Professionally I’ve always found it to be males, especially males with power to hire and fire that keep women to different standards. I know some women also do, but I would probably categorise them as the type of women who also benefit from patriarchy – they want to be valued for beauty.

      I see what you are saying regards capitalism selling some products to males – but it’s not as every day and pervasive – we are not telling men their natural state is unsuitable to be seen in public, but here are some suggestions how to spend your leisure time.

      We’re on the same page that the marketing within capitalism uses some strong psychology to sell!

  10. Well said! I pay very little ‘beauty tax. I never learned to use make-up and only started considering my eyebrows as something which needed grooming in my late 30s. My hair is brushed, sometimes, if it’s lucky! I do remove hair for summer appearances (and sometimes feel a little niggle of anger at myself while doing it).

    There have been times when I have taken a little pride in not caring about this stuff, even while I said that it was just laziness on my part. But I think now that even this is a reflection of everday sexism. I really, truly can’t be bothered with it all and give it little thought day to day, but the label ‘laziness’ does not apply to men who feel this way. It is only applicable to me because I am failing to meet some ‘minimum standard’ set for women.

    I also used to judge women for complying – especially if they claimed they were spending hours on make-up, painful and expensive waxing, and high heels ‘for themselves’. But then I look in the mirror and criticise what I see and realise that blaming other women for feeling this way too and acting to change it is not helpful (or nice). It’s really a massively complex issue, but sometimes I wish it would just go away!

    1. Hi ThisTime – thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes yes – I also have those feelings – am I lazy or a real feminist for not bothering to remove my leg hair? Then when I do it, who am I doing it for?

      Then you are right, taking it the next step do we judge women for complying with the tax and using it to get ahead? I have to admit I do. And that is bad feminist too.

      I agree, it would be much easier to be male – this would all then be a non-issue.

  11. “here in the UK, some women have had the right to vote for 100 years”: come, come, some women had the right to vote long before that. It depended on the constituency; in some, women heads of household were entitled to vote if they satisfied whatever the other requirements were. This was therefore essentially a voting right for some spinsters and widows.

    It was swept away in the Great Reform Act of 1832 in the name of uniformity. You might well say that the uniformity might have been imposed in the other direction – which is true. But that wasn’t what parliament decided.

    1. Thanks for commenting Dearie me – I had forgotten about that – that a tiny minority of women weren’t prevented from voting previously.

      So we went back before coming forwards- which sadly seems to be a common occurrence.

  12. You may pick on the Saudis, but i wear a face veil and black dresses everyday. I am a professional working woman. People speak to my brain and not my body. I am respected for my unwavering belief. I can hav a bad hair day, greys, unshaved, no makeup, and no1 knows or can penalise me on this. I took back my power and maintain myself according to my ability. Take back ur own power. Cover up.

    1. Hi Nasreen – I respect your beliefs however I do believe that women and men are equal and I feel the Saudi regime’s human rights abuses and treatment of women is absolutely dreadful.

      Moreover, I expect to be treated as equal to men and I refuse to cover up. This is not negotiable.

What do you think?