I love me some What Not To Wear —or any makeover show, for that matter. I get a kick out of watching Stacy and Clinton take frumpy dumpies and zazz them up into snazzy sassies. I don’t always agree with the styling (what is this obsession with flat irons?), but usually, the afters are lots better than the befores.
Women on these show who start out resistant to the makeover process often argue that what’s important is what’s inside, that appearances are superficial, and that people should respect them no matter how limp their hair or saggy-baggy their clothes.
I agree, in theory, but that’s not the world we live in. It’s not even the world animals live in—appearance counts for them, too. The peacock’s tail isn’t exactly practical, but the ladies love it.
Lots of research has shown that natural beauty is an advantage in life, and natural beauty would be considered a biological phenotype. You’re born that way (or not). But recent research looks at whether the “extended phenotype” has any benefits. In the nonhuman kingdom, extended phenotype would be “the spider’s web, the hermit crab’s shell, the bowerbird’s bower and the beaver’s dam,” the researchers write. In the human world—at least in America—the extended phenotype includes cosmetics.
Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but apparently we try because it seems women wearing makeup are perceived as more competent.
The researchers did two two studies, one using 61 men and 88 women of different ethnicities, the second including 30 men and 89 women. The groups were shown 100 head shots of 25 women, Hispanic, Caucasian and African-American, ages 20-50. Each woman was shown in four versions—without makeup, with natural makeup, with moderate makeup, and with glamorous makeup. The makeup was applied by a makeup artist and digitally adjusted to pump up the volume—you can see sample photos here.
The women didn’t get to see themselves in the mirror, so they weren’t changing demeanor in the photos as a result of feeling glamorous. I thought that was interesting, because if you watch makeover shows, you’ve seen that women change demeanor from hangdog to confident as they see their appearance change. This attitude adjustment could certainly affect others’ perceptions.
The researchers wanted to know not only what cosmetics did to observers impressions of the women, but also if quick first impressions changed if people were given unlimited time to study the faces. (If you’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, as I am now, you’ll recognize this as “system 1” vs “system 2” processing. If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it.)
The results of the studies suggest that people judge women wearing cosmetics as more attractive and competent both in quick first impressions, and when they are allowed to look at the faces longer. Likeability and trustworthiness were a little sketchier. When allowed to look at the photos a long time, people found the women in glamorous makeup very attractive, but maybe not so trustworthy. What were they trying to cover up with all that Cover Girl? (Which is, incidentally, a Proctor & Gamble brand, and P & G funded this research.)
So there it is. We might not like it, but we probably, at some level, knew it was true, just like Stacy and Clinton always say. How you choose to present yourself to the world does make a difference.
Cosmetics are superficial (metaphorically and literally) and they can’t make you successful, but as long as you don’t get heavy handed, they might just give women an edge in the business world.