It's no secret that consumers spend billions of dollars per year on products and treatments they believe will improve their appearance. But as a new study frames it, mainstream beauty ideals aren't just fueling an industry — they're fueling a multi-billion-dollar public health crisis.
For instance, lots of people struggle with some form of body dysmorphic disorder — roughly 1.7% of the population, according to one Cambridge study — yet the impact of pervasive body image issues on society at large has been mostly been overlooked due to a lack of quantifiable data. The new Real Cost of Beauty Ideals Report, commissioned by personal care brand Dove and conducted by Harvard University's Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders: A Public Health Incubator (STRIPED) with support from Deloitte Access Economics, seeks to correct that fact. The initiative offers a first step toward building a body of research that attaches concrete numbers to toxic beauty ideals in the United States.
The report claims that body dissatisfaction costs the U.S. economy a whopping $305 billion dollars a year, plus another $501 billion dollars attributed to appearance-based discrimination. (More on where those numbers came from in a moment.)
The report found that in 2019, an estimated 45 million people (16% of the U.S. population) over age 10 had experienced body dissatisfaction, defined as "having a severe negative attitude towards one's own physical appearance;" while 66 million (18% of the population) had experienced appearance-based discrimination, defined as "differential unfair or prejudicial treatment of someone on the basis of their appearance," relating to natural hair, skin shade and/or weight. The report explores the costs of harmful beauty ideals through these two pathways.
Both were more common among those identifying as women and girls, their bodies a battlefield for diverging regulations or modifications. Furthermore, those in BIPOC communities were found to be at the highest risk, an undeniable consequence of Western society's idealization of one kind of body: slim, young, able-bodied, cisgender and white. According to Deloitte Access Economic's findings in 2014, Black women generally suffered from the highest amount of body dissatisfaction, while white men suffered the least.
The new report arrived at its findings by considering two main factors: financial costs and wellbeing costs. Financial costs pertain to health expenses (medical services, pharmaceuticals), productivity costs (reduced employment, wage losses, absences from work) and other costs such as efficiency loss or incarceration. Wellbeing costs include lost years of life, with depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, smoking, eating disorders and alcohol or drug abuse as the main causes.
Out of the $305 billion lost to body dissatisfaction, $84 billion is attributed to economic costs, and $221 billion to well-being. Per the report, body-dissatisfaction costs can include poor mental health, eating disorders, behavioral problems, disengaging from school/work, substance abuse and risky cosmetic procedures like skin bleaching and plastic surgery. To contextualize this data, $84 billion is equivalent to 0.4% of the total U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) each year. The same amount could also cover college tuition fees for 2.9 million girls annually.
The $501 billion dollars attributed to appearance-based discrimination is broken down to: $269 billion in financial losses and $233 billion in well-being losses. Specifically, costly impacts of appearance-based discrimination include healthcare avoidance, lower quality of healthcare, underemployment/underpayment, incarceration, school suspensions and health issues like depression, anxiety, obesity, hypertension, social phobia, physiological disregulation, PTSD and more. To get a better idea of where this money could be allocated, $269 billion would cover two-thirds of the nation's out-of-pocket healthcare spending in the U.S.
"This report highlights the true impact of harmful beauty ideals — and the findings reveal that body dissatisfaction and appearance-based discrimination are a public health crisis," writes Dove's Global Chief Marketing Officer in the report's foreword. "Dove is committed to changing beauty for the better by addressing harmful ideals that have an adverse effect on self-esteem, mental wellness, and even ideals that limit access to employment and educational opportunities."
Read the full "Real Cost of Beauty Ideals" report on Dove's website.