Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Articles published in October, 2006

Bikini Waxing

The FT forgot to post this piece online, so here it is in full:

Dear Economist,
Bikini waxes: boyfriends seem to like the results, but they hurt. What would you say were the costs and benefits?
Yours,
Sylvia, via email

Dear Sylvia,
Thank you for sharing your concerns. I have never had a bikini wax myself and prefer not to comment on the aesthetic qualities of the practice. Nevertheless I believe there is an important economic insight to take on board: you are making what economists would call a “relationship-specific investment”, and such investments have consequences.
Admittedly, getting a bikini wax is not as serious a business as having a child, or indeed a prominent tattoo reading “Sylvia for Tim”.
Still, it is something that only one boyfriend is likely to enjoy; should he prove insufficiently appreciative, your depilation is not something you will be able to advertise to other admirers unless you have an unusually frank flirtation technique, or a career as a pole dancer.
When businesses install equipment or learn techniques to satisfy the requirements of a particular customer, they usually do so only when protected by cost-sharing arrangements or a long-term contract; sometimes the client will even merge with its supplier. Those who do not risk being exploited: once the one-sided commitment has been made and the costs have been sunk, they find the other side reneging on the deal.
You should learn the same lessons. Cost-sharing might be a fancy weekend away; a long-term contract might specify that your boyfriend does the washing up. (Get it in writing.) And as for a merger? Marriage, of course, or an engagement assured by a suitably expensive rock.
Whatever it is you want from your boyfriend, make sure you get it before you make your own painful investment. You need to understand when your bargaining power is waning or – ahem – waxing.

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