Monday, December 5, 2011

Why Do We Love the Lipstick Index So Much?

When I first heard of the lipstick indexa term coined by Estee Lauder chairman Leonard Lauder to illustrate how purchases of small luxuries (lipstick) rise in recessions, serving as compensation for consumers suddenly unable to buy larger luxuries (mink?)I was all giddy that women’s purchasing power had earned its very own economic metric, because really, how often does lipstick make it onto the pages of The Economist?

So I was just the tiniest bit disappointed when I learned this year that the lipstick index isn’t necessarily true. Lauder coined the term in 2001 in response to the much smaller recession of that era; lipstick sales rose 11% during that economic dip. In the most recent recession, the corollary didn’t hold true, and lipstick sales didn’t increase. Bummer. But wait! Nail polish sales increased! And so did manicures! And DIY diet plans! It’s the face and fat index, folks!

For a while I kept eating this up (the lipstick index in its various permutations has shown up on my links roundup at least six times), but after a while I started to get inexplicably annoyed. At first I thought it was because the repeated “whoda thunkit?!” tone began to feel belittling, like, Aw, so cute, she's got a coincident countercyclic economic indicator in her Hello Kitty makeup bag! And that was part of it, but if I got annoyed every time I saw women’s actions belittled in the press, I’ frequently annoyed. By the time I clicked on a link from a personal finance site that promised to fill me in on how high heels might be correlated with economic instability, I was downright exasperated. But when I read the piece, I saw I wasn’t alone, as per the raised eyebrow from the writer of the piece: “Has anyone noticed that all of these ‘indicators’ are the most stereotypically frivolous, feminine things to be found?”

Yes, I had noticed, and unfortunately that’s exactly why I hadn’t paid heed to my irritation earlier. I’d wanted the lipstick index to hold true because I liked the idea that something purchased near-exclusively by women had enough power to make Big Economists sit up and take notice. I liked the idea that by just doing our thingby buying lipstick when it seemed time to do so, or by getting a manicure because it felt right now (certainly I get more manicures than I did five years ago)we’re participating in, no, we’re creating, an economic phenomenon that mirrors the psyche of the American consumer. I remember learning about how the film industry was one of the few that thrived during the Depression, so eager to leave behind their woes was the American public (specifically women, as “weepies” were reliably cranked out during this era), and I sort of liked the idea of taking part in a modern-day version of the same thing, playing my little part in the great American saga. And things like the lipstick index are appealing for those of us who aren't particularly schooled in economics. It's handy to have the complexity of the economy handed to us in a digestible form: the burger index! the underwear index! It makes us feel like our little habits might add up to something bigger. I particularly wanted my lipstickmy silly, frivolous little lipstickto mean something “real.”

What I hadn’t seen was that the continued emphasis on the lipstick indexor the manicure index, or the hemline theoryactually made women’s purchasing power seem more trivial, not less. The more we examine what women buy, the more we’re keeping them in their place. On one level, we’re keeping them in their place as consumers, not producers, as Gaby Hinsliff points out in her excellent piece at The New Statesman. “[T]he dangerous thing about [the emphasis on the lipstick index] is that it can obscure women's role in creating rather than frittering wealth,” writes Hinsliff. “What you don't hear so often is how western economic growth has been boosted by the shift of women, and especially mothers, into work since the 1970s. By 2009, the American economy was up to 25 per cent bigger than it would have been had millions more women not chosen over the previous four decades to work.... That kind of growth isn't just down to women having more money to buy shoes.” Given that traditionally male industries were particularly hard-hit in the 2008 crash, leading to plenty of ink about how women were basically taking over the world, it’s clear that the emphasis on women’s spending, not women’s production, is simply another iteration of the beauty myth. As long as women’s most important role in the economy is buying lipstick, the status quo is preserved.

There’s more here than just (“just”!) the story of sidelining women’s productive work in order to focus on their consumption. After all, you don’t hear a lot about how women buy more cars than men, certainly a larger contributor to the economy than $7.99 Lip Smother in Raspberry Sneeze. It’s the particular form of women’s consumption that’s earning our wallets their place in the spotlight. We mock conspicuous consumptionspending money on things that are specifically meant to display one’s wealth, not to serve a utilitarian purposeas being tacky or bourgeois, and is there anything more conspicuously consumptive than what you’re wearing on your body? When, in the 19th century, it became uncouth for men to ostentatiously dress themselves in finery, women took on the responsibility for displaying household wealth: With a decent eye you can tell when a man is wearing an expensive suit as opposed to a cheap one, but you can tell at a glance when a woman is telegraphing her wealth on her body. Makeup is somewhat different herethe ultimate goal is always to look as though you’re not wearing much of the stuffbut the principle holds true. A well-made-up woman, regardless of the price of the products she’s wearing, comes across as having more social status than a soap-and-water girl.

