Confession: I’m a tomboy at heart. Growing up trying to fit in with three older brothers left me no time to concern myself with things like makeup or fashion. In high school, I remember once I chose to wear makeup and put on a dress for a dinner out with my family. When I came downstairs, my mother remarked that she was proud of me. For wearing makeup and putting on a dress.
To this day, I’d most often rather be wearing hand-me-downs from my older siblings and no makeup. But like it or not, appearance is everything. And in a graduate school program where networking is key to success, I take the time to make myself presentable to the world. Fortunately, a recent study shows that these efforts may not be in vain.
The research was a combined effort between Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Procter & Gamble, and Boston University. In a sampling of over 200 individuals, both men and women, participants rated women wearing makeup as more competent than women without makeup.
Participants in the study were shown pictures of 25 female models aged 25-50 who self identified as African American, Hispanic and Caucasian. 4 pictures were taken of each model; 1 picture of the model with no makeup, and 3 others of the model with increasing amounts of makeup which were categorized as, “natural, professional and glamorous”.
Researchers presented the photos to two groups of participants. One group was given 250 milliseconds to evaluate the pictures while the second group was given an unlimited amount of time. Researchers presented the pictures to participants on a computer in a randomized sequence. Participants were then asked to rank each picture on competence, attractiveness, trustworthiness and likeability using a 7-point scale that ranged from “not at all”(1) to “highly/extremely”(7).
Results showed that for both groups of participants, makeup significantly increased ratings of attractiveness and competence. However, the effect of makeup on likeability and trustworthiness varied. Pictures of women with the natural makeup look had increased ratings of likeability and trustworthiness when compared to pictures of women without makeup. When given less time to evaluate the heavier make up looks (professional and glamorous), participants rated them higher in all categories.
However, when given an unlimited amount of time, the ratings were less positive. In particular, the glamorous look had a significant negative effect on ratings of trustworthiness. This finding is likely a result of the fact that although beauty has many positive associations, studies suggest that it is also correlated with vanity and a higher chance of infidelity.
The study was not without its limitations. First, because the study only included participants from North America, it’s possible that these positive associations with makeup may not hold true in other cultures. Another eyebrow raising aspect of this study comes from its list of sponsors—in particular Proctor & Gamble who sells makeup lines like CoverGirl. One might question the motive of a makeup manufacturer sponsoring research that concludes wearing makeup can be beneficial. However, trained researchers from the other affiliated institutions completed the design and implementation of the study.
Despite these limitations, the study is not the first to show that attractiveness is linked to positive expectations. Research has shown that attractive people are more often hired and earn higher wages than less attractive individuals. Another survey showed that employers expected better performance and higher competence from employees, even when attractiveness did not impact the task.
The tomboy in me is annoyed by the idea that applying more makeup instantly makes me appear more competent. That being said, it’s hard to deny the fact that first impressions are crucial. Whether or not I intend to, I realize that I am always making a statement to the world and I want that statement to be a positive one. So rather than being frustrated in the vanity of today’s society, I prefer to focus on the element of control I have over how I am perceived. An element of control in an uncontrollable world. So, I’ll continue to look past the stacks of oversized hand-me-downs in my closet and take the time to put on an amount of makeup that I’m comfortable with. If nothing else, at least I know my mother would be proud.