Face Value? Study Claims Makeup Makes Women Appear More “Competent”

The NY Times reported on a study of 25 Black, White, and Hispanic women between the ages of 20-50 who were photographed wearing various levels of makeup.

By Ophira Edut

Does the mascara make the woman? The New York Times published results of a study (see the article here) claiming that a moderate amount of makeup “increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness.”

Granted, the study was funded by Proctor and Gamble (which makes me arch a penciled eyebrow), but it was designed by some scholarly folk, too. It’s yet another piece to fall into that uncomfortable realm of human-as-animal/biology-as-destiny that’s such a strange bedfellow with feminism and progressive ideals.

The notion that a woman has to wear makeup to be deemed a solid citizen is about as sophisticated as the old “are you a fall or a spring” palette method. I know plenty of bare-faced ladies who run empires. And trust me, nobody would dare questions their cred. However, I’ve also read studies that the brain can make a lasting first impression within as short as 1/10 of a second. I’m guilty of doing so. And I always get a laugh when people refer to Gloria Steinem as the poster girl for this stereotype of de-gendered feminism. Back in the day, Gloria’s feminist cred was suspect because she was so pretty. Gloria knows the power of being polished, even as she delivers a radical message.

I’ve been swiping on the same five-minute combo of eyeshadow-eyeliner-mascara for about 20 years. I do feel more polished and together with makeup on, though I skip the foundation and blush routine unless it’s a bigger event. I brave the trendy streets of New York makeup-free, too, but usually it’s just to run errands. So I guess along the way, I’ve been socially conditioned, too.

Part of the girlieness I enjoy is getting to play with colors, polishes and powders. It’s fun for the imagination, and harmless to a point. As long as we’re not talking Toddles & Tiaras “glitz” pageants and THAT slippery slope, of course. And thanks to Nirvana, Pete Wentz and the JoBros, boys can dabble in the fun, too. (Guyliner, anyone?)

The danger of such studies, though, is that makeup becomes compulsory, instead of fun.

We can no longer discount neuroscience completely. However, we can’t just take studies like this at, ahem, face value either. Findings like this discount the soul, the essence, the “anime” that we sometimes call inner beauty. Without charisma—which can’t be painted on—all the makeup in the world can only help so much.

Related Content:

Warning: Feminist Wearing Makeup Ahead. Look Both Ways Before Crossing


6 thoughts on “Face Value? Study Claims Makeup Makes Women Appear More “Competent”

  1. I went through my big makeup phase in 7th grade, probably because I wasn’t allowed to wear it. Then most of it got phased out when I scaled back to eyeliner alone- but I noticed it was always getting in my eyes. Or all over my face. And the waterproof makeup was impossible to remove. So I quit wearing it. It wasn’t worth the effort. Occasionally I’d put on lipstick or lip gloss when I went out, but by the time I hit 30 I had my hands full juggling parenting and working and there just wasn’t time, even for that. One day, 10 years later, my son moved in with his dad. Now I had a minute to apply lip gloss, and I was like “Ew – that looks funny!” It was like it drew attention to the otherwise barely noticeable lines on my face. I later read that , because of wrinkles, for women over 40, when it comes to makeup, less is more. So I figure zero is 100 percent 🙂

  2. I guess most men don’t look competent then, because i don’t see many of them wearing makeup. It is interesting how I have to wear it just to be at the same ‘competence level’ as men in the eyes of my peers.

    I think it is social conditioning. my mom raised me and she never wore makeup and now i never wear it. Make-up has never effected my judgment of a girl.

    I am actually sad to see girls wearing so much make-up at my university. They are trying so hard to look like models and beauty queens, high heels and dresses that look like they are going out clubbing afterwards, and the boys are just wearing whatever comfortable clothes they pulled out of their hamper. What happened to us? We are at school to learn, when did we start feeling like we are in a freaking beauty contest? and why don’t boys feel as much pressure to be perfect all the time?


  3. Isn’t the brain a highly malleable thing, especially in youth when we begin to make sense of the world around us? Couldn’t positive responses to make-up be a result of social conditioning rather than the result of built-in neurological responses?

    I’m sure there have been human societies that lived without make-up, and their brain’s responses to a painted face might be different. Perhaps, make-up in a world without it, could be interpreted as a mask, as indicating that someone had something to hide.

    Sure, we live in this society, and perhaps in this society this is how we respond to make-up. What I take issue with is the suggestion that this is all based on biology, rather than social conditioning.

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