What the “Lipstick Index” Gets Wrong about Women in the Recession
3:35 pm, November 21st | by Amy Tennery
Chances are you’ve probably heard of the lipstick index — it’s a decade-old concept claiming that lipstick sales rise during times of economic struggle. The theory says that women, faced with dwindling means to purchase luxury items, will splurge on lipstick as an escape. Unfortunately for cosmetics companies, this idea has been criticized on more than one occasion for being sexist. While the world faces down challenging financial conditions, women are out buying lipstick? Sure, maybe, but they’re also making sacrifices, and working hard to stay employed.
To be sure, lipstick isn’t the only measure used in pop economics. People love to gauge national economic stability in terms of consumer product sales — there’s the latte index, the Big Mac index, and the soda index. And yet, women’s consumer products are invoked with an alarming frequency when discussing financial conditions. Why?
This tendency actually dates back to the 1920s, when one economist claimed that hemlines tended to get lower when times got tough (this, fittingly, became known as the “hemline index”), seemingly because women were purchasing more practical fashions. A mini-skirt will only take you so far, after all. In addition to this and lipstick there’s also the foundation index and, most recently, the high heel index.
This latest addition, according to the Christian Science Monitor, claims that women buy higher heeled shoes in times of economic turmoil as a means of escapism. And it’s the same insidious brand of sexism as the lipstick index. The message is: when things get rough, women can’t hack it — so they go play dress up to feel better.
You could argue this shows women are power consumers whom everyone’s watching — when women spend, people notice, et cetera. But there’s something quite demeaning about it because there’s rarely any equivalent mentioned for men. As The Economist put it, there is no “cufflink index.” And, while it might be a legit trend, the frequent mention of the lipstick index reinforces the idea that women more than men seek refuge in shopping when confronted by challenging financial times.
Yes, lipstick and high-heels and an ankle-grazing peasant skirt can cheer anyone up — and we should all learn to appreciate the little things that make us feel better in bad times. But the glut of studies that pin mindless consumerism to women — and the lack of similar reports with regard to men — is dangerous. Women fight hard when business is bad (and, in fact, more and more take on the role of breadwinner). So why do other studies seem bent on trying to prove the opposite?