I have been seeing a few mainstream media articles of late regarding the dreaded pink tax. This refers to the practice of toiletry and cosmetic companies, in particular (other industries are also guilty of this to varying degrees, perhaps the motor car industry is the worst), charge more for a ‘woman’s’ version of the same product with almost identical functions and ingredients/designs (or simply charge women more for the same product or service).
Some of the articles have been better than others and some have taken the idea a step further, exploring how similar products are marketed very differently to men and women. Two (both from The Guardian) stood out for me. One explored how razors are marketed to women in light of a new advert that actually shows women with hair. I find the notion that showing women shaving hair (as opposed to showing them running razors over silky smooth skin) is subversive, somewhat bizarre. However, as I noted on the Daniella’s Ramblings Facebook Page, this is a big win for all women everywhere but an even bigger win for trans women in particular with respect to body image and possibly even gender dysphoria. We all have body hair. It is normal. Some of us have more body hair, some have less. You are no less of a woman if you have body hair.
A second article discussed the marketing and packaging of other products in light of Radox’s packaging being called sexist. A line that made me laugh was: ‘Based on certain adverts, you would be forgiven for thinking that if a women’s shampoo doesn’t come with an orgasm then she’s using it wrong.’ Sadly, I am yet to experience a shampoo induced orgasm. Perhaps I am just using the wrong brands? Or could it be my technique?
In any event these recent articles, combined with various others in recent times including the great Bic pen controversy of a few years ago (and indeed others) got me thinking.
You see as a transgender person I get to see both sides of this coin. Sometimes I think that there is a legitimate and valid difference in products and sometimes I think maybe not. As in all things it depends. What follows is my ‘take’, my thoughts on some products that may be worth paying a pink tax for and some that there is no reason for them to be different at all.
Firstly razors. As you may recall (comments above notwithstanding) I hate body hair. It is the bane of my existence and I have taken what measures I can to reduce it. I have lasered whatever parts of my body cause the most distress, offer the best results in terms of laser and are the cause of the most distress to me. However, I have been unable to eliminate body hair entirely, so I must shave my body. I shave my lower legs (knees and below), my face, my underarms and I also have to touch up other parts (where I have lasered) from time to time.
As a result of this, I have found that there is in fact a real difference in design between men’s and women’s razors, that goes beyond men’s razors being marketed in manly grey, silver and black plastic vs women’s razors being made in girly pinks and purples. Typically, men’s razors will have two to four blades. Women’s razors will have three to five blades. There is also a difference in the size of the blades. Women’s razor blades tend to be wider and the plastic housing that holds the blades is also larger in all dimensions. There are also often additional ‘contraptions’ that assist in shaving, that men’s razors often lack or are more rudimentary on men’s razors. The larger size of women’s razors means that whilst these various add-ons (lubricants, fins to lift the hairs to facilitate a closer shave etc), may be present on men’s razors, they are larger and more abundant and thus usually more effective on women’s razors.
This makes a lot of sense. Men’s razors are primarily used on the face. The face has a number of nooks and crannies. The surface is far from uniform and you need to move around corners. Conversely women’s razors are primarily used for shaving larger flatter more uniform surfaces. You tend to shave your legs moving up in a uniform plane whereas shaving your face means you move around in different planes far more. The most uniform surface is the cheek, but the average cheek is far smaller than the average shin or calf. Shaving the face also involves more ‘fine’ detail work. You need to deal with hairs around sensitive ‘bits’ such as the lips, nostrils and the like. Men’s razors therefore tend to have smaller blades that are more easily manipulated and can get into little corners more easily.
The result is that I use both men’s and women’s razors. I use a men’s razor for facial areas where they are the optimal tool for the job and then I use a women’s razor for the rest of my body where a wider blade with more blades shaving a larger area and requiring fewer strokes (resulting in fewer in-grown hairs and less razor burn) is preferable. There is admittedly a price difference between the men’s and women’s razor blades. Pricing obviously differs from brand to brand and retailer to retailer, but in my experience, women’s replacement blades are often cheaper than men’s blades from the same manufacturer. This despite the women’s razors having (it seems to me) more material per unit.
More importantly though for me, the different blades are designed slightly differently and optimised for different functions. I therefore use the best tool for the job at hand. Fortunately, being transgender I am happy to use either type of product and do not fear losing my masculinity or anything else as a result of using a cosmetic product in a packaging that has the ‘wrong’ colour packaging for my birth assigned gender. In fact, some may say that this would be a positively desirable side effect. Alas it is yet to manifest in my case.
I therefore do not think that there is much of a ‘pink tax’ in play when it comes to razors.
