Two or three times a year I walk a few blocks to a salon where a woman named Lola with faded pink highlights and tattooed arm sleeves makes sense of my hair. The salon has a relaxed ambiance with a bright gloss that telegraphs a sort of gender-neutral tastefulness. A cut and blow-dry for my long, fine hair takes about an hour and a half, and costs $95 before tip.
In New York City, Lola is legally prohibited from charging different prices for men’s and women’s cuts, just like in D.C., where the Washington Times earlier this year blared an Exclusive: Self-declared socialist AOC splurges on high-dollar hairdo as they reported the “news” that the junior congresswoman had paid $180 for low-lights and $80 for a cut, plus a 20-percent tip. The flurry of analysis that followed mostly concluded that she’d paid the going rate, rather than some exorbitant sum. Even the Trump-loving New York Post did person-on-the-street interviews where women from around the city reported spending similar amounts on a variety of styles.
According to a former employee who worked at the exclusive Warren Tricomi salon in 2009, Ivanka Trump regularly paid between $300-350 for highlights and $60-75 for brow shaping. Melania also came in every six weeks for highlights, that employee said, but insisted on paying the $50 model rate. Ten years later, prices have only increased.
The politics of personal care remains a strange trap that periodically ensnares women (and, much more rarely, men) in public life, forcing them to confront gendered expectations for appearance in the form of a trick question: What is the right amount of money to spend on how you look?
The answer has a lot to do with the premium that women pay for goods and services marketed directly to them, sometimes called the pink tax. Think about Secret deodorant (“Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman”), Venus razor blades (“your razor, your choice”), or any other product that’s not substantively different for men and women. A 2015 New York City analysis of 794 of those products found that the women’s version cost more 42 percent of the time, while the men’s cost more 18 percent of the time. The same is true for services like dry cleaning or haircuts. The University of Central Florida surveyed 100 salons in 2011, finding on average that women paid $35 for a basic haircut compared to $22 for men, an almost 60-percent difference.
Here’s why: the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination in certain markets, like housing, doesn’t cover retail. The patchwork of state and municipal laws attempting to close that loophole either require people to sue for relatively small sums of money, or they’re hard to enforce. Since California first banned the pink tax in 1996 (for services only, not products), just five people have sued in 23 years. A similar 1998 New York City ordinance exists, but the Department of Consumer Affairs issued only 129 citations in 2015, in a city with literally thousands of salons and dry cleaners.
Washington, D.C., has perhaps the strictest human rights law, banning gender-based discrimination unless an entity can establish a “business necessity,” defined as not being able to remain in business without it. George Washington Law Professor John F. Banzhaf has repeatedly tested the limits of the law along with his students, first filing a 1989 complaint against D.C. dry cleaners. The dry cleaners countered with a kind of passive sexism, claiming that it costs more to press women’s shirts on technology developed for men—sort of how NASA explained that Annie McClain had to stay home because it couldn’t send two women into space at the same time since it only had one space suit sized correctly. But Banzhaf and his students prevailed, forcing the dry cleaners to change their prices.
He struck again in 1994, this time winning a complaint with the D.C Commission on Human Rights about price discrimination at six hair salons.
Which brings us back to politics.
Banzhaf had targeted a stylist best known for giving Bill Clinton a haircut on the tarmac at LAX that cost him $200 plus endless public grief, mostly for holding up air traffic, but also for supposedly betraying Bubba’s everyman ethos. Cristophe (first name only) claimed that women’s haircuts cost more because women are “fussier.” The cut wasn’t necessarily more work, just the customer.
“To put this in perspective, suppose we had someone who did automobile tune ups. Men are more fussy so we’re going to charge men more. How long would we stand for that?” Banzhaf recently said.
Sexism aside, let’s assume for a minute that Cristophe was right. Why might women be more fussy than men about their hair? Because hair provides visible evidence of the gendering of the body and proof of femininity. Men face pressure to prove their masculinity through identifying markers of success like work and money. But women’s status is heavily weighted toward physical attractiveness, allowing retailers to exploit them for profit, and media outlets to then report “exclusives” on the cost of their haircuts.
(When this happens to men, like Clinton and John Edwards, the indictment isn’t just that they’re hypocrites, but sissies too, practically women. But mostly it’s women and almost always it’s Democrats who get attacked for what they pay to maintain their appearance.)
A few days after the Ocasio-Cortez story broke, I watched my friend Julie cut her partner Grey’s hair. Both former stylists—she used to work with Angelina Jolie, and he worked at the famed Vidal Sassoon salon—they were emphatic that it takes the same amount of effort to cut the 150,000 hairs that a typical human has on his or her head. Cost differences come down to add-ons like color, the difficulty of a specific style, and skill.
Laws alone won’t fix the problem, but California congresswoman Jackie Speier is trying. She first introduced the Pink Tax Repeal Act in 2016, and so far it’s failed to get a vote every year of Trump’s presidency. Currently the bi-partisan bill has 63 co-sponsors including Ocasio-Cortez and two Republicans: Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Tom Reed (R-NY). It was Speier who took on the pink tax as a member of the California Assembly, and four years ago State Sen. Ben Huseo tried to finish the job by banning price discrimination for products, not just services. He ended up withdrawing the bill under industry pressure.
Speier is not surprised: “Discrimination dies hard,” she told me the day after the House voted to impeach Trump. Noting that news reports had described Nancy Pelosi’s all-black attire as “austere” and “militaristic,” while Trump’s red ties and other fashion choices pass mostly without comment, she lamented that “there is such a compelling need to describe women in terms of what they look like.”
That added scrutiny is another reason why women in public life have to take extra care. If Ocasio-Cortez ever had a hair out of place that would be its own scandal.
But ultimately, “those are personal choices that people make and it’s really nobody’s business,” Speier says, focusing the conversation back to the fact that’s been driving her since she first noticed a salon sandwich board on the street: “It’s unfair that services and products are more expensive for women based on nothing except they’re female.”