Pin It
donna trope
Photography Donna Trope

The price of beauty: Why we rack up debt to pay for cosmetic treatments

With people increasingly sacrificing basic necessities like food to afford cosmetic procedures, Beth Ashley investigates the extreme pressure beauty culture is placing on us

Two years ago, 25-year-old Becky* started up an OnlyFans account. She was mostly doing it to make some extra cash and because she thought it would be fun. But she also started sex work in the hopes she could quickly pay off her looming debt, accumulated from years of plastic surgery and cosmetic treatments. “I’ve spent around £7000 on lip and cheek fillers, and a breast augmentation,” she tells Dazed. “I’m hoping to get Botox at some point in the next six months, and also potentially more filler in my face if I can find the money.”

Despite the stress of financial insecurity – she’s had to borrow money from her mum more than once – Becky doesn’t want to give up cosmetic treatments as they make her “so happy and confident”, helping with her self-esteem. “I have always been self-conscious about having small lips so I thought ‘why not just get them done?’ Having filler made me feel so much better about myself.”

As more people sign up for treatments than ever before, the number of people racking up debt to cover the costs is rising. The Debt Support Centre has found that in the past 5 months the number of women aged 35-44 qualifying for debt help increased by 58 per cent, while women aged 25-34 have increased by 26 per cent. Men, across all age groups, only grew by 15 per cent. 

Despite this rising debt, however, many women are still prioritising their beauty needs. Even before basic expenses hiked in price, the average disposable income among Brits was just a few hundred pounds, while Botox, one of the cheaper treatments on the cosmetic market, ranges from £150-£400 per treatment. Yet searches for “skin cosmetic treatments” are up 138 per cent, and searches for "beauty salon offers near me" are up 120 per cent.

On top of this, aestheticians are increasingly adding ‘buy now pay later’ methods to their tweakment services (botox, filler, etc). It’s easy to see how vulnerable people struggling with self-esteem issues and financial woes could fall into debt before they even realise it’s happening. Without intervention, we could be on our way to a beauty debt crisis. 

“We are socialised to be desirable and to think our value is being wanted,” says Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and author of What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of Our Deepest Desires. “If you feel that your survival depends on being appealing, it becomes a matter of life and death. Psychologically, it feels absolutely desperate.” 

For people struggling with self-esteem, who believe something about their appearance must be changed, cosmetic treatments feel as necessary as food and shelter, Fox Weber says, comparing it to a true addiction in that sense. “If you weigh the emotional risk of thousands of pounds of unattainable debt against the emotional risk of feeling undesirable, you’ll probably find that the idea of being undesirable seems worse.”

Becky is worried about having to cover the costs of all the treatments she’s had, and the ones she wants to continue topping up, but she’s struggling to put an end to it. “It’s such a rush and makes me feel so much better, I don’t want to stop.” To afford the treatments, she has often skipped going out with her friends, buying lunch, and even grocery shopping.

Becky’s not alone in this. 23-year-old Jay has also struggled with cosmetic treatment debt. “I try to stay on top of brow waxing, lash and brow tinting, and I used to spend a lot getting my hair done which is an expensive habit and up-keep is pricey.” Jay used ‘buy now, pay later’ services to pay for his treatments and ended up in a lot of debt (he hasn’t disclosed the actual figure).

“I’d sacrifice other essentials to pay for cosmetic treatments, I’d borrow money to pay for them, sometimes I just wouldn’t eat,” – Jay

To an extent, the cost of living crisis has forced Jay to prioritise his important bills. “But if I’ve got money left over that month, I'll skip on saving to get cosmetic treatments done.” Jay has also withheld from spending on day-to-day items to afford treatments, including skipping eating to pay for filler. “I’d feel good about myself [when I had cosmetic treatments] so I’d sacrifice other essentials to pay, I’d borrow money to pay for them, sometimes I just wouldn’t eat,” he says.

Debt has extreme consequences. If you’re unable to settle debt in the UK, you can be served a County Court Junction which prevents you from passing credit checks and applying for finances for six years, affecting everything from applying for a rental home to simply taking out a phone contract. So why are so many people willing to prioritise cosmetic treatments over financial security? 

The “beauty premium” is the idea that people who are conventionally attractive, whose features align with the current trending beauty ideals, will have a better quality of life. Research shows that those who are perceived as desirable and attractive will not only receive extra attention from potential partners or lovers, but also have better careers. Attractive people are seen as better workers by their employers, they are more likely to be hired and more likely to be offered higher salaries – by nearly 10.5 per cent.

In 1977, the Halo Effect study suggested we subconsciously assume people’s appearances are a reflection of their overall characters. So, people who are conventionally attractive may be perceived as sociable, friendly, intelligent, and skilled. Pretty privilege doesn’t just translate to work success. Disturbingly, desirable people can even develop better communication skills, as research demonstrates conventionally attractive people are perceived as more sociable and engaged in more in-depth conversations with a wider range of people.

Social media and celebrities also play a huge part in the way people think about beauty culture today. Online we are constantly bombarded by attractive faces – TikTok user Eleanor Stern coined it “beauty overstimulation” – leading us to believe that we’re falling short by normal standards. Kim Kardashian, one of the most followed people in the world, said in an interview last month that she would be willing to “eat poop every single day” if it would make her look younger and revealed she has regular at-home laser treatments after her children go to sleep. Meanwhie, when sister Kylie first admitted to having lip fillers in 2015, there was a 70 per cent rise in enquiries for lip filler within 24 hours 

“We see these glamorous, famous and attractive people with these expensive treatments, we subconsciously think that is a way to show off,” says Jay, who thinks shows like Love Island have contributed to his eagerness to participate in beauty culture. “We see the life they live and how perfect it looks and we associate them together. We think we need them to be beautiful, to be somebody and get somewhere even if it means getting in debt to do it.”

“A lot of it was also social pressure,” he adds. “I'd see my friends and people around me getting them... It gets you social points if you get them so there is pressure to keep it up, you end up with an image and people expect that from you, when you can't you get shunned by people.”

Becky’s aesthetician has now told her she needs to take a break from filler for a while. “My lips can’t hold any more right now so I guess that’s a blessing in disguise. I want to try and use this time to get a handle on my finances and sort myself out,” she tells Dazed. As for Jay, he will be continuing with treatments as he believes they will help him carve a better career path. 

If you’re struggling with cosmetic debt, seek advice from a qualified debt advisor. Being in debt can be isolating and overwhelming so it's important to seek help from someone who can help you to assess your circumstances and talk about the different options available to you. It is also important to seek support from family members or friends if you feel you are able to do so.