In 1913, enterprising chemist T.L. Williams mixed together some coal power and petroleum jelly and invented modern mascara. He then mixed together his sister Mabel's name and the petroleum jelly brand Vaseline and invented the brand Maybelline for his new concoction, which is now the most commonly worn color cosmetic.
In my limited makeup arsenal, mascara is the must-have. If I could only choose one cosmetic to wear for the rest of my makeup-wearing days, mascara would be it because, to me, it enlivens my look in a way even bold lipstick can't, which means T.L. Williams is pretty much the patron saint of my face. But until recently, I hadn't deeply considered what it is about mascara and women's eyelashes in the particular that attract so much attention, time and money and, specifically, why we associate long lashes with femininity. Just take a look at Disney characters. The primary feminizing feature that distinguishes, say, a girl mouse from a boy mouse, or a girl duck from a boy duck, are lovely lashes and hairbows:
But the quirky thing about gender and eyelashes in a non-animated character populations is that I couldn't find any research suggesting men and women have different eyelash lengths. Long lashes aren't a female secondary sex trait. Women are just more often the ones who apply mascara, liner, falsies and whatnot to enhance their appearance, like strapping on a push-up bra or high heels. So why do we go to such great lengths?
Faces Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Human Face briefly states: "...eyelashes are considered a sign of femininity because they make the eyes appear larger" and then quickly moves on.
Speaking to The New York Times for a trend piece on the growing popularity of eyelash extensions (thank you, Kim Kardashian), A Natural History of the Senses author and naturalist Diane Ackerman similarly offered: ""Eyelashes evolved to keep debris out of our delicate eyes, and long ones do suggest femininity and youth."
But what exactly is it about mini-hair halos around our eyeballs that evoke femininity and youth?
Not surprisingly, evolutionary biology has a theory about it that -- again, not surprisingly -- has a lot to do with babies. See, when we're born, our big ol' baby eyes are relatively huge in proportion to the rest of our face, and as we age, our faces grow larger but our eyes remain relatively the same size, which explains the youthful association of long lashes. And from there, youth denotes fertility, which circles us back around to babies. Also on the fertility front, David Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, thinks the contrasting effect of dark mascara that brightens the whites of our eyes also signals good reproductive health.
On top of nature, there's plenty of nurture at work, too. Interwoven within these furry fertility signifiers are our cultural constructs of feminine sexuality, complete with batting eyelashes that suggest a coy submissiveness and currying male favor sexual or otherwise. Think about it: have you ever heard of a guy described as batting his lashes or straight women batting their lashes toward other women? Aside from Mr. Snuffleupagus, probably not.
And speaking of men, for all of this attention women -- myself included -- devote to their eyelashes, I found no contemporary research suggesting they're equally lash obsessed. In fact, anecdotal surveys suggest straight men find them most attractive when they appear the least enhanced. Then again, that's just the magic of a great mascara.