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The real cost of not wearing makeup at the office

I spend 15 times more than my husband when it comes to personal grooming. But finance experts don’t often talk about the professional cost of opting out.

The real cost of not wearing makeup at the office
[Photo: NadinPanina/iStock; twilightproductions/iStock]

I have a love-hate relationship with all things beauty-related. Sometimes, I look forward to my evening skincare routine, seeing it as a meditative way to get ready for bed after a long day. Other times, I see it as a burden. When I have to attend an early-morning event, the last thing I want to do is cut into my sleeping time to have enough time to put on makeup and blow-dry my hair.

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I find it important to look professional, and as much as I’d like to opt out of society’s standards of what that looks like for women, I know that doing so can cost me, in a literal sense. A 2016 study by sociologists Jaclyn S. Wong and Andrew M. Penner found that attractive individuals outearned their peers by about 20%. When researchers started factoring in “grooming” (which for women included whether or not they wore makeup), the gap narrowed. But being considered too attractive can also hurt women. Another study, published in 2019, found that “attractive businesswomen are judged as being less truthful than less attractive women.”

It seems like an impossible dance. To be taken seriously, women must look attractive, but not so much that they veer off into the “untrustworthy” category. And when it comes to deciding how much time, effort, and money one “should” dedicate to personal grooming to maximize earning potential, the line becomes less clear.

The appearance double standard

When I tallied up my average monthly grooming expenses against my husband’s, I found that I spent about 15 times more than he did. For the purposes of this exercise, I only tallied up things that we used individually and didn’t share. My husband is a minimalist when it comes to personal grooming. His recurring expense consists of a drugstore face wash, deodorant, and shaving cream. When he does get a haircut, he rarely pays more than $20.

Given that we’d set individual budgets for those expenses, I wasn’t that surprised by the disparity. What I did find surprising, however, was just how little information is out there about how women should treat these costs in the context of their personal finance. While I rarely stray above the limit that I set for myself, I wanted to know if I was spending an appropriate amount on personal grooming for my income level. I also wanted to know if I was spending it on the right things.

Yet when I consulted personal finance websites and publications, many seemed to wave off these expenses as “nonessentials,” failing to consider the penalty that many women would pay by reducing (or cutting out) these expenses. Beauty blogs and women’s magazines—on the other hand—were helpful in suggesting cheaper alternatives, yet they also published beauty routines that seem unaffordable.

Desiree Vargas Wrigley, founder and CEO of Pearachute, an aggregator for family-friendly activities, knows the burden of having to spend extra money on makeup and clothing. When it comes to appearance in the context of raising capital, Wrigley said, “I feel like founder-market fit is something that investors are looking for.” While a male founder can pitch his expensive enterprise software start-up in jeans and T-shirt, “When it comes to women, we have to look the part of the market that we’re serving. If we’re selling designer bags, we have to be wearing designer everything,” Wrigley explains. 

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Wrigley began to notice the difference between the appearance-related costs she took on—versus those of her male cofounder—when they were going through their accelerator program. “There were so many meetings where I didn’t feel like I was being taken seriously as a CEO. I feel like I had to up my appearance to command authority. I would sit in the meeting, lead the entire presentation, and every question would be directed to him. That’s when I started paying more attention. I spent a lot of money trying to look the part of the high-class CEO that they were expecting.” While she never calculated the total costs, she estimates that the difference probably tallied up to several thousand dollars a year.

How mainstream personal finance treats these expenses

Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, founder of Fiscal Femme and author of The 30-Day Money Cleanseworks with a lot of professional women and has had many conversations about how personal grooming fits into her clients’ financial lives. She isn’t a fan of a prescriptive percent-of-your-income model, saying “Some people value traveling more than where they live, so they’re not going to pay as much in rent, but they’re going to pay more [for travel]. I think the same applies to personal care and health.”  

It’s also worth noting that everyone’s relationship with makeup is different. Personally, I fluctuate between seeing it as something I reluctantly opt into and viewing it as a form of self-expression. However, there are people of all genders who choose to wear—and spend money on—makeup out of pure enjoyment.

