Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why We Wear Makeup, as per Science

It's our product and we'll cry if we want to. (via)

A recent study from University of Basque is going to blow your mind. Are you ready, readers? The leading force behind cosmetics use isn’t how well the products work, it’s our emotional response to them. (Of course, most people using cosmetics are ladies, and you know us, we’ll laugh or cry at just about anything. Wite-Out! Self-cleaning ovens! Dentistry!)

Maybe I shouldn’t be flip here, even if this seems to sort of come from the Duh Department. There’s a dearth of well-done studies--which, actually, this is--that touch on issues of attractiveness, or rather what we do to make ourselves attractive. (Most often these sorts of studies either hammer away at women-feel-bad-about-themselves with little variation, or everything-can-be-explained-by-evolutionary-psychology-YOU-JANE theses.) So while it’s hardly surprising to read that emotion, not utility, is the primary driving force behind cosmetics consumption, it’s a solid step in a direction I dearly want to know more about.

Still, a few things jumped out at me. It’s odd that the study authors made this determination using products with no immediate short-term effects. Instead of using, say, mascara or blush, the researchers plied participants with anti-aging and body-firming creams. Given that there’s no observable way to determine the actual effectiveness of these products (unless you used them on only half of your face or body, but who would be foolish enough to do that?), what other reason could there possibly be for using these products? Of course it’s emotional—and it would be emotion-based even if the utility were immediately apparent. Because as much as we know that looking attractive can get us better pay, more dates, and the occasional freebie, most of us aren’t wearing cosmetics, Spock-like, based on calculations of pay increases and mating options. We’re wearing them because we want to look better, or we fear looking worse. And I know it’s more complicated than that (exhibit A: this entire blog; exhibit B: women who feel the “utility” benefits stripped from them when they refuse to wear makeup, like Melanie Stark, who was fired from Harrods for not wearing the stuff), but at its baseline it is all about how we feel.

Which isn’t to say that I find the study to be useless. For starters, it acknowledges feelings of “sensorial pleasure” in cosmetics use and also acknowledges the joy that comes with feeling sexually attractive (which could arguably fall under the “utility” aspect of the study). The #1 motivation for wearing products, according to the study, is “relief from dissatisfaction” with one’s appearance, followed by sexual attractiveness, with perceived actual physical benefit coming in third. But not far behind that is how good the product feels, smells, and looks. It's a relief to see this reported some way other than anecdotally; the ad folks have certainly picked up on the "treat yourself!" angle, but "sensorial pleasure" is essential to self-care, and it warrants research. The study also shed a bit of light on what makes consumers believe a product will “work.” Get ready to drop dead away again, folks: It’s packaging!

But the heart of the study, while it sort of falls under the women-feel-bad-about-themselves umbrella, puts a fine point on some of the negative emotional impulses we might have surrounding cosmetics. The study found that it’s not so much that we’re chasing after some unattainable dream, but that the #1 force behind cosmetics use is “relief from self-dissatisfaction.” This made me think back to my interview with beauty editor Ali: “I think cosmetics make people feel good about themselves, not bad,” she said. Now, I’m not going to suddenly start accepting paper bags under the table from Procter & Gamble, and certainly part of cosmetics’ success depends upon its advertising nudging along that dissatisfaction in the first place. But a certain degree self-dissatisfaction, if we’re going to get all philosophical here, is part of the human condition. Shame and guilt we should do without, but are those the inevitable accompaniments to self-dissatisfaction? Can we swipe on our concealer to improve our self-satisfaction without feeling the twin baggage of shame and guilt? Is “relief from self-dissatisfaction” necessarily driven by misogyny, negative self-esteem, and The Man, or can it be the sort of relief you feel walking into an air-conditioned apartment after a long, hot day?

At its baseline, the study merely quantifies what we already know--even if the makeup wearer in me wanted the study authors to better acknowledge that utility and emotions can’t be separated when we’re talking about our reasons for prettifying ourselves. But it’s a quantification we need in order to provide a better base for research into this area. (I hear science works that way? This is why I blog.) This study paves the way for research into questions about women, emotion, and beauty products that may prove more surprising than these results. For starters: Is there a difference in the way women regard color cosmetics versus creams and lotions with fewer definable and fewer short-term effects? How do consumers really internalize go-girl advertising like “Because you’re worth it”? What traits in a consumer makes one more likely to experience products with joy instead of “relief from self-dissatisfaction”? And perhaps most of all, when we claim we wear makeup because it’s our bodies, our choice, is there an X-ray that can peer inside our liberated minds and see if how much they match our lipsticked mouths?


  1. Interesting ideas. I can't claim to know any of this but am eager to learn more about the psychology behind women's use of makeup.

    My favorite makeup story is something I saw as it happened. Katarina Witt, a figure-skater in the 1980's, was preparing to go out onto the ice for her critical performance in the Olympics. She was the last skater to perform, so she had to wait backstage for a long time. When she finally came out, she had a ton of makeup on. So much that it looked cartoonish. She skated perfectly, won the Gold Medal, and later explained that applying makeup was her way to deal with mounting anxiety: she just kept putting on more and more and more...

  2. Very may explain my OCD use of moisturizer. The jar sits on our dining room table and I apply it multiple times a day and imagine that I can feel my skin "drinking" it up. Ha!

    Actually, the only utilitarian cosmetic procedure I've ever seriously considered would have been bleaching my coffee-stained teeth. People with bright smiles smile so readily and I can imagine that this would indeed make a difference. I've had students with blindingly bright smiles...and I am drawn to them.

  3. Do it, Terri. It's easy and you'll like the results.

  4. Shybiker, what an awesome anecote about reasons to apply makeup! And I certainly can see how--I know that I often excuse myself to the ladies' room when I'm feeling anxious in public, and while there I'm more often than not sort of adjusting myself. We often look at how appearance concerns provoke anxiety but rarely look at how they soothe our nerves.

    Terri, I have a friend who carries moisturizer with her in her purse and will put it on about once an hour. And, hell, she looks fantastic! I'm of two minds about tooth-bleaching. I do have coffee-stained teeth but I also feel self-conscious about them in general. They're slightly crooked and misshapen, and I sort of don't want to call attention to them at all. My curse is being American here! Abroad nobody would think twice about my teeth. My compromise is whitening toothpaste, which I'm sure does exactly nothing.

  5. American bullshit ! A lot of second-hand psychologists try to justify their income by inventing all kind of crappy ideas. Deviant motivations can be studied by psychiatrists, and makeup cant cure mentally unstable people. Psychologically speaking, makeup is the way of atracting the opposite sex...if we're talking about mentally healthy people.With other words its a sexual manifestation, like nail polishing, dyeing hair and so on...Its a remnant animalistic behavior. The father of psychoanalysis said it...Sorry for my bad english.

    1. Anonymous, your English is just fine! Thank you for commenting. I don't think that it's solely remnants of animal behavior, though; I think perhaps once upon a time it was that, but cosmetics use has become so institutionalized that from that base there are plenty of other reasons women wear makeup. That said, it could all be bullshit, agreed! I find much of the "science" about beauty suspect.