Skip links

The Economic Burden of Women’s Bodies

TW: Throughout the following article, we will be talking about gender discrimination and focus, for a small part, on body image. We understand that for a lot of readers, this subject matter might be difficult, so if this affects you negatively, please stop reading now.

Being a woman comes at a cost.

Women are charged for their bodies in a multitude of ways. From paying a premium on our hygiene products to earning less money depending on our body type; it’s not cheap to have a woman’s body.

The following article will get into the nitty gritty about the economic unfairness associated with being a woman, by showcasing how female economic empowerment is strongly connected to their physicality.

What we’ll be looking into:

  • Taxation on period products and the pink tax
  • The economics of being ‘thin’
  • What is the ‘Cult of Female Modesty’
  • The economic impact of misdiagnosed women and the gender health gap
  • Why we need to invest in women’s health

Why is there taxation on period products?

Incredibly, until 2021 in the UK, there was a 5% Value Added Tax (VAT) applied to sanitary products.

The reason for this is that they were classed as “non-essential, luxury items”. This came with the UK’s membership with the European Union which imposes blanket rates of tax across many products. In fact, in the nineties, tampons incurred a 17.5% tax!

This is ridiculous, as it is pretty clear that tampons are not luxury items. According to Global Citizen, even golf club memberships and erectile dysfunction pills are, more often than not, tax-free.

What is the problem?

The UK government has removed this 5% tax as of January 2021. However, there is still a different category of tax that applies to sustainable products. For example, period underwear is classified as garments, which come with a hefty 20% VAT.

According to the charity Bloody Good Period, the average person who menstruates will spend almost £5,000 on period products in their lifetime. That equates to about £10 per month.

This might vary, according to how heavy their cycle is, what products they use and how often they menstruate.

However, according to a 2022 survey for ActionAid, nearly 1 in 8 women in the UK have struggled to buy period products since 2021.

Whilst the actual cost of the VAT might be negligible for some, even a few pounds here and there can be unaffordable for those worst affected by period poverty.

The Pink Tax

Even though there is less tax applied to many period products, female-oriented beauty products still come at a premium.

The Pink Tax refers to the way in which products marketed towards women tend to be more expensive than those marketed towards men.

One study found that in the UK, women’s deodorant is on average, 8.9% more expensive than men’s’, and their facial moisturiser is over one third more expensive.

It is clear that organisations assume women are more reliant on such products, and as a result believe that it is normal to charge more. We believe this is irrational, and should not be the case.

The economics of being ‘thin’.

It isn’t just cosmetics that affect a woman’s economic empowerment. The Economist featured an analysis about the toxic reality that unfortunately, it makes economic sense for a woman to be ‘thin’.

Simply, rich women are thinner than poor women, but for men, there is no difference.

Shockingly, the wage premium  for losing weight is twice as effective as getting a masters degree. This means, a woman with less body fat is likely to earn just as much as her more highly educated, less slim counterpart.

This is wrong, and feeds into a culture which values a woman’s appearance over her brain. To shift this means we need a change in culture, we need to ask ourselves and our decision makers, why women’s bodies are rated as highly, if not higher, than their brains.

What is the ‘Cult of Female Modesty’?

One changemaker shaking things up is feminist economist Victoria Bateman. Speaking with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Bateman explains that there are economic impacts to policing women’s bodies.

She argues that the old wave of feminism led women into behaving modestly, and acting proper in order to be taken as seriously as men.

This ideology is inherently anti-feminist. She explains that those who use their bodies for work, or are seen to have more sex than the average woman for example, are seen as problems in society and shunned. She states how ‘immodest women’ were even blamed for the fall of the Roman Empire!

Bateman relates this idea of immodesty to financial exclusion. She reports seeing, “women in adult entertainment having their bank accounts closed down or being denied access to credit cards – the type of financial exclusion that is seriously impacting women who are simply trying to make a living”.

Bodily autonomy should be a basic human right. The United Nations’ ‘My Body Is My Own’ report however finds that only half of the women in the world have complete bodily autonomy. We see this on the rise with things like access to abortion and birth control being limited, whether by law or through less conspicuous means.

For Bateman, this all comes down to how women have begun to have freedom over their minds, but not their bodies.

Ultimately, across the world, female economic empowerment is very closely related to her bodily autonomy.

The Gender Health Gap

According to the UK Government, the UK has the largest gender health gap out of all G20 countries.

Furthermore, when it comes to the health and safety for women existing in their own bodies, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to being treated well when they are ill.

The medical industry was developed by men, for men. This means that there are symptoms which can slip under the radar when presenting themselves in women, because medical professionals are often trained to recognise male symptoms, which can look very different.

One study found that women are diagnosed, on average, four years later than men for over 700 diseases, and two and half years later for cancer.

Furthermore, the British Heart Foundation says that women are 50% more likely than men to be given an incorrect diagnosis following a heart attack. Women are also much less likely to be taken seriously by medical professionals for complaining of pain or discomfort, according to one study.

These misdiagnoses not only have a major impact on women’s health in general, but are also likely to come at a cost for the economy, as women require using the doctor, taking more sick leave and spending more time in recovery.

Not only this, but on average, women in the UK pay much more for health-related interventions. For example, until 2023, people experiencing menopause undergoing HRT had to pay the price for two separate medications despite it being on a combined prescription for one condition. (HRT Payment Initiative)

Menopause, and indeed, all aspects of women’s health affects the workplace, often with economic impacts. Lack of menopause awareness and support has a staggering effect on the UK economy, costing the country over £10 billion. You can read more about these impacts of menopause and more here.

The benefits of investing in women’s health

There are economy-wide benefits associated with maintaining and improving the health of women.

One study found that “the development and economic performance of nations depends, in part, upon how each country protects and promotes the health of women”.

It is widely known that on average, women have smaller incomes than men. It is a fact, unfortunately, that is universally acknowledged.

However, what isn’t so well known is the degree to which female economic empowerment depends on their bodies.

From paying a “pink” premium on cosmetic products, to earning and working less when going through new biological phases, being a woman has a cost.

The reality is that this is not just a problem for women. Undervaluing women’s health puts society as a whole at a disadvantage.

At Kari, it is our mission to be part of this conversation and say good-bye to gender based economic discrimination.

We are here for you.

Useful resources:

If the topics within this article affect you, please note that you are not alone.

Here are some links you may find useful:

Evidence Based
This article has been reviewed by our Kari Health Experts and Editorial Board to ensure accuracy and reliability of the information presented. However, please note that the content provided is for informational purposes only and should not replace advice from your medical professional.

Did you find this article helpful this article? 

If so, you can read related Kari Health articles here:

Not Just Hot Flushes: Destigmatising Menopause at Work

How To Feel More Body Positive During Your Period

What Factors Might Stop Me Getting Pregnant?

Was this article helpful?

Join the Kari Community using the form below to receive the latest insight and products. 

    Your Name