A study done by researchers at Procter & Gamble, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found that what a woman wears on her face impacts how people perceive her. Participants in the study were asked to rate whether they felt women were competent, like-able, attractive and trustworthy. Turns out most people felt all these factors were true when looking at faces for a flash and felt most of them when studying the faces longer with the exception of one factor: at a longer glance women wearing make-up were not trustworthy.
We already know we live in a culture where women are judged by what they look like–you don’t need a multi-institution study to tell you that. Just walk down the street or into a meeting with or without make-up on, or with your hair messy, or wearing less flattering as opposed to more flattering clothing. Not only will it make a difference on how you are perceived, but most likely on how you perceive yourself. As women, we know all too well the cost of not living up to what we are supposed to look like.
There is generally an agreed understanding that this is true for women across the board, but where most of us differ is that feminists believe that this occurrence is socially fabricated and culturally sanctioned and some biologists and most evolutionary psychologists believe this is a natural and evolved state of being. They don’t believe it is our constant consumption of photoshop perfect images of women, that don’t even look real, that impacts what we find attractive, like-able, trustworthy or competent.
“When they got to the more dramatic makeup looks, people saw them as equally likable and much more attractive and competent, but less trustworthy,” Etcoff said. “Dramatic makeup was no longer an advantage compared to when people saw the photos very quickly.”
Etcoff said the study findings should serve as a message to women that cosmetics could have an impact on how people perceive them in ways beyond physical attractiveness.
“In situations where a perceiver is under a high cognitive load or under time pressure, he or she is more likely to rely on such automatic judgments for decision-making,” the authors wrote. “Facial images appear on ballots, job applications, web sites and dating sites.”
Are they suggesting that when you look more like what is considered a “pretty woman,” you get treated differently, maybe even treated better? *slow clap*
To further scaffold this tremendous finding they also claim that even infants like pretty faces (because infants are so good at reporting their findings!) and that make-up has always had an impact on how women are perceived.
They write in the study’s introduction,
As popular agents of self-advertising, cosmetics have been subject to shifting cultural attitudes toward their use. They were apparently considered so good at deceiving husbands In the late eighteenth century, and so feared by them, that the English government proposed a law stating that, “All women…that shall from and after this act impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony any of his Majesty’s subjects by the use of scents, paints, cosmetics, washes, … shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witch craft and like misdemeanors and that the marriage upon convictions shall stand null and void”
I mean, if you are looking for rational and appropriate responses to women’s self-expression–I can think of no better example than the late 18th century in England. And despite the draconian practices of their day–this Victorian idea that women are sultry sex beasts luring men into their love den traps–just might have something to do with the uncanny standard that no make-up makes you ugly, but too much makes you a slut and untrustworthy.
I’m not saying there is no biological reaction to seeing paint on a face or that red lips don’t make you want to kiss me more. I’m just saying it is hard to determine what of that is a learned response from repeatedly seeing one type of beauty endorsed historically and culturally as opposed to what is biologically desirable. And I don’t know that it necessarily matters–we have enough sense to know that it is generally unfair for a woman to be judged for how much make-up she is wearing as opposed to the content of her character. Doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that studies like this have a rather unfortunate confirmation bias: that sexism is an inherent state of being.