When I was growing up, my fierce, feminist mother had one piece of advice she always hammered home: “If you wear makeup, people will be nicer to you.” At the time this sentiment felt inconsistent with everything I believed in—equality, inner beauty, infrequent eyebrow plucking—and would fill me with endless teenage rage. Now that I am in my early 30s, I see this advice for what it actually is: A mother’s desire to see her child gain entrance into a world of privilege, both professional and personal, unfairly given to those who know how to get themselves done up.
Recently, a controversial study from researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of California-Irvine confirmed this hypothesis when it revealed that women who wear makeup at work and groom more thoroughly also tend to make more money. But if the benefits of grooming are so obvious, and the wage bump so quantifiable, what does this mean for those unable to afford monthly sprees at Sephora? Why, despite all the progress our society has made, are we still living like it’s survival of the prettiest? And given all of these realities, should women get tax breaks for cosmetics?
Most of us learn early that attractive people get unfair advantages in life, from better grades to shorter prison sentences. But the new study, published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, points specifically to the outsized effects grooming can have on women’s perceived professionalism and abilities—and as a result, our earning potential. There’s no doubt men are also judged by their appearance in the workforce; however, the study finds that, for women, “most of the attractiveness advantage comes from being well groomed,” while for men, “only about half of the effect of attractiveness is due to grooming.” The rest is up to genetics. As The Washington Post reported, the study also found that less attractive “but more well-groomed women earned significantly more, on average, than attractive or very attractive women who weren’t considered well-groomed.” BUMMER.
According to a rep I spoke with at Mint.com, an online budgeting tool, in 2015 users spent $1.5 billion on grooming. And analysts in California, which is actively trying to combat gendered pricing, place makeup usage and grooming costs in America at $1,351 per person per year. The state was the first to ban the so-called “pink tax,” a term used to describe the extra cash women are charged for goods and services such as clothing, personal care products, even vehicle maintenance. For perspective, the median salary of a female worker in the U.S. is $39,621—so going by California’s numbers, the average woman’s grooming costs may make up roughly 3% of her income. And what about the worker who makes $28,000 working two part time jobs? She’s at even more of a disadvantage.
For more insight, I called up Betsey Stevenson, an associate professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, and President Obama’s chief economist from 2010 to 2011. Stevenson likened the pressure-to-prettify to a war of attrition in which essentially everyone loses.
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“Women in the workplace are trying to balance two visions of themselves,” she told me. “The vision in which they’re taught how to make themselves attractive to the opposite sex versus how to make themselves be taken seriously.” Part of this schism, she said, plays out as a sort of lose-lose competition among co-workers. “Economists talk about efforts [like grooming] as an arms race,” she said. “There’s no real returns. It’s all completely superficial. If you spend a lot of time grooming, then your colleagues are going to want to spend a lot of time grooming because they are going to want to be assessed similarly, and the next thing you know we’re all spending an hour getting ready in the morning. That’s the standard economist thinking—that it’s wasteful, and we all would be better off if we committed to doing no grooming.”
Stevenson, however, sees a silver lining to the perks of grooming—namely, that it can allow those less attractive to game the system. “I think most economists have seen the studies that say attractiveness is a trait that’s stable over time, but that seems somewhat silly to me. … I see [the latest findings] as a somewhat optimistic thing. What this study is trying to point out is that just like how some are born smarter than others—if you work hard and get a good education there’s a return, regardless of what you’re born with—that might also true of attractiveness.”
Both sexes benefit from grooming, but, as is true of other aspects of life, women still distinctly get the shorter end of the stick. Kate Bahn, an economist at the Center for American Progress and co-creator of Lady Economist, a feminist economics blog, broke down some of the numbers for me. She explained that in the latest study, the median salary for a well-groomed woman of average attractiveness was $30,000, while the median salary for a well-groomed man of average attractiveness was $40,000. While this pay gap is not shocking, given that women still make only 79 cents for every dollar men make, it turns out that men reap greater rewards when they groom—according to the study, well-groomed men receive a 12.5% salary bump, whereas well-groomed women received a 7% wage salary bump. And on top of that, women tend to spend more on grooming products than men do. The sad truth, Bahn says? For women, grooming is less a ticket to getting ahead than a required part of the job.
