Going out tonight? For many women, this means time in front of the mirror with an array of cosmetics. Minutes, sometimes an hour or more, and even the occasional professional consultation may be part of the process of enhancing attractiveness. Within our bag of tricks, we typically find similar products—foundation, eye shadow and liner, blush, lipstick.
But where did this particular assortment come from? Is there a psychological basis for the makeup we use today? And if so, can we use this to our advantage? Rather than asking: “Should women wear makeup?” While acknowledging that many women do, might we instead try to figure out whywe wear the makeup we wear?
We talk of cosmetics as products designed to enhance physical beauty, but what is “beautiful”? Cross-cultural research has demonstrated worldwide variations in what is physically appealing. Such relativity roots beauty in socialization, not evolution.
Thinness, for example, is not a universal feature of attractiveness. This was aptly noted by People magazine’s onetime “Most Beautiful Woman” Gwyneth Paltrow, who said, “If we were living in ancient Rome or Greece, I would be considered sickly and unattractive.”
Despite the cultural variation, a few physical characteristics are generally considered universal markers of beauty. Human preferences may have evolved over millions of years to favor certain physical characteristics linked to reproductive fitness—youthfulness, for example, is a generally reliable cue for fertility, potentially explaining why it’s considered attractive. Likewise, skin homogeneity and facial similarity, both signs of good health, have wide appeal (Fink, Grammer, & Thornhill, 2001; Thornhill & Gangestad, 1993). To a lesser extent, other features associated with sexual arousal—plump lips, for example—may be perceived as beautiful, because they have reliably fostered reproduction.
Are today’s cosmetics consistent with these ideas? Here’s what we know:
- Lipstick? Wear red. Women with red lips are in fact perceived as more attractive (Stephen & McKeegan, 2010). A recent field experiment showed that red lipstick influenced how quickly men approached women at a bar. In the study, women in red lipstick were approached sooner than those who wore no lipstick, brown lipstick, or (marginally) pink lipstick (Guéguen, 2012).
- Foundation appears foundational. Perhaps because it evens skin tone, and therefore may give a stronger impression of health and symmetry, foundation is widely recognized as enhancing beauty. In fact, in one study, foundation was concluded to be the product making the most difference in female attractiveness after a group of men judged the attractiveness of women wearing different levels of cosmetic use, from none at all to complete makeup (Mulhern, Fieldman, Hussey, Leveque, & Pineau, 2003).
- Focus on the eyes. In recent research, women rated eye makeup as the Number One product enhancing other women’s facial attractiveness (Mulhern et al., 2003). Eyeliner, eye shadow, and mascara may exaggerate facial neoteny. Adults are often viewed as beautiful when they have features typical of the young, including large eyes (as well as small noses and large lips). Such exaggerated youthfulness tends to have greater appeal (Jones et al., 1995).
- A bit of blush. Why does rouge tend to be a staple cosmetic? Perhaps it’s because when women are most sexually viable (during mid-cycle during ovulation) or when they are aroused, they blush more easily. The application of artificial blush may mimic this vascularization, providing a subtle signal of sexual interest or arousal. This is in line with the link established by Elliott and Niesta (2008) between the color red and sex-appeal.
- Makeup simply makes you look healthier. Beyond any attractiveness measures, cosmetics may help women create certain favorable social perceptions. Indeed, a recent experiment revealed that women pictured wearing cosmetics were evaluated as healthier, more confident, and even having greater earning potential than the same women wearing no makeup (Nash, Fieldman, Hussey, Leveque, & Pineau, 2003). This suggests that makeup has a potentially useful role in strategic self-presentation.
In general, modern cosmetics do seem to target features that make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Since women’s fertility is linked to youth and health, why not use makeup to promote impressions that are consistent with those characteristics?
As for the longstanding question of why most men don’t typically wear similar makeup, evolutionary psychologists might point out that men have different demands when it comes to reproduction. Instead of exaggerating youth and health to showcase their fertility, men, unburdened by a shorter fertile window, might focus instead on displaying wealth or resources, potentially valuable assets for women choosing partners (Buss, 1988).
In the end, makeup can make a difference in perceived physical attractiveness, but that only takes one so far: Despite the advantage that physical beauty may have for short-term relationships, people seeking long-term connection do prioritize “inner beauty” over exterior appearance—emphasizing, for example, kindness, intelligence, and a good sense of humor.