Want to be taken seriously ladies? Wear make-up!

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.

via ABC News,

“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.

Join the Conversation

  • sex-toy-james

    I think that you’re stretching to call sexism on this. Makeup is intentionally applied and meant to change the way that others perceive you. I assume that others will make snap judgements about me based on my facial hair and clothing. A lot of cultural inputs go into how different people perceive different fashion choices. I would have liked it if people would look past my appearance, but it turns out that I couldn’t not make a choice about how people were going to perceive me based on how I dressed and groomed.
    The funny thing is that when they mentioned people with more dramatic makeup looks being perceived as less trustworthy my first thought was “salespeople!” If someone is overly fancified for a given context, like a guy in a suit in Southern California, I assume that he or she is trying to sell me something, and that they’re using all that sales power to make a hefty markup.
    My clear prejudices against salespeople aside, any dramatic style can imply that someone’s trying hard to project an appearance. One has to ask, why are they working at projecting that appearance?

  • http://feministing.com/members/pizzuti/ Matt

    I agree with the idea that nature vs. nurture are very, very difficult to distinguish when it comes to human preferences.

    Personal example: when I came out to my mom as gay, one of the things she said was that it didn’t make sense to her because she raised me in a more or less gender-neutral way (she didn’t encourage me to play with “boys toys” and discourage me from “girls toys,” she didn’t force me to play sports) and I turned out to be “masculine” anyway. Aside from the fact that sexual orientation doesn’t necessarily affect gender presentation, I explained that in spite of my family’s encouragement of me to be “myself,” I was still aware of social expectations. I remember feeling poignantly uncomfortable thinking I was too “effeminate” (though I didn’t have that word for it) starting as early as second or third grade.

    I was always really interested in botany – it runs in my family – but I downplayed my interests in garden plants (thinking boys shouldn’t like flowers) and purposely directed my interest towards trees, and towards “the environment” as a more general topic instead, as a way of conforming to gender norms, starting from elementary school age. Nobody told me that was more masculine, but I still picked it up. I tried very hard to like sports (failed there). This is a function of the social world rather than biology.

    It’s interesting that women in makeup are considered less trustworthy – the point, I think, is that it’s a catch-22 where both wearing makeup and not wearing makeup lead to social prejudices whereas men never deal with that dilemma. I probably have had some of that bias myself – connecting heavy makeup to “materialism” and seeing women in makeup as also being interested in brand name clothes and expensive things. I’ll have to keep a closer eye on that in the future.

    • http://feministing.com/members/bb322/ Brittany

      Your point that makeup is a difficult situation on either end is a very difficult situation for women; however I think the situation is almost more difficult for men. Yes women are expected to look nice and groomed so its almost expected for women to wear make up even though it can turn into a materialistic competition. The situation where men are also excepted to look groomed and show that they pay attention to their appearance has been expected. As soon as a man would be noticed with makeup of anything in the cosmetic category the question of are they still manly is brought up. So even though the title of this article is “Want to be taken seriously ladies? Wear make-up!” I think this contradicts the ideas society constructed about make-up.

  • http://feministing.com/members/leahrk/ Leah

    I would like to see more quotes from the article that show that their findings are a result of a bias towards thinking people’s responses to makeup are a result of a “natural state of being” or more evidence that this is somehow essentialist. All I’m getting from the quotes you used is that a somewhat pointless study is telling me what I already know: I’m being judged by unfair standards and warped expectations.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mjameson/ Matthew T. Jameson

    Where is the sexism in this research, again? It demonstrates that we live in a society where people judge a woman based on one specific facet of her appearance, and also illustrates the Catch-22: one is perceived negatively for not wearing makeup, or for wearing makeup (less trustworthy!). There is a half-hearted argument that the study somehow supports evolutionary psychology, but not quotes back this up. Samhita also criticizes the study for demonstrating something that is purportedly obvious, but sometimes you have to do science to PROVE things you believe to be true. What a crazy idea! Sometimes it is also nice to have scientific evidence when anti-feminists tell you it’s all in your head.

    The statement about infants being unable to report preferences is also scientifically illiterate. There is a long history of preference research in infants that relies on timing how long a child looks at stimuli, and operant paradigms like showing a picture only when in infant sucks on a nipple. Read up before making ignorant statements about how infants can’t report preference!

    OP fail

    • http://feministing.com/members/fltc/ F.Toth

      @MatthewJ. : There is no reason to be snarky. As it happens, research in infants is extremely difficult precisely because they cannot report preferences. One famous study in particular on infants being timed for how long they looked at stimuli has been revealed to be bad science: the tester was trying to determine differences in responses based on the babies’s genders but KNEW the genders as she was administering the tests, increasing the likelihood of her bias influencing the babies’ responses, for example. For more on how difficult it can be to test with babies, please read “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine.

