For many women, experimenting with makeup is a lifelong hobby. After all, who doesn’t love a new lip color?
In 2019, New York Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines for rocking red lipstick to the State of the Union address. Last year, Vogue shared a “Beauty Secrets” video playing off this red-lip attention: “Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Guide to Her Signature Red Lip.” I watched. Finding that perfect red lipstick takes some trial and error, and there are always new shades to explore.
But Ocasio-Cortez’s video includes more than makeup advice. She’s a shrewd politician, and she knows how to use supposedly nonpolitical platforms to reach young people. Along with makeup tips, the more than 3 million people who viewed the video got a taste of her politics.
Ten minutes into the video, Ocasio-Cortez opined about the so-called pink tax:
One of the things that’s pretty wild to me is that, first of all, if you are a person that needs a tampon or if you are a person that needs a pad or a menstruation product of any kind, you are often subject to what’s known as the pink tax. And it’s not just menstruation products. It’s almost any product or service that differentiates by gender.
She’s resurrecting an argument that women unfairly pay more for products marketed to women than similar products meant for men or both sexes.
A study conducted by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found that women’s products cost an average of 7% more, including an 11% difference in the price of razors. But the report also noted, “Men’s and women’s products are rarely identical, making exact comparisons difficult.”
No one wants to pay more for the same product. But the products marketed to men and women often are packaged and function differently—differences that may appear small or irrelevant to some but that other consumers are willing to pay for. Schick’s website, for example, includes a description of the difference in razors for men and women: “Generally speaking, men’s razors are designed to shave areas around a face, and women’s razors are designed to shave body areas, such as underarms and legs. Men and women have different shaving needs so some razors are created with their primary shaving usage in mind.”
Of course, people are free to ignore the pink packaging and pick whichever razor appeals to them most. It is sexist, after all, to assume that women aren’t intelligent enough to compare prices and simply buy the cheaper one.
Even if products function the same, many women are willing to pay more for something in a certain color—dare I say pink. I know I am. (I was thrilled recently to receive a pink Hot Wheels car for playing with my son and would have paid more for the color.) There is nothing wrong or sexist about giving people options and allowing them to make purchasing decisions that reflect their taste. That’s the beauty of capitalism.
Ocasio-Cortez goes on to argue that the pink tax is about more than the cost of products. It’s also about the pressure to look a certain way:
In my opinion, a pink tax is not just about money. It’s also about time. … There are studies that show that women who wear makeup or regularly wear like a decent amount of makeup, kind of show up to the office in glam, also make more money. And so at that point, it stops being these calculations and decisions stop being about choice and they start being about patriarchy, where if we look attractive to men, then we will be compensated more.
There are also studies finding that taller people make more money than shorter people. This includes comparisons among men. Height doesn’t just affect earnings. It’s also a hot topic for presidential candidates. Take the “presidential height index,” which says that “previous observations have shown that taller candidates have won 58 percent of U.S. presidential elections and the popular vote in 67 percent of the elections between 1789 and 2008.”
Yet as a society, we aren’t fighting the “height tax.”
Of course, Ocasio-Cortez is full of contradictions, unsure whether to see beauty products as a tool of the patriarchy or a path to self-actualization, saying that wearing makeup “is almost like a mini-protest to love yourself.”
For Ocasio-Cortez, everything is political. One reason she reaches so many young people is that she doesn’t limit herself to traditional political media. She pulls viewers in with a lip tutorial but then sells socialism. Women would be wise to reject what she’s selling, but conservatives should learn from Ocasio-Cortez’s marketing smarts.