But the conversations around these nuances aren’t happening in the personal finance space, says Gerstley. The most obvious reason, she suspects, is because it has been a space that is created (and still largely dominated) by men. “These types of conversations are not as prevalent,” she says.

Gerstley also says that money is a space riddled with shame and judgment. “There’s a lot of fear around saying the wrong thing or offending people.” To illustrate a similar example, Gerstley mentions the backlash she sometimes gets when she posts pictures of herself on vacation. “Someone will say, ‘Wow, that’s not Fiscal Femme.’ Just because I’m taking positive actions doesn’t mean I can’t spend money on things that are outside of necessities.”

When opting out isn’t possible

When reading about beauty and personal finance online, you’ll see people argue that the expectation is a self-perpetuating one. The more women spend on grooming expenses, the more they reinforce expectations, and the more money they fork out.

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For Kara Perez, founder of Bravely, a financial community for women, a way to opt out of the burden of adhering to these standards is by being a self-employed entrepreneur who works from home. “For me, personal grooming is not mandatory in my professional life, unless I’m at a conference or on TV. I’m able to opt out . . . for big chunks of time because of [my] specific lifestyle.” Perez acknowledges that she is in a privileged position, and that if she were required to go into an office, that she might feel less able to “opt out.”

For Wrigley, the grooming expectation for a female CEO goes beyond raising capital. When asked about the impact of social media on such pressures, Wrigley says that there are a lot of image-related pressures for female entrepreneurs in the consumer-centric space. “The number of questions I got about my personal Instagram following is bizarre,” says Wrigley. But at the end of the day, “you have to be positioning yourself in a way that the consumer wants.”

Perez echoes Gerstley’s sentiment that people’s reluctance to speak honestly comes from fear of saying the wrong thing but also stems from a fear of being judged. “We live in a clickbait headline universe. A lot of people don’t want to take the time to explore the nuances.” She also stresses that race plays a critical role. “It’s one thing for a white woman to say, ‘I throw in a light concealer.’ It’s another thing for a woman of color to say, ‘Well, I need something else.’ A lot of people don’t want to get into it, because it’s really a multifaced, layered issue.” The complexities, Perez says, make it easier to categorize those expenses as a “splurge.” 

What it takes to change the narrative

Wrigley, Gerstley, and Perez all agree that changing the narrative around the cost of personal grooming for women is to increase the diversity of voices in the personal finance space. “Historically, personal finance has always taken a white male gaze,” says Perez. As a result, the narrative tends to be two extremes—either it encourages women to fully buy into it, or it shames women for buying a $30 lipstick.

The whole ‘Don’t wear makeup if you want to save money’ is not an option for a lot of people. It’s also demeaning. It pits this sort of ‘I’m the smart cool girl who doesn’t wear makeup’ to ‘Well, you’re the brainwashed girl who does wear makeup.'” Perez adds, “I’d love to see more nuance and a recognition that your experience might not be universal. Add a little caveat: ‘Here’s what works for me.'”

Gerstley says, “There is freedom in escaping acquisition culture a little bit,” but she acknowledges that it can be difficult to change your mindset, particularly when external pressures say otherwise. Perez and Wrigley recommend that to start, one should take an honest look at their bank statement to see what they’re really spending. “Think about the environment you’re going to be at. If you’re already at $800 a year on haircuts and pedicures, okay, that’s the point you’re starting at. From there you can say, okay, I can stretch my pedicures a little bit. You can play around with the numbers, but you have to understand [your starting point] before you can make any of those changes,” Perez says. 

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She also encourages women to think about making small changes if they are passionate about changing the narrative. “If you are a woman who is higher up in a workplace, I think you probably have more flexibility and more power to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to wear flats instead of heels,'” says Perez. “I do feel very strongly that traditional Euro-centric beauty standards are harmful to many people. The more we can move away from those and discuss that with nuances, the stronger everyone’s finances—and, frankly, professional output—will be.”

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About the author

Anisa is a freelance writer and editor who covers the intersection of work and life, personal development, money, and entrepreneurship. Previously, she was the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section and the co-host of Secrets Of The Most Productive people podcast.

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