Beauty has long fascinated us. Helen of Troy’s likeness launched ships, Shakespeare waxed poetic in sonnets on its virtue, and studies in modern days have proven that attractive people enjoy benefits like higher salaries and preferential social treatment. But for the first time, research has revealed that women who wear makeup are judged as more trustworthy and capable than when they go barefaced.
Barefaced vs. professional vs. glamourous
In the study, participants were shown photos of 25 female subjects ranging in age from 20 to 50, and of Caucasian, African-American and Hispanic backgrounds. Each woman was presented with three different looks that varied in the amount of makeup applied—“barefaced,” “professional” and “glamourous.”
Groups of 149 adults (61 men) rated each photo on perceived trustworthiness and competency after a flash-viewing of 250 milliseconds, while another group of 119 adults (30 men) did the same after viewing photos for an unlimited amount of time.
In both groups, the results were the same. Women wearing the professional look were assumed the most trustworthy and capable, followed by the glamour look, and lastly, the barefaced look.
“For the first time, we have found that applying makeup has an effect beyond increasing attractiveness—it impacts first impressions and overall judgments of perceived likeability, trustworthiness, and competence,” says study lead Nancy Etcoff, PhD, a Harvard Medical School Assistant Clinical Professor. Etcoff is also author of Survival of the Prettiest, which theorizes that beauty is just not a cultural creation, but has deep biological and evolutionary roots.
The findings made me wonder: does this mean that makeup is a socially empowering tool woman can use to their advantage, or is it a ‘war paint’ trap of sorts, suffocating us all with the expectation of looking a certain, mass-dictated way?
As a lifetime cosmetics devotee whose obsession for the shimmery stuff runs deep, I’ve made a living writing and reporting on makeup and I’ve always viewed it as a source of both power and comfort.
Having spoken with thousands of women over the years about makeup, I also know there is something else prominently at play: how it makes you feel. Whether you want to hide the fact that you only got two hours of sleep, are a cancer patient yearning for the normalcy of having brows again, or just want to rock a red lip on a much-anticipated Friday night date, I think the confidence that makeup gives women is part of what others perceive, and positively respond to in interactions with you.
I was curious what the modern feminist perspective is on the topic, so I asked Feministe.com executive editor Jill Filipovic (who just so happens to be brilliant and has an affinity for high end mascara) for her thoughts.
“Of course women should do what they need to do to feel attractive and professional and to succeed in their workplaces; but on a societal level, I don’t think we can applaud the results of this study as ‘women harnessing success,’ Filipovic says. “Makeup, as we see from this study, isn’t as optional as a lot of folks would like to say it is—at least not if you want to be perceived as competent and put-together. I wear makeup and have nothing against it, but I do find it troubling that it’s expected of women as a class, and that men aren’t required to paint their faces in order to be taken seriously.”
True that. It’s definitely a double standard. But can we work it to our advantage?
The middle ground
If you choose to wield a makeup brush in the way this study suggests (lord knows there are countless ways to wear makeup, and I’ve never been one for rules), I’m going to leave you with some words of wisdom from Lancôme Beauty At Every Age Expert Sandy Linter, who I think has this ‘professional makeup’ thing nailed.
“Do simple, and flattering. Neutrals are not boring, they are beautiful,” Linter tells me. Even out skin with foundation or concealer as needed, sweep a natural-looking blush onto cheeks, brighten and define the eye area with a touch of liner and mascara. Soft, sweet shades are best for lips, and don’t forget to groom and fill in brows if needed—it’s the one step that makes the greatest (and most subtle) difference. “People should be seeing you and not the products that went into making you,” adds Linter.
Irritating social expectation? Emboldening tool to have at your disposal? Perhaps the answer isn’t so black and white. After all, as women, neither are we.
Now it's your turn to vote—do I look more trustworthy with or without makeup? Don't be afraid to be brutally honest...I can take it.