Hot or Not: Why Women Wear Makeup

When the summer heat kicks in, I stop wearing makeup.  Maybe some occasional mascara, but nothing else.  It’s too darn hot.

After about a week, I get used to my face without makeup.  My face gets a little tanner (or pinker) and I start to think that makeup actually looks weird on me.  But come September, I slowly start wearing it again.  Every year, the cycle makes me wonder: why do we wear makeup in the first place?  Is there rhyme or reason to brushing our eyes with Twinks or dusting our cheeks with Peachykeen?

Probably the most obvious reason that people could cite is simply that makeup makes women more attractive.

In 2003, a study confirmed that makeup significantly improved attractiveness ratings for Caucasian women.  No surprise here.  We’re so constantly inundated with pictures of women in makeup that our collective standards of beauty are heavily stacked toward totally airbrushed perfection.

Perhaps less often considered is that women may be perceived differently when wearing makeup, and that wearing makeup may offer an advantage.

In 2006, a study found that women wearing makeup were perceived as healthier and more confident than those without.

It makes sense that makeup may give an increased impression of health.  Even skin tone, a warm glow, color in the lips and cheeks—all signs of a healthy person.

There are also several reasons why a woman wearing makeup might be perceived as more confident.  Off the top of my head, a woman may act and appear more confident because she knows that she typically receives positive feedback when wearing makeup, or that self-care (which tasteful makeup could be) may be seen as a sign of self-confidence and self-respect.

But get this: the study also found that participants awarded the women wearing makeup with higher earning potential and more prestigious jobs.

What?!

This suggests that women who wear makeup are not only at a sexual advantage, but an occupational and financial advantage as well.  In that light, a woman’s decision about whether or not to wear makeup has quite a bit more weight to it!

Now, all of these perceptions (health, confidence, and status) are positive assumptions.  But I have a feeling that there’s a more nuanced picture here.

In 2008, a social psychologist conducted the first field study in the is-makeup-really-appealing field, and found that women wearing makeup were 3x as likely to be approached in a bar, and were approached in a shorter time period.

Remember what we just learned about how women wearing makeup are perceived and this seems like a pretty understandable finding.  A woman wearing makeup appears healthier, more confident, and higher status.  Depending on the guy, that could be pretty attractive.

However, we’re talking about a bar scene here, so I think the most obvious explanation for the increased number of approaches may be that makeup signals availability.  I would actually argue that how tasteful a woman’s makeup is indicates how “easy” a guy might perceive her to be.

So, while makeup can signal confidence, it can also be a veil to mask insecurity.  There is always an element of self-consciousness to makeup, since we wear it to manipulate the viewer’s perception of our external self.  But perhaps makeup doesn’t have to be a façade, and doesn’t have to hide.

I’ve been in a relationship for six years and at this point, I’m honestly not that concerned about whether some guy in a bar likes my taste in eyeshadow.  My fiancé can look at my face at its absolute worst and still tell me I look beautiful, so most of the time I show him my face as it naturally is.  But if we’re going on a date, I will still take a full hour to put on makeup, choose my outfit, and do my hair.  Am I crazy?  Or is there a positive role for makeup in long-term love?

There are a lot of directions I could go here, but I had an idea that struck me.  Evolutionary theory assumes that men benefit (biologically) from spreading their seed, while women benefit from attracting one man and keeping him around.  Men have many reasons to stick around in modern relationships, but at the biological root, men and women are at odds.  Makeup, then, may offer a way for one woman to create a variety of different looks, or to keep her partner interested by giving the illusion of “newness.” Compelling, right?

The Coolidge effect describes the phenomenon that men’s refractory period (required between sexual encounters with the same partner) is reduced or eliminated when novel women are introduced.  Instead of looking at this as support for open relationships, let’s consider the idea that a monogamous relationship may benefit from newness.

A couple years ago, the NY Times ran an article suggesting that novelty in long-term relationships leads to greater couple satisfaction.  This feels intuitive, doesn’t it?  New experiences lead to new discussions or thoughts, which lead to new understandings of your partner and greater opportunity for growth.

