Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why Wear Makeup?

A few years ago I heard that women who wear some make-up – not too much, not too little – make 11% more money than women who go without makeup or wear excessive amounts.

This immediately resonated with me. Women in a professional setting with no make-up look so unfinished, so raw, so, well … unprofessional.

Then the feminist in me took over: how unfair. Why should women have to wear makeup and men don’t? I continued to do what worked for me: a certain amount of make-up in professional situations – not too little, not too much. And I continued to tell clients and audiences this statistic – though shakily, because I could never find the research. And I continued to puzzle over the unfairness.

I also wondered:  if the statement is true, how does one know what is too much or too little? When has one crossed the line? As an image professional I was fairly certain that I was within the boundaries, but how could others be so sure? What guidelines could I give my clients? Then one day it hit me:

A woman should spend as much time applying make-up as a man spends shaving.

Men's Health
Though this idea was still based on my gut feelings rather than research, here was the symmetry, the fairness, the gender-neutral prescription: a certain amount of face time in the mirror each morning if we want success. Women aren’t unilaterally asked to do something men don’t do. We are expected, if we want success, to follow the same rules that successful men follow, but in a feminine way. The female version, if you will.

So: how much time does a man spend shaving? From five to 15 minutes. Spend that much time on your make-up, ladies! And see what happens.

Nancy Etcoff and the Harvard Study

As true as this prescription felt, it was still based on my gut, on a hunch. But now there is research. Nancy Etcoff, Ph.D., author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard University and Associate Researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, has led a team of researchers from those institutions in association with Procter & Gamble, Boston University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute that looks at how women are perceived by others when they wear different makeup styles.

The bottom line of the study is that all makeup applications – from light to heavy – made the woman appear more competent, likeable, attractive, and trustworthy than the face without makeup. (This buttresses research done in Germany in 2009 that men find evenness of color more attractive than splotchy faces in women. Psychology Today) The most made up looks, however, were judged less trustworthy. And the most heavily made up look was seen as less dependable and stable.

One interesting aspect of this study is that it didn’t only look at whether makeup made a woman more beautiful. It also looked at competence, likability, trust, hireability – all qualities we need for effectiveness in the workplace.

Here is the design of the study. Participants looked at five photos of 25 women aged 20 to 50 from a range of ethnic backgrounds. In the first photo each woman appeared without makeup; the other four photos had makeup styles ranging from light to heavy identified as Natural, Professional, Glamorous and Sexy. Professional makeup artists created the looks with the difference between them being the contrast between the lips and eyes and the natural skin, called luminosity level. The Natural and Professional styles are slight progressions from No Makeup. Glamorous is a significant step up from Professional with darker eyes and dark red lips. Sexy had very dark eyes and pale lips.

Volunteers looked at the photos in two stages. In a quarter-second first-impression glimpse, all four makeup styles all increased the attractiveness, competence, likability and trust compared to the same face without makeup.

When given an unlimited amount of time to look at the photos, however, attractiveness, competence, likability and trust were higher for the Natural and Professional photos than for the face with no makeup. The most heavily made up faces, the Glamorous and the Sexy, were considered equally likeable and very attractive, but less trustworthy. And the Sexy look was judged the least dependable and stable. Dramatic and Sexy makeup was only an advantage when participants saw the photos quickly (for a quarter of a second). And women wearing no makeup got the lowest ratings on competence, likeability and attractiveness. (You can read more about the study at NY Times, Marie Claire, Psychology Today or P&G.)

This research is exciting to me for many reasons.
First, it documents the statement I heard years ago.

Second, this research is not about beauty which so much of the writing on makeup is. For those of us who are not great beauties, this is comforting. It is only about enhancing – and making the most of - what is already there.

Getty Images
Third, the study brings makeup into the gender-neutral realm. By showing the benefits and pitfalls of the feminine practice of makeup application, we can see the parallels to the similar routine men perform each day. Men spend about 10 minutes of face time with themselves in the mirror each morning. Women can use a similar amount of time in a feminized version of this meet-the-world ritual using that 10-minute average to apply just enough – but not too much - makeup.

We can further see that both practices are about more than looks; they are also about success. This adds a tool to women’s arsenal that men have used for centuries: Men shave and groom their beards to guarantee success; women have, of course, applied makeup for centuries, but smart women will now add this new intention to the application of their makeup.

To figure out the level of makeup that will bring you success – Natural, Professional, Glamorous or Sexy - take your work and/or social culture into consideration. If you work for a non-profit organization the culture might respond better to a more Natural look, whereas a bank Vice President or a politician might need a more Professional look (think Sarah Palin). In sales you would generally match the level of your client. And working at Vogue might require something between Professional and Glamorous. Context is key. Culture is key. Look and learn.

Dr. Etcoff says, “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. … the results of the study have broad implications.”


  1. Such a great tip to spend as much time on your makeup as men spend on shaving! That's an easy way to gauge whether you're doing too much or too little.

  2. Interesting thoughts and study. What would you say about the added component of hair (men can simply comb their hair with a small bit of styling product, but women's hair demands a bit more attention. Any tips on what is appropriate vs. excessive.

  3. Hello. I am one of your student and I am so thrilled to read your article. Who can debate now that it is sexism to ask only women tomput on makeup? I lam directed to your blog by another FIT instructors and I am so glad that I read thid. Thank you.