Another hair removal related issue pertains to waxing. I have never had any body hair waxed as I am just too chicken (and waiting for the hair to get long enough doesn’t really ‘work’ for me and my lifestyle, but I do get my eyebrows waxed so I am aware of pricing for various types of waxing. I have noticed that beauticians charge a little more to wax a man’s lower leg (for example) than the same part of the body on a woman. I have asked, and it seems that this is because men’s hair tends to be thicker and denser than women’s hair (testosterone can be a real pain, in this case, literally). It thus typically takes more time for the beautician to get a smooth finish on a man than on a woman. The beautician will also use more wax and probably have to work a little harder on the man on the woman. When it comes to other more ‘intimate’ body parts there may be a less pronounced difference, although I suspect there is still more hair to deal with on the average man, but here I think given that most beauticians are women and many would prefer not to be waxing men’s delicate bits, they feel that the more aggressive pricing acts as a deterrent and as an additional ‘reward’ for them dealing with the ‘bits’ they would rather not deal with. So here again, there is a ‘blue tax’ at work rather than a pink tax.
On a related note, the same dynamic is at work (for similar reasons) when dealing with laser hair removal. The laser treatment will take longer, require more sessions and probably consume more electricity (the machine may need to operate on a higher setting), to get the same level of hair removal on a man versus a woman. The additional costs may be marginal but even marginal costs can have a big impact over time, just think of the airline that removed an olive from each salad served and saved US$40 000 per year.
On a related note, shaving cream is an interesting case. Men’s and women’s shaving creams, foams and gels are in my opinion all equally ineffective. They don’t do much other than add a little bit of lubrication and some scent to the shaving experience. Women’s variants come in ‘girly’ scents such as fruit and floral varieties. Men’s creams aren’t explicitly marketed as scented, but they are most certainly do not come in girly florals. They have manly spicy scents.
So, the difference between the two types of product is marginal at best. Creams, foams and gels marketed at women (in pastel pinks and with flowers on the packaging) tend to be more in the budget category, with prices at a national pharmacy chain in South Africa ranging from R39.95 to R44.95. Whereas men’s products (marketed in manly silver and blue, with no flowers in sight) retail for anything from R39.95 to R149.95.
It seems to me that in this case there is certainly no pink tax. In fact, many manufacturers will sell the same quantity of gel or foam for exactly the same price to both men and women. However, it seems that men are willing to pay more for shaving cream/foam than women, with a wider product range and the most expensive men’s products being much more expensive than the most expensive women’s products on the market. There would thus appear to be something of a blue tax when using shaving creams, foams and gels.
Yet neither manly nor womanly variety does the job very well. For my money all creams/gels/foams are equally bad at doing what they say they do. They are not optimal at reducing razor burn. They do not reduce in grown hairs. So why use them?
Of course, the lubricating qualities are helpful, but I find good old hair conditioner is a far better product at providing lubrication and seems to reduce razor burn and in grown hairs (at least in my experience). Furthermore, it is far better value for money. I use Organics hair conditioner that retails for R59.95 per litre and it lasts a long time. I can squeeze just the right amount of product on to my hand (and the screw off lid means I can even replace some if I inadvertently squeeze too much). This means I can control my usage far better than you can with the aerosol gels and foams that always seem to spew out more product than you need. A little hair conditioner goes a very long way and lasts for longer than shaving cream, gel or foam. It is a superior product and is also far cheaper per litre.
So where does the notion of a pink tax even come from then? Well I do think that as the debate has surfaced, retailers have been careful to at the very least appear to be open to their customers’ concerns and they have probably adjusted pricing in response to the complaints and concerns raised. Furthermore, one thing that is absolutely true is that most women use far more toiletries and cosmetics than most men. Obviously almost all men and women use soap and shampoo. Men however will typically use less shampoo than women as their hair is usually kept shorter. This may be offset to some extent by more regular hair washing (short hair typically requires more washes than long hair) but I think on average men still use less. Men and women probably use comparable amounts of deodorant and I have not noticed much of a difference in price here.
Whilst men may spend more on shaving creams (and after shave), this is pretty much where their expenditure ends. The more metrosexual types (is metrosexual still even a thing???) may also use some moisturiser that is kind of where it ends. On the other hand nearly all women will use a day cream, a night cream, body creams, eye creams etc. And then of course there is makeup. Makeup remover etc… There is far greater social pressure on women to look good and to conform to certain standards of beauty and ‘hygiene’ (I use the word loosely). Women who do not wear some makeup are often considered to be slightly butch. Women with hairy arm pits and hairy legs have got to be raving feminist lesbians, right? And then there is the hair (women spend far more on their hair than men, perhaps this is justified as a woman’s cut can take more time than a man’s). Compare this with men. There are very few if any social norms that mitigate against the wearing of facial hair. In fact, beards are highly fashionable, and many men are now sporting lush growths of facial jungle. So, I think it is safe to assume that whilst a woman’s cosmetic product/ toiletries may be no more expensive than the comparable man’s product, women undoubtedly feel obliged to spend far more than men in this realm.
