Do women wear too much makeup?

Cristen Conger

The study's before and after faces.
The study's before and after faces.
Courtesy: Bangor University

A psychologist out of a small university in Wales received global media attention in early 2014 thanks to a study finding that got a lot of people talking about women trying to look pretty for men. Published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Jones' study, "Miscalibrations in judgments of attractiveness with cosmetics," suggested women are wearing too much makeup.

Here's how it went down: Jones and colleagues first presented 44 women with a hodgepodge of foundations, blush, mascara and blush and asked them to put on their faces for a night out. Next, they used the ladies' before and after photos to create a 21-image spectrum of gradually increasing amounts of makeup. A new group of men and women then looked at the photos and picked out the ones they found most attractive and ones they predicted the opposite sex would find hottest.

Lo and behold, everybody thought the photos of 40 percent less than the full "going out" makeup faces were most attractive. Women also predicted men would find far more made-up faces hottest. Cue a slew of headlines suggesting women take it easy on the eyeliner already. After all, fellas actually don't like all that gunk painting over your natural beauty!

And, sure, cosmetics can be worn in patently unflattering ways due to poor technique, low-quality products, or just way too much bronzer. Also there's the matter of personal preference. One person's dramatic cat-eye, after all, in another person's clown makeup.

But the study and the feverish media response to it gave me pause for a couple reasons. First, I wonder what kind of makeup these women were given and the conditions and lighting where they were asked to apply their makeup. As any makeup wearer can attest, the quality and shade of cosmetics makes a huge difference in outcomes. Also, who knows how accustomed these women were to applying full makeup and whether they were really, truly going for a knockout look, considering the laboratory setting? (Unfortunately, I don't have full-text access to the study, so this information might be included in the detailed methodology.) Moreover, 40 percent less makeup than the amount a woman would wear for a night on the town is probably about as much as she'd wear on a day to day basis, so I don't know that the finding is all that revealing either.

Second, this jumped out to me from the abstract: "These findings suggest that attractiveness perceptions with cosmetics are a form of pluralistic ignorance, whereby women tailor their cosmetics use to an inaccurate perception of others' preferences. "

A couple weeks ago, I asked makeup-wearing women on YouTube to tell me why they wear cosmetics, and few responses had anything to do with looking pretty for guys or anyone else.

The most common refrains were for artistic expression, fun and creative experimentation. So often, people tend to forget that many women wear makeup for a variety of personal reasons and not societal pressure to fulfill heteronormative beauty standards. Does cosmetics marketing in particular have plenty of flaws when it comes to its relationship with women? Absolutely. But it's shortsighted to assume that when, say, I lather my lips in bright red or pink, I'm looking to conform. It's just the opposite, in fact. I want to stand out.

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