The first time I heard about the tax on cosmetics, it had already been framed against the hashtag #DontTaxMyBeauty. But as with many things that happen via hashtags, there was little fleshing out of what this so-called Vanity Tax was going to be about.
A day after the hashtag happened, the three-page House Bill No. 4723 was uploaded online, but many remained disinterested in what it contained: it is easier to jump on the bandwagon of calling something anti-woman, than to actually sit down and read about it after all. Media fed the frenzy – the better to get hits with; days after, there is still little critical discussion about this proposal and the backlash against it, even as politicians weigh in using big words like “sexist.”
This, in a country that has allowed the Miss Universe to happen at such a large scale, using government resources and the face of Chavit Singson. One can only wonder what we actually mean by sexist – or feminist – these days.
Personal hygiene, NOT vanity
House Bill 4723 seeks to amend the National Internal Revenue Code of 1997 to include under the Section “Non-Essential Goods” a subsection that will tax cosmetic products 30% more than it’s already being taxed via VAT. What is critical is the definition of “cosmetic products” here. It states:
“Cosmetic products, or any substance or preparation intended to be placed in contact with the various external parts of the human body or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity, with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance and / or correcting body odor, and / or protecting the body or keeping them in good condition.”
Under this Bill, cosmetic products include not just make-up, but practically everything we put on our skin, hair, and teeth, including products that keep these “in good condition,” and which “protect the body.” This means a tax on everything from shampoos and conditioners, to toothpaste and dental floss, sunblock to insect repellants, bite ointments and lotions, moisturizers and deodorants.
In fact, this bill is talking about products everyone uses: men, women, LGBT, from childhood to adulthood, and even senior citizens.
This is not a Vanity Tax, it’s a personal hygiene tax.
Some taxable beauty
Partylist Representative Rodel Batocabe, the proponent of this Bill, had the backlash coming, especially given the premise that cosmetics are non-essential products that women buy as a matter of “pampaganda.” Not a need, but a want. This is primarily what has fueled #DontTaxMyBeauty: because why can’t we be pretty if we want to be?!?
But as with many hashtags, it also misses the point. After all, there is a grain of truth in the fact that for a certain sector of women, make-up IS a want, not a need. Many on social media proved this true when they asserted that oh no, they can’t just live with one lipstick! They need 10!
These are precisely the consumers that this Bill wants to tax, and it is these consumers that prove that make-up is a luxury, at least for a specific group of women with the wherewithal and capacity to spend on make-up. This is not a judgment as it is fact: while we wish it were not true, make-up can be nothing more than an indulgence, ultimately non-essential.
Of course, the bigger and more important point to be made is how this is not true for a majority of women in this country – even as they might use make-up.
Class, not gender
Tax proposals such as this one are not so much about beauty, as it is about social class.
This part of it much of social media missed, focused as #DontTaxMyBeauty was on how it was anti-woman, because we deserve to buy as much make-up as we want.
But those of us who buy cosmetics we don’t need – we are totally different from those women who are required to wear make-up so they might keep their jobs. Waitresses, salesgirls, guest relation officers, secretaries, government employees, receptionists – these are some of the women who need to maintain a certain made-up, put-together look that is considered “presentable” for these industries.
These women spend on make-up sure, but they spend on it as a matter of need, not as a matter of want; it’s a necessity, not a hobby; it’s a job requirement, not a tool of the trade. This distinguishes them from freelance make-up artists, celebrities, models who need this for work, and who should (if a tax like this actually happens) get a tax refund for these.
The Pinay minimum wage worker meanwhile is expected to wear make-up, regardless of whether she has the money to buy make-up or not. To her, a tax will be a burden, not a matter of buying one less tube of lipstick, or a matter of picking a cheaper brand. Neither will she get a make-up allowance, or a tax refund.
But probably the more important question we all evaded given all this talk about a vanity tax: why can’t tax reform have its eye trailed upon big business and the indisputably unnecessary beauty and aesthetic clinics, spas and high-end salons? These are already only affordable to a specific sector of society, and a hike in prices wouldn’t affect a majority of women who don’t avail of these services anyway.
Meanwhile here’s hoping that while we’re already talking about women’s rights and sexism, that we can all gather together and build a real campaign – and hashtag – against Miss Universe. Now that’s something worth doing.
Published in The Manila Times, January 15 2017.