      • http://feministing.com/members/mjameson/ Matthew T. Jameson

        I don’t need a lesson on measuring preferences in infants. I’m aware of the various operation paradigms that have been used (gaze times, artificial nipples, etc.).

        Also, the example you mentioned is not bad science because it tries to measure preference in infants. It is bad science because the researcher failed to adhere to appropriate blinding procedures. THat is a research design problem, not a measurement issue.

        I stand by my previous comments, which were, by the way, not particularly snarky.

  • http://feministing.com/members/adeboye23/ adeboye

    I agree with a lot of the points in this post. I do believe that make up does do a lot to change the outlook of SOME women. I think honestly that there is no ugly or unattractive woman, everyone is beautiful in their own way and may be attractive to someone, somewhere and when I say that I am not trying to sound cliché at all or like a story book this is the way I feel. On the other hand a lot of other women do necessarily look better with make up on, they may look the same or the make-up may not do them justice making them look less appealing in the eyes of some. In my eyes I believe beside the foundation the make up on the women in row number 1 did not make that much of a flashing difference to me, she kind of looked the same in my book. It is interesting to know also that some people consider women who wear make up less trustworthy, I never heard that before but I think from personal observation I have noticed that being perceived by others subconsciously. Friends would don’t trust a pretty made up face and a short skirt, I guess that is meaning to explain that as far as a relationship goes a women who is very appealing to men may be involving herself with multiple men in whatever type of way she does, but that is completely untrue and has nothing to do with her wearing make-up and the she dresses but just by her own mentality of whatever she chooses to indulge in.

  • http://feministing.com/members/austinh/ Austin Hamilton

    This article argues that women feel like they have to wear makeup in public to be accepted and taken seriously. I definitely agree that this social construction exists and plays a vital part of women’s everyday lives. For example, I was watching a TV show the other day dealing with strange addictions people have, and one of the women on the show discussed her obsession with make-up. She confessed that she wore make-up 23 hours a day, only not when in the shower; this means she also slept in it. Because society puts a major emphasis on “beauty” and how good women look, she felt like she looked naked if she wasn’t wearing anything. It got so extreme that she even considered getting make-up tattooed onto her face. Obviously this is an outlier, but problems like this exist.
    Personally, I believe that natural beauty is much more “beautiful” than coating one’s face with make-up. According to the book Women’s Voices, Feminist’s Visions, beauty can be seen differently based on whose eyes are looking. “In contemporary US society we are surrounded by images of beautiful, thin (although fit and sculpted, large breasted, and sometimes full bottomed), young, abled, smiling women. Most of these bodies are White features or hair. These images set standards for appearance and beauty that are internalized- standards that affect how we feel about our own bodies. As a result, most of us grow up disliking our bodies or some parts of them. Many women are especially troubled by those parts of their bodies they see as larger than societal ideals.” (Shaw and Lee) This brings up the fact that women put a lot of stress on themselves to look appealing in public. This can lead to many serious problems however. Anorexia is a perfect example of the most extreme danger involved with women trying to look as beautiful as possible. I probably go against the majority of public on this idea too and believe that women that are too skinny are actually quite unattractive. Many people see the “ideal” women as skinny, tan (often by way of artificial tanning, which I also think is quite disgusting and dangerous) and a face covered with make-up. When I think of beauty, I don’t think of any of these extremes. When discussing what the male and female bodies signify, the book mentioned above explains, “Women have been associated with nature: the body, earth, and the domestic, whereas men, because of historical and mythological associations with the spirit and sky, have been associated with culture: the mind rather than the body and abstract reason rather than earthly mundane matters”. (Shaw and Lee) This is an accurate statement because women are often seen as more natural based on the fact that they give birth to life and take care of the young typically. Women are also seen as naturally beautiful and the ideal body. As the book discusses, women often work too hard to achieve this idea of beauty by getting involved in the problem of anorexia as discussed above. I completely understand the fact that women feel the need to look their best because society puts such a large emphasis on it. In my eyes, the problem is not the women adding make-up to look beautiful; the problem is society portrays women as only beautiful when applying a certain amount of make-up and looking a certain way, usually thin.

  • http://feministing.com/members/morgmcgov/ MMcGovern

    Women are heavily perceived based on their appearance. In order to be taken seriously, they need to look put-together and ‘pretty.’ Although some would say that it is a shame women have to do all of this in order to be treated fairly, I think that it is an important part of our culture. For different occasions you must dress up or dress down, but it is your responsibility to know when each is appropriate. By taking responsibility and pride in how you look people are going to respect you more. It shows that you care enough to make an effort. Regardless of what people may say, everyone (men included) is judged based on his or her outward appearance. It is the first thing that people see when you meet, and they are going to make assumptions about you based on how to present yourself. This is why women deem it necessary to wear make-up, although the amount they wear is based on personal choice.