When we focus on the lipstick index, we focus on a particularly feminine form of conspicuous consumption. When the stakes are economic recovery, the lipstick index becomes a “gee whiz!” footnote in The Financial Times, but that’s only a flipside to the way we shame women’s spending on frivolities when the stakes aren’t quite as high. Google “overspending” and see how many images of women laden with pastel-colored shopping bags pop up, as opposed to, say, men in Ferraris. (It’s also worth noting that in the images where men are shown with armloads of packages, they’re gifts, as opposed to simply bags full of goodies for themselves, as is presumed with the images featuring women.)

 Fun with stock photography!

Conspicuous consumptionwhich is difficult to differentiate from “women’s consumption,” given that so many lady-specific goods are about visibilityis easily mocked when times are good, but it’s a savior when times are bad. And you’d better believe that once we’re totally out of this recession, the treatment of women’s spending will go the way of their jobs once Johnny came marching home after WWII. Women may have kept the nation running when the men were at war, but when the situation returns to status quo, the status quo will be protected.

I’ll still pay attention to the lipstick index and all its variants. (Like Learnvest writer Libby Kane, I’m fully expecting the next economic indicator to be the Eyelash Curler Index.) But I can’t see it as an actual economic indicator any longer. It’s a gender index, not an economic one, and the sooner economics writers begin to see it as exactly that, the sooner we can return to an actual examination of women and the economy.


  1. Really great post!! You crystalized and synthesized a bunch of different thoughts I've been having about this and had not completely connected. This is spot-on.

  2. Very interesting! There was something that always bothered me about the lipstick index and this explains why. It makes women sound like Barbie or something; "It sucks being poor! I'm gonna buy some lipstick to make me feel better!"
    It's hard to think of a cheap, "frivolous" item that men are stereotyped as buying (porn magazines? six-packs of domestic lite beer?), so of course women had to be targeted.

  3. I'm so glad I came across this post!

    I would have probably not heard of that particular index had I not heard it here, and then I probably couldn't get all my thoughts, which run similiar to yours, in one place and in such a cohesive, well thought-out way.

  4. Lori Day, Anne, and Ana, thank you! I feel like this is one of those things that makes a lot of women have a somewhat negative reaction, but it's hard to identify because it seems like it should be something sorta nifty. Anne, sometimes you see masculinized items being toted out as examples of overspending (Ferraris) but nobody's talking about a Ferrari index in good times, you know?

  5. I feel like showing this post to my Women's Studies professor. This is great.

  6. This article is great! There's so much information, and you're calling out attention to something that pretty much goes unnoticed. Again, great!

  7. Hi Autumn, thanks for writing this. I really enjoyed your perspective - this is a very astute and articulately-presented interpretation of the lipstick index. It was refreshing to hear it from a woman's point of view for once and I identify with your exasperation that women seem economically defined by beauty-related consumption.
    That said, I wonder if I can offer an alternative perspective. As someone who works in the beauty industry, it's an incredibly frustrating battle to overcome the stigma of "frivolity" in relation to beauty. The effect that beauty, as a product or in any other form, can have on a woman merits no derision. Just because it's a phenomenon that men (or anyone who eschews the beauty industry) can't identify with doesn't make it any less noteworthy. This is a personal issue for me as well as a professional one - I've elaborated on this topic in my blog, if you'd like to have a read:
    In any case, I still enjoyed your post! Thanks for your perspective.

  8. Hi Meerabel--Glad to "meet" you! I couldn't agree more with your comment. I didn't get into my larger philosophy on beauty in this post, and I should have made it clearer that by "frivolity" I meant more public perception of women's spending--the lipstick index catches on because people see it as frivolous. But I've written on here a good deal about the importance that beauty can play in our lives--everything from how it was essential to me recovering from an abusive relationship, to becoming a place of comfort for women in war-torn nations, to how Anne Frank (who certainly had larger issues on her mind) packed curlers when preparing to go into hiding. (I'm including links below in case you're interested in reading my posts there.) Because you are absolutely right: By deriding the effect of the beauty industry (financed by women's pocketbooks) we deride women, and I want no part in that. It can be tricky sometimes when critiquing the beauty industry to not fall into critiquing *women*, but I try to avoid that, because like you I'm a wholehearted believer in the ways that beauty can make us our fuller selves. It doesn't always work that way, for certain. But it can, and it does.

    In any case, glad to have found your blog--look forward to reading more!