Cutting Back On Beauty Is Another Cruel Consequence Of The Cost-Of-Living Crisis And We Shouldn’t Underestimate It

Women are still being sold unrealistic beauty standards, but now few can afford to keep up - and our self-esteem is rooted in it, writes Susan Akyeampong.

Woman in mirror

by Susan Akyeampong |
Published on

It was the summer 2014, Lupita Nyong'o was the IT girl and I’d finally had enough of painful braid and relaxer appointments, all signalling that it was time to embrace my natural hair and commit to the big chop. What later followed were a slew of scalp problems no doctor could get to the bottom of, and years of product testing and investigation to figure out what would help.

There isn’t a purifying, rebalancing, oil-controlling shampoo/conditioner/hair mask over £100 I haven’t tried, and totalling up what I'd spent over the years would make me wildly uncomfortable. Fortunately for me, I was living with my parents at the time and could therefore afford to indulge in every luxury conditioner and hair treatment without incurring major financial consequences.

Fast forward a few years and my scalp problems have subsided, and just in time too since life has changed; I've moved out, pay bills, and we're living in *unprecedented* times with rising cost of living meaning, I can't actually afford my once cash-intensive skincare and hair regime anymore. Had I still had scalp issues today, this would be a huge source  of insecurity for me.

New evidence from Women's Budget Group demonstrates that women bear the brunt of economic crises more often than men do, since we’re more impacted by cutbacks to social security and on average have  lower average salaries and levels of savings. We also pay more, for mortgages, car loans and with the Pink Tax, hygiene and beauty products - according to research, women pay more than men 42% of the time across many industries.  Given that millennial women are the beauty and skincare industry’s main customers, many of us are now forced to consider which aspects of our beauty routines we can afford and which we have to abandon.

1 in 10 people have given up their make-up due to the cost-of-living crisis.

According to Mintel, more than half of 20-something women have reduced their skincare and cosmetics regimen in the last year in response to increased financial demands on more daily essentials. Their research also reveals a decrease in beauty products, with two-thirds of women now opting for more natural, minimalist makeup looks using fewer products. Avon too reports that 1 in 10 people have given up their make-up due to the cost of living crisis. Women like 25 year old Sofia, a trade policy advisor, are incorporating cheaper, drugstore products into their everyday routines:  ‘I now have a going out, fancy set of products that I save for special occasions.’ she tells me.

For others, this period has meant cutting down on salon visits  to manage monthly expenses.  ‘I’m increasing the time between beauty appointments,’ Kaia, 29, a HR coordinator, explains, ‘I don’t want to give up my treatments but I can’t do them as often. I just have to learn to manage and maintain everything in between appointments… I’m being more careful with my nails and making sure I don’t get my hair wet to maintain the style.’

And Afia, 25, a research assistant, has had to ditch hair appointments all together. ‘I stopped going to the salon for my hair treatment and have just been doing it myself because it’s too expensive. If I wanted to get a hair treatment, blow dry, trim and then braids, that’s pushing around £200.’

For some, the cost of living crisis has emphasised societal pressures imposed on women to maintain their beauty, as well as a realisation that they can no longer afford to keep up. ‘There are so many unrealistic beauty standards put on women when it comes to having to invest in makeup [...] to the point where people comment on your skin at work when you choose not to wear any,’ Afia explains.  ‘Makeup is now part of the professional uniform.’

The pressure to conform to beauty standards is much higher for dark-skinned Black women.

This implicit pressure to conform to a ‘uniform’ is particularly heightened for Black women, particularly dark-skinned Black women - due to misogynoir and colourism.  Many of us can pinpoint moments in our lives where we felt we had to minimise our features to be deemed beautiful, professional or simply fit in and avoid feeling like a pariah in a majority white office space. Trying to ‘tame’ your hair or be fully made-up every single day however, costs time and money.

The cost of beauty upkeep was the topic of a recent social media debate after one viral TikTok video claimed that the average cost of monthly beauty maintenance was £1500. This figure shocked most of the Twitterverse, but when you itemise everything from nails, lash and brow appointments, facials, to topping up on skincare and makeup products, it's easy to understand how you might arrive at this price tag.

If you're a beauty enthusiast with the means, there's no shame in splurging on all the above. We can't deny, however, the social capital that comes with subscribing to this kind of maintenance regime and, by extension, beauty ideal. On the one hand, beauty culture is so joyful and creative. On the flip side, the industry problematises our features and imperfections from oily skin to hyperpigmentation, creating insecurities in us that it promises to solve with their products and treatments.  Feeling as though you need to adhere to this in order to participate socially, and yet no longer having the financial means to do so, is cruel.

One corporate professional, who wished to remain anonymous, shared: ‘My rent is going up, I’m spending more money on fuel for my car .. I just can’t realistically get my nails done anymore,or  my hair or get nice skincare. It sounds a bit silly but sometimes you just need those things to feel like you’re looking after yourself, especially when others at work or your friends are still able to.’

Switching habits has been a learning opportunity for many of the women  I talked to, pushing them to think creatively about ways to enjoy beauty culture without breaking the wallet. For some, this has meant scouring discount codes and noting down sales periods. For others, taking advantage of  platforms such as TikTok to discover tips, hacks and even affordable French pharmacy and Korean skincare brands. For a sizeable group of people however, cutting down on much-loved and, for some, necessary skincare or makeup routines is triggering a new wave of self-esteem and confidence issues. And that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Research shows that confidence in our appearance is a top-driver for self-esteem.

A 2022 Opinium survey found that confidence in our appearance is a top-driver for self-esteem. And, given how our beauty and skincare routines are increasingly intertwined with how we feel about appearance, it’s not surprising that scaling back is getting us down.

My relationship with the beauty industry has evolved over the years; I research, buy and play with makeup and skincare for the pure joy and fun of it now - albeit on a budget. Working from home full-time also means I think less about my appearance at work and I’ve shed the expensive wigs of corporate past.

But I consider myself really fortunate to be in this position; it may seem trivial, but in light of the increasing cost of living, I am acutely aware of how different things might have been if I had, say, recurring scalp issues requiring private trichologist visits or pricey shampoos and little to no disposable income to pay for it.  Or for those of us who feel the need to regularly vary our hairstyles and maintain our makeup collection, whether for professional reasons at work or for the feel-good, pick-me-up factor that beauty provides, but are suddenly forced to cut it out. With all of the other financial woes many of us are dealing with at the moment, scaling back on beauty routines is just another thing that can chip away at your confidence.

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