Are Women Wearing Too Much Makeup?

Are Women Wearing Too Much Makeup?

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.

Photo: Alex-de-Haas

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.


  • 1: You criticize the assumption that women are wearing makeup to be attractive without offering an alternative hypothesis.

    2: They checked the reactions of men and women to makeup levels. So, not heteronormative.

    • honestly asking, what is the point of make up other than to mask insecurities?
      if you boil it right down to its base level. and women were truly happy and confident in themselves and truly and honestly were not affected by what others think, would they wear makeup?
      guys do the same thing, but in other areas, we all do, im aware of that. but i think its easy to say ‘women wear make up to look pretty’ because its the basic message of an issue in insecurities. just poorly worded that’s all.

      • I speculate that the reasons are on average prioritized in the following order.
        1: Competition with other women.
        2: Generating attractiveness (numerous creatures do this).
        3: Mitigating insecurities.
        4: Meeting perceived social norms.

        Naturally, there will be huge variations in how these are prioritized depending on the person, and throughout their life.

        I’m grinning right now because I remember LH’s equivalent recent article about men “Guys, Stop Hatfishing to Hide Your Bald Spot”. I’ve been expecting “Ugly women, quit wearing makeup, you’re fooling nobody” 😛

        • see, i look at the 4 points and at their base, they would all be mitigated by having self confidence and giving 0 fucks about what others think. insecurity is the base of all those things when you boil it down.

          im not saying ive got my shit together as a man, by any means at all and i too do things to mask my insecurities, which are many. but i guess i would like women and men to call a spade a spade and be real about the real core issues. all these other things are just addressing symptoms.

          • Sure, but we’re a dimorphic species.
            Male confidence is sexually attractive.
            Female confidence is sexually irrelevant.

          • University studies indicate that your preference is an outlier.
            On average:
            Men seek to mate with happy, nubile women.
            Women seek to mate with confident, high status men.

  • Whilst the article smacks of middle America hysteria, the fact of the matter is whatever you put on your face, it is open to judgement because it is a deviance from the natural state.
    If you replaced the word ‘makeup’ with ‘chocolate mousse’, a lot of the enraged arguments are put into the perspective of just how silly they are.

    End argument – no one is forcing you to wear makeup, it is a personal choice.
    Own it.

  • If women are empowered enough to make their own decisions (which they are) then they are to blame if they choose to wear too much makeup, regardless of their reasons for doing so

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!