A 2014 article from The Atlantic is making the rounds again, fuelled by an inflammatory headline. It’s a pretty straightforward write-up of the research, but the headline is driving angry shares from the way it puts the blame on women.
The Headline: Why Do So Many Women Wear So Much Makeup? (The Atlantic)
The Story: Building off the premise that women wear makeup to be attractive — to sexually attract men and because attractive women gain social power among their peers — researchers wanted to test if makeup-wearers’ sense of how much makeup would do the trick was right. They photographed women with naked faces and made up for a night out on the town. They then used image processing software to generate a spectrum of images of varying made-up-ness for viewers to assess.
The researchers found that women tend to overestimate how much makeup they should wear for peak attractiveness. Men and women viewing the images were asked to pick the face or faces that they thought were most attractive — to themselves, to men, and to women. Viewers of both genders found women most attractive at around 65 per cent of the makeup they’d applied, but they assumed that other viewers would like more makeup, especially when predicting what men would find attractive. Even that, though, topped out at about 85 per cent of the actual makeup models had put on.
These findings build on a hopeful strain of research, which finds that the over-the-top messages about attractiveness that we get from the media and society at large aren’t true. We see very thin, very white, very made-up women — or very muscled men — and assume that that’s what people find attractive. It’s reassuring that this isn’t the case.
However, this is not a particularly inclusive or progressive study. It rests on a lot of assumptions and narrow conceptions of gender: Primarily, that women wear makeup to be attractive and that “going out at night” makeup is representative of makeup-for-attractiveness. (Maybe it’s intensified so your features can be seen in a dark bar.) The women photographed were all white and young, averaging in their early 20s. The authors of the study treat gender as a pure binary and attraction as heteronormative, assuming that women want to be attractive to men for sexual reasons and to women for social status. Yes, there is some research to back that up, but it’s a conception many women may see as patriarchically imposed, and the premise hardly applies to all women and shouldn’t be taken at face value. So to speak.
The Takeaway: If you are a woman and you wear makeup to be more attractive, you might better achieve that goal by wearing a bit less than you would for going out at night. But that’s not the only reason a person might wear makeup, a fact that this study and the above headline both casually omit.
This story has been updated since its original publication.