What Price Beauty? Turns Out, Feminists May Be Willing to Pay More

If the label on your lipstick reads “Lancome,” are you more likely to be a feminist than if you wear Maybelline?

Strange as it sounds, a Regis assistant professor’s surprising research suggests the answer may be yes.

When Mycah Harrold, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing, started on the research at Washington State University that would become her doctoral dissertation, she planned to explore whether women felt coerced by marketers or society — or the ultimate beauty icon, Barbie — to buy and use makeup.

“Where I started with this project, I was thinking that feminist scholars would say [wearing makeup] is never a choice. It’s holding women down. But I thought, ‘OK, let’s talk to the actual people.’”

Those actual people provided the answer about whether women felt coerced into buying makeup. Turns out, some do, some don’t.

What’s more, if this summer’s Barbiepalooza proved anything, it’s that a woman can doll herself up in the most dazzling lipstick and the pinkest of pink outfits without having to turn in her feminist card.

But the women Harrold talked to had other surprising things to say, too.

“We found that women who consider themselves feminists were willing to spend more money on [beauty] products than non-feminists,” Harrold said.

The first time the data pointed in that direction, “We thought maybe that’s a fluke.”

But when the pattern proved more resilient than the priciest mascara, “The project shifted to be about, ‘what the heck is going on with these feminists?’”

What indeed.

To find out, Harrold and fellow Washington State University Assistant Prof. Chadwick Miller and Associate Prof. Andrew Perkins, asked self-described feminists to show them the beauty products that are part of their daily ritual. They sorted those products into those that are sold in department stores or places like Sephora, and those that hang on the shelves of places like Target or King Soopers. In other words, products women could throw into the cart while grabbing yogurt and potato chips.

The results, published this past spring in Psychology & Marketing, were unequivocal. “We found it was the feminists who had more Sephora products. They were willing to do more research and pay more.”

The team wasn’t able to tease out whether marital or socioeconomic status plays a role in the purchasing patterns. But they did find that age matters. “This effect is only showing up for young women. The older generation of feminists, they are not purchasing premium products.”

To Harrold and the other researchers, the findings don’t represent a setback for the feminist cause. Quite the opposite in fact. She views it as progress from the early days of “women’s lib” when feminists were expected to shelve the makeup, burn their bras and let leg hair grow. And, ironically, not conforming with those expectations meant a woman risked the scorn of “true” feminists.

“We’re suggesting that with the feminists, they are positioning the beauty work in their minds differently,” Harrold said. “They are taking it back, saying ‘I can be a feminist and I can be super pretty. They are feeling those tasks are empowering as personal choices.”

The higher-end mascara and stay-all-day lipstick isn’t to attract a man, she said. “They’re doing it for themselves.”

Like much good research, the findings Harrold and her team uncovered raise many more questions, which she’s intrigued by.