The XX Factor

Race, the Economy, and Hair-Care Expenditure

“I’ve had to downgrade my monthly $250 highlighting appointments from monthly to bimonthly” sounds like a textbook #whitegirlproblem . Sure, spending on beauty seems like pure indulgence, but during tough times many women would rather dial down their hair and makeup expenses than cut them out entirely (see: the famous lipstick indicator ). And it’s true, if embarassingly stereotypical, that a tiny splurge on your looks can be soothing when other things aren’t going your way (or at least that is the logic behind my occasional post-bad-work-day $10 manicures). But there’s also an economic argument to be made for the utility of, literally, keeping up appearances.

Via Marginal Revolution , a fascinating study on what recession does to women’s spending on hair products : Sales of DIY hair products to white women increase as the economy worsens, while African-American women’s hair-care routines remain more consistent in both good and bad economic times. The study’s author, Bridget J. Crawford of Pace University Law School, argues that for some women, keeping up with their dye jobs-even if they can’t afford the professional version they were used to during boom times (either ever or as often)-is “an attempt to retain a currency of employability, utility and desirability.” So hair care might not be a wise place to skimp entirely, pragmatically speaking, if you’re hoping to enter or remain in the work force. (Gray hair=old=unhirable, goes the unconscious bias.) But, she continues, while black women regularly deal with the “complex role that hair can play in the[ir] personal, professional, social and legal lives” (as explored at length in Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair ), “only in a down economy do some white women grapple with their hair’s complex signaling function, including its link to race and privilege.”