Beauty vs. Makeup: Let the Research Begin

The last time I weighed in on studies about beauty, I was pretty negative about them. I’m a wee bit creeped out by the desire to pin down something an anarchic and electric as beauty, even as I’m fascinated by the findings. And if I’m going to be brutally honest: Part of my fascination and my distaste for beauty studies is that they inevitably prompt me to evaluate my own appearance in an uncomfortably scientific manner. So women with a certain waist-hip ratio are considered more attractive: Am I the only one who’s then hurriedly done a quick calculation to make sure I’m on the “right” side of that ratio? Besides all the obvious points about how ridiculous that mode of thinking is, it’s also futile: If my waist-hip ratio, which is less about weight and more about build, is unsatisfactory, there’s not much I can do about it.

That’s what is exciting to me about this recent study on makeup, attractiveness, and likability. Researcher Nancy Etcoff, psychologist and author of Survival of the Prettiest, conducted a study (backed by cosmetics giant Procter & Gamble, but we’ll get to that) that examined personality traits we connect with makeup use. Participants were shown photos of 25 different women, each shown in four different “faces” of makeup, from none at all to “the natural look” to daytime professional to “glamorous.” (See image above.) One group looked at each picture for one-quarter of a second; the other group had unlimited time to look at each. They were then asked to rate how competent, likable, attractive, and trustworthy the person in the photo was.

From left to right: No makeup, "natural" makeup, "professional," and "glamour." (Incidentally, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't part of the point of glamour that you're not necessarily trustworthy? Mystique and all?)

The results will probably not knock you over in surprise: The speed group rated women with the most makeup the most attractive and competent, with the “professional” makeup job leading on liability and trustworthiness. The group with unlimited time uniformly chose the woman with the “professional” look as more competent, likable, and attractive than other levels of makeup (including the “glamour” look), with the “natural” look coming out the winner for trustworthiness. (The takeaway, it seems, is to be smack-dab in the middle. All hail neutral eye pencil!)

As for the glamour shots, they were judged far less likable in the group that had unlimited time to examine the photos as compared with the group that saw the photos quickly. I’d be frownier about the makeup-isn’t-likable bit if it applied to the quick-glance group too, but since it doesn’t I think we have to look at how people fill in missing information about personalities with the only information they have available. If the only information you have about someone is that she wears a lot of makeup, that information becomes disproportionately weighted. Maybe we don't find faces with makeup less likable or trustworthy the more we look at them; maybe we just find makeup not particularly trustworthy. An actual woman would provide us with more information about herself: Is she funny? Is she kind? Does her voice grate? What's her handshake like, or does she hug upon first meeting? Her makeup’s importance would become automatically adjusted, leaving us to view her as something other than a user of heavy makeup.

Still, with the exception of attractiveness and, to a lesser degree, competence, the difference between all four makeup looks was minuscule. So in looking at the data, I’m surprised this has been reported as widely as it has been—and I shouldn’t be. What makes this study appealing is that instead of just measuring “beauty,” with all that data about facial symmetry and waist-hip ratio, it’s measuring something we can actually do something about. Studies of social science are interesting because we can apply them to our own lives, but it’s difficult to truly know what the findings of beauty studies say about us. For even if you manage to understand where exactly you fall on these scientifically determined beauty scales, if you’re on the lower end of the scale and you’re reading about how beautiful people rule the world—well, besides being disheartening, it also brings a sense of futility. We can all and work out and dress well and get a good haircut and do all sorts of things to improve our appearance—but at the end of the day, you just might not be beautiful.

That’s traditionally been one of the things that makes me wary of evolutionary psychology: It gives us justification to treat the pursuit of beauty as a matter of survival. But I’ve always quietly maintained that to dismiss evo-psych outright is disingenuous as well, and that there’s a way to look at the field with a feminist lens other than to issue uncompromising critiques of it. This study takes a good step toward doing just that. It isn’t based in evoluationary psychology per se, but that’s Etcoff’s background, and the thesis of her book Survival of the Prettiest is that traits we find attractive are based on evolutionary cues (a low waist-hip ratio signals fertility, for example). Whatever you may think of that argument, here she’s making it less about God-given features and more about what we can actually do. “It may be fruitful to disentangle the effects of beauty from beauty enhancement,” Etcoff writes of this study, and I couldn’t agree more. For not only is there then more action one can take if you’re so inclined, there’s also more room for critique and engagement instead of simply “Asymmetrical face? Screwed!”

In examining not merely attractiveness but other traits associated with makeup wearing, Etcoff validates the idea that cosmetics aren’t just used to enhance our attractiveness but come with an entire set of connotations and implications. By studying beauty, we come to the unsurprising notion that being conventionally attractive makes life a little easier. By studying makeup, we study our culture’s ideas about makeup and the women wearing it—infinitely more interesting, and less dead-end.

That’s not to say the study should be swallowed without question. The intro states, “Cosmetics are seen as freely chosen and morally neutral agents of beauty enhancement. Their use reflects the individual's preferences and choices...” Sure, they’re “freely chosen”—by women only, showing that in fact they’re not solely reflective of “individual preferences and choices.” The obvious stumbling block here, though, is that it was funded by the beauty and grooming sector of Procter & Gamble, which produces, among others, CoverGirl, Olay, Pantene, and Clairol. Now, I’m not seeing anything in the study that indicates there’s any sort of bias going on here. But for a makeup company to invest in a study about makeup means that at the very least we need to approach the findings with a penciled eyebrow ever-so-slightly raised.

Yet for whatever flaws the study may have, I like it. If we’re going to study beauty, we need to do more than just “discover” that pretty people have it a little bit easier. Part of evolutionary psychology, after all, is examining what makes us uniquely human. Taking a scientific approach that allows for the examination social construction of beauty instead of treating it as something you either have or you don’t seems like a potentially beneficial path for us to take.