Furthermore, when it comes to makeup products, they can be very expensive. Additionally, there are a wider range of cosmetic products aimed directly at women as opposed to men. Our metrosexual man may use some soap and moisturiser. Women will have cleanser, toner, exfoliator, moisturiser, day cream, night cream, eye cream and all sorts of other products marketed to them. (Note: I am a convert to the cleanser, toner, exfoliator, day cream and moisturiser regime; it does work!) So, in this regard the pink tax is quite real.
It may now be time to address the elephant in the room. Women absolutely must spend money on menstrual products. There is no escaping the fact, that from the onset of puberty, to the onset of menopause, cisgender women will need to buy a range of menstrual products every month. There is not much, short of pregnancy and some medications that have their own side effects, that can be done to stop this. To add insult to injury, often these products attract VAT and other taxes (depending on the country they are purchased in). This can constitute a considerable drain on a woman’s finances that as far as I can tell has no comparable correspondent for men. This is not a matter of choice. Women must spend this money on menstrual products. Not having access to menstrual products is a huge problem in some parts of the world resulting in girls being forced to miss school and working women missing work. This obviously hampers earning potential, real earnings and career growth. It is a form of pink tax that is a structural problem within society.
The pink tax is further exaggerated by the fact that many governments, businesses and other organisations provide condoms for free. Now I absolutely agree that there are massive societal benefits to be gained by the widespread use of condoms. The reductions in STIs (especially HIV) and unwanted pregnancies generate real returns for the individuals concerned and broader society. However as many women have said before it is a lot easier to abstain from sex than it is to avoid menstruation and it seems absurd that a natural bodily function that can have such long term detrimental economic effects for women (think of all the cumulative cost of the lost opportunities that result from girls missing three to four days of school every month and women missing similar numbers of days from work over the course of their lifetimes) should result in women having to spend large sums of money on menstrual products (and be taxed on these ‘luxuries’) when condoms are available for free.
Sharon Gordon, CEO of Dignity Dreams weighed in on this subject. She pointed out that (in South Africa) whilst ‘we have to pay VAT on sanitary products, which are as essential as bread and other non-taxable items. Shaving blades for instance are not taxed.’ This is clearly a sign that governments are simply not thinking straight, and disregard women’s needs entirely. How does it make sense that razor blades (that admittedly are used by both men and women) are VAT free, but menstrual products are taxed?
Sharon, in her inimitable style, then posed a question that I really appreciated. She asked, ‘why are men allowed to sell sperm but in no country in the world is a woman allowed to sell her eggs! The harvesting process is considerably more difficult! Also, women are not allowed to be paid to be a surrogate – just another example of what we are meant to give away for free!’
Truthfully, I had never considered this before, and she is absolutely correct. Why do men get to monetise their DNA but not women? If you take the position that DNA should not be monetised, then this should apply equally to both men and women. This is clearly a discriminatory practice and further evidence of a structural pink tax at work in society that goes far beyond paying a few cents more for a cosmetic product.
It is time for change. Let’s stop taxing menstrual products. Let’s ensure that girls and women have a truly equal playing field at school and work. Let’s ensure that systemic problems that create roadblocks and inequality are challenged and eradicated. This is a serious issue and it really does go beyond paying a bit more (or less) for our shampoo (even if it did give us orgasms every time we used it!).
Disclaimer: I have not done a thorough review of all products and retailers on the market. Furthermore, I have only looked at the South African market. Obviously your mileage may differ depending on where you shop, where you live etc. I also have only looked at a relatively small subset of goods and services. I have not looked at how mechanics may or may not discriminate against women, how car insurance is priced, how medicines and vitamins may be differently priced etc. I do not think that this detracts from my point re the very real structural issues at play in society. This is not meant to be an exhaustive survey of goods and services, please understand it as such.
Please check out Dignity Dreams‘ web page. Dignity Dreams manufactures reusable sanitary pads. This means they are a viable option for women in rural areas who either cannot afford disposable products or who lack access to shops where they can purchase these products. Furthermore, if you love the planet and are eco-friendly you should be using these pads. One Dignity Dreams pad is equivalent to 144 disposable pads (in terms of usage). So shouldn’t everyone be using them instead?