Why Iranian Women Spend Big on Cosmetics

Iranian women spend three times more on makeup than women in France, Germany and the UK.

Women in Iran spend an unusually large proportion of their incomes on makeup, according to a recent report, which found that 4.5 percent of annual wages in Iran go toward cosmetics. That rate is three times what women spend in France, Germany or the United Kingdom.

It's news that has the potential to reinforce all sorts of stereotypes - about oppression of women in the Middle East and the use of cosmetics as a political statement.

But experts say, the reasons behind Iranian beauty trends are more complex than that, and a closer look offers a window into the culture, history and social life of Iran.

The idea that Iranian women wear makeup to make a political statement against the mandatory hijab is "an oversimplified version of reality," said Aliakbar Jafari, who researches consumer culture at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and travels frequently to Iran, where he is from.

"I'm not denying that this exists," he said. "But narrowing everything down to politics is very naïve."

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Context is important, for one thing, and the use of cosmetics in Iran is far from new. Archaeological evidence includes lipsticks, eyeliners and face powders that date back more than 5,000 years, he says, when different types of cosmetics signaled a woman's position of power.

In poetry, literature, religion and art, Jafari adds, Iranian women have long been depicted as glamorous and refined.

"Women in Iran have always been using cosmetics," he said. "We need to acknowledge that although the practices we see today are shaped by many social, economic and political dynamics, these things are also deeply rooted in history."

Still, plenty has changed, particularly after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when women became required to cover their heads and bodies while out in public. The mandatory hijab left faces as the only place where women could express their identities, says Marjan Jalalin, a women's studies researcher associated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, and ex-CEO of L'Oreal in Tehran.

She was a teenager living in Iran during the Revolution and says that, before the war, her generation opposed wearing makeup because to them, it symbolized sexual oppression and turned women into puppets.

After the Revolution, she says, makeup became fashionable for girls, and their use of it grew increasingly exaggerated. With the rest of their bodies covered, the face became central to a woman's value and sense of self.

"Because women can not display their bodies or hair styles or tattoos, what becomes prominent is the face," Jafari said. "And what becomes more prominent is the makeup."

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Cosmetics are also a form of entertainment, he and a colleague discovered after conducting in-depth interviews with 15 young Iranian women for a 2014 study. For many, they wrote, the use of makeup represented "the desire to uplift tired spirits in a monotonous environment."

Iran is a land of contrasts, where multiple cultures exist simultaneously, Jafari adds. Behind closed doors, fashion trends are adventurous and diverse. Makeup use varies, too. Among his Iranian relatives, some indulge in beauty products as well as cosmetic surgeries. Others are more modest in their appearance.

But with access to Western movies, magazines, social media and foreign cosmetic products, the use of makeup and elective plastic surgery have become increasingly popular, among both women and men in Iran.

At the same time, social pressures have shifted, Jalalin says, even within families. She has two daughters, both in their 30s, who have had nose jobs and encourage her to stay "up-to-date."

"My daughters expect me to always be in fashion," she said. "They respect me more when I have good makeup and am fresh."

Also deeply rooted is a belief among Iranian men that their wives should look a certain way. When Jalalin was visiting one her daughters in the hospital after her nose surgery, she met a woman who was suffering after having multiple plastic surgeries, including a face-lift and breast implants.

Jalalin asked her why she'd done all of the surgeries at once. The woman said that her husband wanted her to look fashionable, and he had borrowed money to make it happen.

"There is no doubt that women are giving importance to their appearance and are willing to do anything at any price to improve their bodies and their fates," Jalalin said. "This has become the norm."

"There is not really pushback," she added. "This is the problem."

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