When I first heard of the lipstick index—a 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’d...be 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 thing—by 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 lipstick—my silly, frivolous little lipstick—to mean something “real.”
What I hadn’t seen was that the continued emphasis on the lipstick index—or the manicure index, or the hemline theory—actually 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 consumption—spending money on things that are specifically meant to display one’s wealth, not to serve a utilitarian purpose—as 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 here—the ultimate goal is always to look as though you’re not wearing much of the stuff—but 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 consumption—which is difficult to differentiate from “women’s consumption,” given that so many lady-specific goods are about visibility—is 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.