So if makeup is directly linked to career success and part of the “unofficial” professional uniform for women, shouldn’t we get to deduct it on our taxes—just like a regular uniform?
“How big an answer do you want?” chuckled Fred Giertz, a professor of economics emeritus at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “There’s a theoretical argument about why it should be, but there’s also a legal [reason as to] why it isn’t. The basic argument is that if you have to undergo costs to earn a living, those kind of costs should be deducted because you incur a ‘cost of doing business.’” One example Giertz gives is if a factory worker has to wear safety shoes or a helmet that his company refuses to pay for. “That really reduces the benefits you’re getting from your wages,” explains Giertz. Essentially, you would have to demonstrate that you can only use these things for your job and not outside of it. So, “if you’re a nightclub entertainer and have to wear a sequined tuxedo and you would never wear a sequined tuxedo anyplace else, you could probably deduct that.” When it comes to makeup, you can deduct it as a work expense, he says, but only if you’re working “as a female impersonator in a nightclub” or “maybe being an entertainer or a clown or something.”
However, Giertz did share some good news: If your cosmetic costs exceed 2% of your annual income, it is possible to get this deduction from the IRS—if you don’t mind taking a gamble and listing it under the nebulous “other expenses” column. Grooming products also might pass as a deduction if you are unemployed and you consider them a job-hunt necessity and don’t mind explaining this to the tax man in the event that you are audited. So there’s that.
Daniel Hamermesh, a professor in economics at Royal Holloway University of London, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, thinks that the benefits of makeup in the workplace are somewhat overstated. It’s mostly about the confidence they instill, he told me, and at the end of the day the key is to look natural but not go too far with it. “I call this the Tammy Faye Baker factor,” said Hamermesh. “Too much makeup and you get negative returns."
Hamermesh doesn’t deny beauty plays a part in workplace favoritism, but believes that the U.S. and Western Europe have made significant progress when it comes to enacting anti-discrimination policies that help level the playing field. However, certain aspects of looks-based favoritism may be so ingrained in our culture they may be difficult to expunge. “As much as we can [try to] outlaw advertising, it’s very hard to prevent people who are doing the hiring from reacting to looks, and, to some extent, to makeup.“
Kirsten Dellinger, the chair of the sociology and anthropology department at the University of Mississippi, explored these topics in a study titled Makeup at Work: Negotiating Appearance Rules in the Workplace, which traces the professional dynamics of makeup in America. The results shocked her. “The themes regarding makeup's association with meanings of health, heterosexuality, and credibility came up in many interviews,” she told me. “I think I was most surprised by how common it was for people to report having others comment on their appearances—[negatively] when they were not wearing makeup or positively when they were wearing makeup. I was also surprised with my finding that resistance was not easy. Often people consider makeup to be a trivial ‘choice,’ but to some extent, it seemed to be an informal requirement in many workplace contexts.”
Kirstin is one the few scholars I spoke with who seem to see the workplace makeup bias as a genuine problem—and one that needs solving. “I think that recognizing that ‘dress and appearance norms’ are gendered and sexualized phenomena is the first step. The more we see women in all work contexts without makeup (as well as with it), the more normal that will seem.” Kristen also believes that “more conversations about the unintended consequences of everyday appearance norms would be helpful in many workplaces. Perhaps a range of workers who are negatively impacted by gendered and sexualized dress norms—men with facial hair, trans men or women, and women who do not wear makeup—could work together to shed light on how this matters to them.”
The real (and unfortunate) issue is that none of these workplace standards are on-the-books legal requirements, so therefore, none are subject to law changes or even tax perks. But on the other hand, the fuzziness that surrounds whether makeup is a requirement or a choice also means that if you’re willing to stand up and demand makeup and grooming as a workplace expense, and can stand strong if potentially audited, the sky is the limit.
Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.