In the same way, as my style, or physical self-expression, changes, I offer something new to the relationship.  My changing style offers information about my changing self—one of the many ways that I may express self-exploration and self-discovery.

A couple weeks ago, my fiancé described his excitement about seeing me in my wedding dress by saying that such a personal choice is like turning some aspect of myself inside-out, for everyone to see, and that he can’t wait to see what I’ve chosen to share.  I love that description because it highlights that style or makeup, so often chalked up to vanity, can be powerful means of self-expression.

In that light, I begin to believe that makeup’s appeal is less about what we apply than why we apply it.  I could choose to put on foundation to hide my ever-red nose and flushed cheeks because I feel insecure about them, but you might love my red nose and think it’s cute that I flush when I get into a heated discussion.  I would be hiding those aspects of my self that you may find unique and lovable.  On the other hand, I could choose to put on makeup that highlights my eyes to signal that I’d like you to focus on connecting with me at a personal level, using a sultry, smoky effect to indicate that I find you attractive.  My action is essentially the same, but my intention is different. Perhaps makeup is most attractive when it is worn to reveal, rather than conceal.

Still, I do wonder sometimes, what if we opted out?  How would we feel different if we never wore makeup again?

When I shed my makeup in the summer, I notice that I start to see myself more from the inside-out, instead of from the outside-in.  I become more aware of the world I am looking at instead of the world that is looking at me.  I wonder: are we stuck in a spiral where we spend more time trying to give the impression of health and confidence instead of trying to cultivate actual health and confidence?  Next time we reach for the Peachykeen, maybe we should take a moment to consider our intention.

NOTE: I realize that this is a pretty heterosexual discussion, so I’d love comments from anyone willing to respond about men or women wearing makeup in the LGBT community.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Hot or Not: Why Women Wear Makeup

  1. Interesting series of articles in Newsweek on ‘the beauty advantage’. Check it out if you want to read more on this topic: http://www.newsweek.com/tag/the-beauty-advantage.html

    Some scary thoughts in there on plastic surgery. But also some good counter-arguments about appreciating our natural looks and promoting health over vanity. Also an amusing article imagining if men were subject to the beauty standards expected of women.

    One author suggests in ‘She Stoops to Conquer’:

    “How could any woman who calls herself a feminist condone a patriarchal, plasticized beauty ideal? But maybe O’Neill is onto something. Sexism may be more subtle these days, but it certainly still exists. So does the reality of our beauty bias. If we acknowledge that we’re being judged on our looks anyway—and that they’re indeed crucial to our career success, as a new Newsweek survey shows—well, why wouldn’t we use them, own them, empower ourselves through them? Wouldn’t that be—dare we say it—the feminist thing to do?”

    This is sort of what I was suggesting in my post ‘Gaga: Ooh La La’ except that it misses the point. Using objectification to our advantage means manipulating the consumer by turning objectification on its head: finding a way to make the viewer willingly consume our *desired* ideal. We have done nothing to promote change through the interaction if we have simply met the standard expectations.

    There is also a brief mention that cosmetics sales have gone down recently–in line with the more natural look that’s in vogue now.

    These articles remind me that we take our intelligence, creativity, loves, and friendships with us as our bodies fall apart–may we never forget to cultivate those aspects of our selves.

  2. Ashley

    What I want to know is this – in the 2006 study, were the participants judging the women aware that the women were wearing makeup? Or was the makeup done in such a way as to enhance the women’s natural look? I’ll have to have a look at their statistical tests and see if they accounted for female target attractiveness at baseline (e.g., having a separate group of people rate the women’s attractiveness when both groups of women (makeup and non-makeup) weren’t wearing makeup).

    • That’s a great question and I’m actually not sure whether the makeup was applied to look natural or not (my guess is that it was, but I could totally see how a ‘going out at night’ look would probably get different ratings than a ‘going about my day’ look). As for baseline attractiveness, my understanding is that the same group of women was shown with makeup and without makeup to different groups of raters.

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