To All Men Enraged by AOC's Expensive Haircut: Yes, This Is How the U.S. Economy Bleeds Women Dry | Opinion

The Washington Times rocked the Twittersphere with its recent headline "Self-Declared Socialist AOC Splurges on High-Dollar Hairdo." According to the article, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reportedly spent "nearly $300 at a pricey salon she frequents in downtown Washington." (Bit of clarity: The grand total included $80 for the haircut and $180 for lowlights, plus tip.)

Never mind the double standard that's imposed upon women in leadership—all women, really—to look good (but not too good). Imagine how the media would pounce over a messy bun day on the House floor.

And then there's the reality that haircuts for women cost more than those for men. It's well-documented, and it's called the "pink tax"—a popular euphemism for gender-based pricing. Simply stated, the pink tax is when goods or services marketed to women cost more than the men's version for no apparent reason other than price gouging.

A 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office confirmed that a variety of products and services targeting female consumers—ranging from deodorant to shaving cream to body spray—cost more than the male equivalent. Services for which women are overcharged go well beyond those provided by hair stylists; the GAO report assessed that women may similarly pay more for mortgage loans relative to their actual risk and have less access to small business credit than men.

A few years prior, New York City ran the numbers and found some of the most frequent offenders: dry cleaning bills for women's shirts ran an average of $4.95 as compared to $2.86 for those worn by men. Jeans for women and men? A 10 percent differential. And back to hair care, shampoos marketed to women—think pink, flowery bottles—cost an average of 48 percent more than those sporting navy blue packaging.

Yes, an educated consumer can buck the system, be diligent to check prices and reject the branding ploy. But that's time and energy, and therefore money, too—a pointlessly unfair burden. The GAO agreed that these differences add up over a lifetime:

"If female and male consumers pay different prices for similar products that they purchase frequently, such as personal care products, this could result in substantial differences in expenditures by gender over time. A consumer's annual spending on a product category can be significant, even when prices for products within that category are low."

Representative Carolyn Maloney released a separate report amplifying the GAO findings, "Earn Less, Pay More: The State of the Gender Pay Gap and 'Pink Tax' in 2018." Another insidious surcharge that Maloney wisely called out in her summary is the "tampon tax." In 34 states, menstrual products are not classified as a necessity and, therefore, not exempt from sales tax.

Among the 22 state legislatures that took up the issue in 2019 is Tennessee. After legislation failed to pass there, a late-breaking budget surplus prompted the state to save its "hunters and shooters $500,000 annually across the state" by eliminating a gun ammunition tax.

Still others have chosen to exempt an equally alarming and bizarre array of items, while continuing to generate revenue for state coffers off of menstruation: BBQ sunflower seeds (currently exempt in Indiana), gun club memberships (currently exempt in Wisconsin) and erectile dysfunction pills (exempt just about everywhere!).

Prioritizing any of these items over a necessity like menstrual products is yet another way the U.S. economy manages to bleed women dry at every turn. Enough.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talks to reporters on September 27 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

It is time for all of these inequities to be addressed. This past April, Representative Jackie Speier re-introduced the Pink Tax Repeal Act (H.R. 2048) to ban the practice of gender-based pricing, declaring, "The pink tax is not a one-time injustice. It's an insidious form of institutionalized discrimination that affects women across the country from the cradle to the grave."

Meanwhile, the tampon tax will soon to have its day in court. A new project, Tax Free. Period., is catalyzing the legal academy to develop arguments that tampon tax amounts to sex-based discrimination in violation of equal protection, at both the state and federal level—making it more than merely unfair or inequitable, but illegal and unconstitutional.

And, as Maloney notes, among the strongest measures against both the pink tax and the tampon tax would be passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. With renewed momentum to finally and fully enshrine equality under the law, the ERA would guarantee that we would no longer have to wage these fights product by product—or haircut by haircut.

Wage gaps, glass ceilings, sticky floors—these are all part of the fight to achieve a fully equitable economy and society. And that must include even the most mundane of surcharges. It all adds up—and it's only fair.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is vice president and women and democracy fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, and author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​​​​