Over the decades, the beauty business has shaped American feminine ideals and also opened discussions on sensuality, gender expectations, and self-empowerment. In the late 1960s and ’70s, feminists across the US encouraged women to discard anything men might use to objectify them. However, their arguments didn’t persuade those who believe a socially appropriate appearance that included makeup was important for the workplace. Others acknowledged while they might wear lipstick to attract a man, they also wore it for themselves and shouldn’t have to give it up.
A new study by researchers Mycah Harrold (’23 PhD), assistant professor of marketing at Regis University, and WSU Carson College of Business faculty coauthors Chadwick Miller and Andrew Perkins, explores the intriguing connection between feminist identity and spending habits on beauty products.
Their paper “Pink Tasks: Feminists and Their Preferences for Premium Beauty Products,” published in Psychology & Marketing, finds that contrary to popular assumptions, self-identifying feminists tend to invest more in beauty products compared to nonfeminists.
“Our research found feminists tend to spend more money on beauty products, despite the idea that these practices are often perceived as societal expectations rather than personal choices,” Harrold says.
Traditionally, feminists are portrayed as advocates for gender equality, often challenging societal norms and rejecting traditional beauty standards. This research challenges such perceptions, revealing a complex paradox that prompts a reevaluation of the narrative surrounding gender empowerment and personal expression.
Feminist consumers challenge societal norms
According to Harrold, this unexpected trend may be attributed to feminists’ keen awareness of the pressures and scrutiny placed on women’s appearances. By purchasing beauty products, feminists may be reclaiming control over their own image, defying the notion that embracing feminism necessitates rejecting traditional femininity.
Anecdotal evidence, as well as scholarly research, suggests that feminists may experience conflicting pressures surrounding consumption associated with a feminine identity—such as applying makeup, shaving one’s legs, keeping fingernails manicured, and styling one’s hair. Research also suggests feminists invest just as much time and resources into meeting feminine beauty standards as their nonfeminist counterparts but report feeling guilt around their beauty efforts.
“Some women feel like they have to wear makeup every day because society expects them to. The feminists who felt that pressure owned a lot of premium products. They were putting in the effort and money to buy these high-end products, versus going to a big-box retailer, like Walmart, and grabbing something off the shelf,” Harrold says.
Moreover, the study challenges the common assumption that feminism and the pursuit of beauty are mutually exclusive. It emphasizes that women, regardless of their ideological beliefs, face intricate choices within a society that often conflates self-expression with conformity.
“Our study observed feminists who felt compelled to wear makeup were more likely to invest in premium products, demonstrating their active choice to participate in beauty practices,” Harrold says.
The researchers’ work highlights the nuanced nature of feminist identity and initiates crucial discussions about identity, choice, and the evolving relationship among gender, empowerment, and self-image.