Do Women Choose Beauty Over Health? The Surgeon General (And Advertisers) Say So

Do Women Choose Beauty Over Health? The Surgeon General (And Advertisers) Say So
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You already knew that French fries and cigarettes were bad for you. But were you aware that great hair is, too?

Surgeon general Regina M. Benjamin recently warned attendees of the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show in Atlanta, Georgia that women who skip exercising in order to protect their hairstyles should focus more on their health.

"Oftentimes you get women saying, 'I can't exercise today because I don't want to sweat my hair back or get my hair wet,' said Dr. Benjamin. "When you're starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons."

Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, told the New York Times that it was "bizarre" for the surgeon general "to engage in smaller issues like this." But multiple studies show women worry more about their looks than their health -- and that's a serious healthcare issue that affects us all.

The phenomenon is an advertising issue as well: a survey conducted last year by East Tennessee State University found that women are more likely to buy products that ward off "age spots" than skin cancer. And a recent report shows that women spend way more on beauty products than health care: $540 a month on hair products, make-up, and fake tanners, compared to $360 on their physical well-being.

"It would be wrong to say that these results come as a surprise, " a healthcare spokesperson told "So many of us are guilty of taking shortcuts to ensure we look good -- often at the expense of our health."

I'm not surprised by the results either. But I think they're due less to plain old vanity and more related to our fear of being considered unattractive and our fear of aging, which both translate to a fear of being unwanted. A moisturizer chock-full of enzymes or a defrizzing hair mask promise to assuage that fear, at least in the short term.

The studies also remind me of what economists call the "Lipstick Effect." When times are tough, sales repeatedly show that women seek out inexpensive beauty products rather than, say, gym memberships. Beauty products provide a quick fix -- or at least the promise of one -- when larger problems are or feel unsolvable.

But advertisers exist to make profits, so it's safe to say they'll continue to market even products that are actually beneficial to women's health as "beautifying" rather than "healthy." What's the solution? Is there a way to combine health and beauty, a la Jessica Seinfeld sneaking zucchini into milkshakes?

YouBeauty, a new website with the tagline, "The Science of a Beautiful You," is counting on it. The startup, which was founded by "Oprah Winfrey Show" veteran Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Michael Roizen, targets women aged 25-55 and partners with big-name beauty brands like L'Oreal. According to, YouBeauty distinguishes itself by connecting beauty with health instead of asking women to choose between the two and promotes "the belief that the best way to achieve beauty is to live a healthy lifestyle."

But Steve Lindseth, the company's Cleveland-based CEO, seems to be sticking with the beauty-not-health sell. "Instead of eating your broccoli because it's good for you, eat your broccoli because it'll make you beautiful," he said.

Would women exercise more if the surgeon general informed them that sweating improves their looks? I'm not sure. But I hope her message -- choose health over hair -- will provoke a larger discussion about the message the media sends women about priorities.

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