Health and Wellness

Upholding 'harmful beauty ideals' cost Americans over $300 billion in 2019

Ponomariova_maria | Istock | Getty Images

When Ashton Garrison was just seven years old, she asked her mom for liposuction.

She recalls being gifted waist trainers and even buying some herself – all before she even started high school.

And she also remembers the impact of seeing ads about weight loss products in her social media feed.

"I would cry to myself wondering why I couldn't just take a pair of scissors and cut away my fat," Garrison says.

Now, at age 14, Garrison can identify that harmful beauty ideals, like associating beauty with thin, white girls for example, were introduced to her in movies, magazines and television shows.

Her peers, who learned the same standards, bullied her for her size and treated her differently because of her coarser hair texture and darker complexion.

Garrison, like many Americans, suffered the mental health effects of not feeling good enough and turned to products like shapewear for recourse.

"I used to wear a waist trainer all the time, and I don't anymore," she says.

Thankfully, present-day, she is much more accepting of herself, but the same cannot be said for many in the U.S.

The cost of harmful beauty standards

Beauty standards cost Americans over $300 billion in 2019, according to Dove's "The Real Cost of Beauty Ideals" report.

This number includes costs for treatments like skin bleaching and chemical hair straightening.

Dove commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to compile the report that dives into the economic and social cost of unhealthy beauty standards on Americans ages 10 and older.

Unhealthy beauty ideals, as defined by the report, are beauty norms that are narrow and unrealistic.

They're typically only reflective of white standards and lack diversity of all sizes, ages, skin shades, hair types and body shapes.

"It [the report] estimates the number of people who were affected by body dissatisfaction and appearance-based discrimination, and then we look at all the impacts," says Simone Cheung, partner at Deloitte Access Economics who leads the Health Economics and Social Policy team in Sydney, Australia.

"Then, what we do is, [we estimate] the costs of each of those impacts individually."

According to the report, 16% of the U.S. population aged 10 years or older – 45 million people – experienced body dissatisfaction.

And across the board, women bore the highest financial costs of body dissatisfaction and appearance-based discrimination.

"Body dissatisfaction really gets to the core of how someone feels about themselves," says S. Bryn Austin, lead researcher of the report and founding director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (STRIPED): A Public Health Incubator at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

"Their identity can be wrapped up in this. When body dissatisfaction persists, when it's severe, that can increase the risk of someone developing depression, anxiety [and] eating disorders. It also increases the risks of substance use and other risky behaviors."

A closer look at the price of exclusion

Researchers studied the outcomes associated with body dissatisfaction — depression, alcohol and drug abuse — to calculate financial impacts such as health system costs, productivity and efficiency losses.

At $84 billion, the financial costs of body dissatisfaction could have covered an entire academic year of tuition, fees, and room and board for 2.9 million college students in America.

"What if this money that is going out the window basically because of these harmful beauty ideals was spent on something else?" Austin asks.

Additionally, at least 66 million people in the country faced appearance-based discrimination in the same year, and its financial and well-being expenses collectively cost Americans $501 billion in 2019.

People who experienced appearance-based discrimination endured hardships like: 

  • Weight discrimination (34 million)
  • Skin tone discrimination (27 million) 
  • Natural hair discrimination (5 million)

Two-thirds of the national out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare in the country could've been paid for with the financial costs of appearance-based discrimination.

"If you could prevent or reduce the amount of people experiencing body dissatisfaction by just 10% for example, you could potentially save over $8 billion in financial costs," Cheung says.

And the same approach for weight and skin-shade discrimination in the Black community could save over $25 billion, she adds. "It's spending that could be diverted to other health and social issues."

The report only analyzes data from 2019, but Cheung notes that the pandemic has possibly affected the numbers for 2020 and later. And if you factor in inflation, the price of body dissatisfaction and appearance-based discrimination would be even higher, she says.

Reducing the impact of unhealthy beauty ideals

"The costs associated with these impacts are actually borne by everyone. So it's not just an individual cost. It costs government, family and friends, employers, private health insurers and society," Cheung says.

"So when you're thinking about investment, everyone has a role to play in addressing the underlying forces that promote and propagate harmful beauty ideals."

Here are some actions that could be taken to reduce the toll that harmful beauty standards has on America, according to the report:

  • Promoting safer digital spaces
  • Mental health support services
  • Focusing on diversity in advertising
  • Monitoring the sale of harmful products
  • Education at schools to promote body confidence
  • Tax incentives and laws to end appearance-based discrimination
  • Social media literacy

"It's extremely important to have that representation because for a long time we've seen the norm be skinny white models or skinny white actresses. And of course, no hate to them," says Garrison.

"But I think it's honestly time we see someone who looks like Lizzo or like me, to see more BIPOC individuals show up and show out. More plus-size individuals. And I'm talking about all brown girls. South Asian girls, Black girls, Indigenous girls, Afro-Latino girls. Everybody who's big and brown deserves to feel beautiful and seen in the media."

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