I Already Have a Cryptocurrency: It's Called Sephora Insider Points

From Bunz to Bitcoin, women and other marginalized groups have used alternative currencies long before they were fashionable

Five rows and five columns of repeating emoji women, bags of money, lipsticks and dollar bills

(Design: Leo Tapel)

A few weeks ago I made a joke on Twitter about how I don’t need Bitcoin because I already have a cryptocurrency called Sephora Beauty Insider Points.

It was an off-the-cuff remark made after blowing my stash of points on a set of fancy skincare products, and I thought maybe a few people would think it was funny and that was that. I was wrong.

The tweet blew up, garnering thousands of likes and shares; Sephora itself even posted it. Predictably, most of the reactions came from women, although maybe not for the reasons you think.

Yes, women are the primary consumers in the makeup industry and are the primary subscribers for points programs like the Beauty Insider Points, but that’s only part of the picture. To understand the rest of it you need to understand the intersecting histories of women, finances and alternative currencies.

So what, exactly, is an alternative currency?

Alternative currencies are payment or exchange agreements that are not based in a national currency. That might sound fancy, but I promise that you’ve almost definitely used one at some point. A corporate customer loyalty program is a type of alternative currency; so is bartering—like off-loading stuff that you don’t need anymore on Bunz or another local trading group. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies (digital forms of alternative currencies that use cryptography for security) might be a more recent development, but the use of these types of currencies themselves certainly isn’t novel.

“Alternatives to state-backed currencies have always existed,” says Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn, editor of Bitcoin and Beyond: Cryptocurrencies, Blockchains, and Global Governance. “They just haven’t been legal tender, or backed by gold or silver in the case of commodity monies.”

While cryptocurrencies in particular are often seen as a way for people to evade the law by making untraceable illegal transactions, the reality is that there are plenty of valid reasons why someone might want to circumvent the use of state-backed currencies. What we traditionally think of as “money” is fine if your government views you as fully human, but earning and spending it becomes trickier if, for example, you are not legally allowed to own property or have your own bank account.

So what do you do if you can’t control your own finances? You can either play by the rules—or else you can find a new set of rules.

Marginalized groups have long used alternative currencies

Throughout history women have been denied access to economic independence; even today, 42 percent of women worldwide remain outside of the formal financial system. We’ve had to develop our own coping strategies to deal with this fact, some of which include informal employment, trading services for goods instead of cash, and, of course, putting their own spin on currency. Sometimes women have literally changed legal tender, like when British suffragettes stamped Votes For Women on one penny coins; in other cases, women have done less glamorous things like using consumer points systems and clipping coupons. While these latter two examples might seem small, both have helped women maintain some control over their financial lives by allowing them to stretch their money further.

As alternative currencies change and develop, marginalized groups continue to find new ways to use them to their advantage. GayMoney and LGBT Token are two examples of cryptocurrencies developed by queer communities for their own use. MazaCoin is a cryptocurrency created by a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota and is part of a larger movement towards “digital decolonization.” Cryptocurrencies can offer financial freedom to people living under oppressive regimes, as it’s less expensive to transfer them than it is to transfer money using services like Western Union. In a larger sense, cryptocurrencies also help sustain a feeling of unity, in the same way that the euro created a sense of unity across Europe.

But what about the dark side of cryptocurrencies? Doesn’t their anonymity mean that they’re more likely to be used for nefarious purposes?

“All currencies can be abused,” says Campbell-Verduyn. “But what these alternatives can provide is a sense of belonging, community and solidarity between peoples that are marginalized in nation-states that, in many cases, have actively sought to suppress their identities and rights.”

All right, so maybe my Sephora points aren’t quite a cryptocurrency. And maybe they’re not exactly freeing me from financial tyranny. They are, however, a way of participating in an age-old tradition of accessing alternatives to legal tender. If the history of women’s monetary marginalization didn’t exist, would we even have things like customer rewards programs? Even if Sephora Beauty Insider Points seems frivolous, it’s still part of the continuation of something much bigger.

As long as society dictates that women should wear eyeliner and lipstick, I’ll take mine with a side of free moisturizer, thanks.

More from Anne Thériault:

Treating My Depression with Magnets: Not Cured, But Cautiously Optimistic
We’re Only Having Half the Conversation We Need to About Mass Shootings
Remember the Women of the Montreal Massacre by More Than Just Their Names