Anybody who’s ever lost their makeup bag will know that it’s more than just an inconvenience – building your stash from scratch could easily set you back hundreds of pounds.
Good foundation? Around £30. TikTok famous concealer? £20. Your favourite SPF primer? Another £30. And these are just base products – we haven’t even got to things like setting spray, powder, blush, brushes, mascara, eyeshadow, or lipstick yet.
Of course, makeup prices vary, but even people who stick to budget products know the costs add up regardless, and anyway, there’s more to the beauty industry than just makeup.
Depending on what they like, femmes also have stuff like haircare, skincare, lashes, trips to the hair salon, nails, body hair removal, and more to factor into the budget, without even going into bigger, yet ever-more popular expenditures like Botox and filler.
Against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis, these treatments are getting increasingly difficult to afford. But to many of us, things like makeup aren’t just a frivolous expense we can cut out at the drop of a hat.
For one thing, lots of people simply find a lot of joy in makeup and beauty rituals, and consider them to be a vital part of self-care, regardless of gender. That alone would be reason enough, but there’s also the crushing anvil of societal beauty standards at play too.
The pressure stretches far and wide, from dating to the workplace.
You don’t want to stand out as the one who looks like they’ve just rolled out of bed.
Gemma Sharp is an NHMRC early career research fellow and clinical psychologist with Monash University’s Women’s and Gender Studies faculty. When asked what she would say to someone who told her beauty was an unnecessary or frivolous expense, she tells Metro.co.uk: ‘They are entitled to their opinion, but the research suggests that being “beautiful” affords people, particularly women, privileges in their personal and professional lives.’
Annabelle, a pupil barrister, knows about professional beauty expectations all too well, and asked to remain anonymous to avoid potential workplace repercussions.
The 29-year-old is a self-confessed makeup fan. She says: ‘I love taking half an hour a day to create art on my face. It is time taken for myself where I am undisturbed. I love that I can decide what image of myself I present to the world.’
But there are also the strict conventions of her workplace for her to consider.
‘You’re expected to be dressed within a fairly rigid interpretation of “professional”,’ she adds. ‘The pressure to look a certain way is not discussed in practice, but the expectation feels real. Your colleagues are well put together, and you should be too.
‘The women are all quietly and tastefully beautified with natural makeup, freshly manicured hands, and the occasional red lip, and you don’t want to stand out as the one who looks like they’ve just rolled out of bed.’
Gemma says people who can afford beauty products and treatments are indeed often rewarded with a higher status in life.
‘It is likely that those who are “priced out” are more likely to be ignored, unfortunately,’ she adds.
Annabelle says: ‘When your professional abilities are assessed before you open your mouth, you have to make sure you’re setting yourself up as well as possible, not only for yourself but for your clients.’
As for the men Annabelle works with, in addition to not feeling pressure to pay for things like makeup, manicures, blowouts or false lashes, they also get to enjoy the spare time and extra sleep that comes with not having to worry about much more than having a sharp haircut and wearing a nice suit.
‘When you’re working long hours and under intense pressures,’ Annabelle says, ‘it is easy to resent the efforts being made on your appearance when it has no impact on your abilities.
‘It also adds further pressure to the emotional load put onto woman – along with things like unequal pay, caring responsibilities, and inadequate healthcare.’
Those who are “priced out” are more likely to be ignored.
And what about those for whom engaging in the expensive world of makeup and beauty is an essential part of their gender expression?
JP Casey, who goes by their last name, is non-binary, and they experienced issues with their self-esteem in the past. As a teen, the fact that they weren’t able to wear what they wanted made it ‘massively challenging to leave the house’.
‘I constantly felt like I was not appearing in reality as I do in my head,’ they add.
For them, enjoying things like makeup later down the line resulted in a ‘massive’ improvement in their mental health.
‘Not because of the clothes and products in particular,’ they tell us, ‘but the ability to take ownership of my identity, and present myself how I would like to be presented.’
Indeed, even a cis-gendered woman putting on her regular face of makeup in the morning is engaging in gender expression, whether she realises it or not. She just happens to be expressing the gender she was assigned at birth, so nobody bats an eye. You can’t help but wonder how much cis women would miss the freedom to enjoy makeup if society suddenly found this expression unacceptable or transgressive.
But of course, on the opposite side of this coin is the societal pressure put on cis women to conform to unattainable standards of beauty along with the fear that motivates trans people to ‘pass’.
And the monetary costs, of course, add up for everybody.
Beauty booking software company Pamperbook surveyed 900 salons last year and found that women spend more than £1,000 on appointments for their nails, hair, aesthetics and general beauty treatments every single month. Meanwhile, a 2020 survey by discount specialists Picodi found that British women spend an average of £400 on cosmetics every year, compared to men who spend £230 each year.
Gemma says: ‘So many industries – like the beauty industry – rely on the idea of perfection, and the implication that perfection is something we have to strive towards.
‘You’re always going to have to buy products or pursue activities to attempt to reach it.’
It’s particularly frustrating for trans people that there is a financial cost to simply being themselves.
Annabelle knows she’s in a privileged position to be able to factor things like beauty products and trips to the salon into her budget in the first place. ‘I am very aware that I like to look a certain way,’ she adds, ‘and that it’s my choice to look that way.
‘But I sometimes wonder if I would feel this way had I not been surrounded by marketing messages subtly telling me I should have long black lashes and clear skin.’
Casey, who works as an editor at B2B energy magazines, points out that the ‘start-up costs’ for someone new to the beauty world are pretty significant, and can be off-putting for somebody who’s used to a more jeans-and-a-T-shirt lifestyle.
‘It’s particularly frustrating for trans people that there is a financial cost to simply being themselves,’ they add. ‘While some of my more extravagant items are not integral parts of my identity… some of the more fundamental aspects of clothes and cosmetics are necessary to presenting in a manner in which I am comfortable.
‘Specifically, concealer to hide facial hair, or undergarments designed to enable tucking. These are things that many trans femme people feel like they are obligated to wear in order to “pass”, or simply to feel safe, so there is a strange femininity tax associated with some of these forms of expression.’
So where does the desire to express and enjoy femininity stop and the impulse to cave to external beauty standards begin?
‘I think it is a complex interplay with no simple answer,’ says Gemma. ‘I do push back on the use of the term “cave” to beauty standards.
‘I’m sure people believe that achieving these beauty standards will improve their overall lives and they could still have fun in the process.’
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The Cost of Being a Woman
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