Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Your Face’s Sex-Typed Messages

How sex-typing affects the way others see you

Your face is the palette of your emotions. If you’re lucky, you have a poker face that allows you to keep your feelings to yourself until, and unless, you want to reveal them.  However, even the best poker face can’t disguise the most obvious facts about your face.  According to social psychologists, your facial features lead others to make conclusions not only about how attractive you are, but also what attitudes you might be harboring. If we’re to believe some of the latest research, people with certain types of faces, especially women, seem to have particular types of attitudes.

An upcoming study to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology tested whether people’s political leanings could be read from their faces. These people were not just ordinary U.S. citizens, however, they were 434 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. UCLA social psychologists Colleen Carpinella and Kerri Johnson began their study seeking to understand what type of effect the facial appearance of politicians would have on voters. They knew, from previous research that there were “cross-culturally consistent effects: appearance-based judgments inform political perceptions.” 

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In the first study that Carpinella and Johnson conducted, the faces of current House of Representative members were subjected to a computer program that measured how “sex-typical” they were.  The comparison image was a morphed version of the average woman's face. Based entirely on the computer program, the results showed a greater sex-typicality score for Republican than for Democratic women.  In other words, the faces of Republican House members were, objectively speaking, more typically feminine than the faces of Democratic women. Not only was political party related to sex-typing of the faces of these Congresspersons.  Among women, the women with the more conservative voting records had the more typically feminine faces compared to the women who voted along liberal lines.

In the second study, Carpinella and Johnson tested whether ratings by potential voters would show the same pattern as did the objective tests conducted by computers. Once again, the results upheld the computer’s findings- observers were able to judge a woman’s political party affiliation from her face. The more feminine a woman appeared, the more likely she was rated as someone with conservative and/or Republican leanings.

The findings reinforce the point well-known by social psychologists that people do make snap judgments about you on the basis of your facial features. According to research on face perception (Burriss et al., 2011), the traits that they judge include a range of personality and social qualities affecting, potentially, securing a job, being convicted of a crime, attracting a romantic partner, and – relevant to the Democrat vs. Republican study- being elected to political office.

We don’t know from this correlational study what causes what. It’s safe to say that conservative women don’t seek plastic surgery to make themselves look more feminine. But we don’t know whether conservative movements attract women whose faces lead them to be treated more femininely by others or whether women with more feminine faces like conservative agendas that harken back to the pre-feminist days of the past.  We also don’t know whether more feminine-looking women just have more luck advancing their political goals among male party leaders who themselves have more conservative agendas.

It’s natural that a study combining sex and politics would draw media attention, especially in an election year. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, the Daily Show’s Samantha Bee gave what, on the surface, seemed to be a scathing review of this study  She said she found the results depressing not only for the actual findings but also because the study was even done: “What should bother us more — that a scholarly journal decided to float this information out into the pre-election maelstrom of partisan nastiness or that some people will relish the findings and distribute the study as a voting guide?”

I’m assuming that Ms. Bee was kidding and that she was in full parody mode when she wrote this “op-ed” just as The Daily Show reports on the “fake news.” She very likely was responding to criticisms that The Atlantic Monthly, among other news outlets, covered the findings. The critics argued that the study was done to poke jabs at the Republican party to reveal, so they claim, an old-school anti-feminist stance. These critics, however, seem to have misinterpreted the study, because it did not compare the women's faces on the basis of whether or not they were wearing makeup or had their hair styled in a certain way. 

What does all of this mean for you? Whether or not you agree with the study’s purpose, its conclusions, or Ms. Bee’s (tongue-in-cheek?) analysis, the fact remains that the femininity of a woman’s face is associated with more conservative political and social values.   More to the point, the femininity of her face relates to the way she’s perceived by others. Once you know that you’re being judged by your face’s sex typicality or atypicality, you can take some very practical steps to change your face’s message:

Assess your potential audience

Who are you trying to impress? Your first task is to gauge the group whose support you need. Public figures (politicians, celebrities) have media consultants who can conduct focus groups but if you’re an ordinary citizen, you’ll have to rely on your own powers of observation. To be effective in this step, you need to be objective. You may wish that other people agreed with your social views, whether liberal or conservative, but you can’t proceed under the assumption that they do. Get as much data as you can about the group.  If it’s potential customers you’re trying to woo, for example, ask someone who knows that sector of the market to give you the straight scoop. You may even be able to do some data mining on your own by reading the local papers and even checking out the voting record of the area. If it’s a more personal mission you’re on, such as trying to impress the family of your significant other, get an honest read about what to expect from your partner about his or her nearest and dearest.

Decide what you’re going to do next

If you feel strongly that you don’t want to change your image to fit your target audience’s attitudes, then don’t. It may feel uncomfortably inauthentic to you to play the sex typicality card just to be accepted by your boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s family. If your own values are so much a part of who you are that you don’t want to compromise them, then it will only bring you misery if you put on a false front for those first one or two occasions that you meet. On the other hand, if your job depends on your ability to fit into the crowd, then the decision becomes a bit more complicated. You could quit your job and look for a new one that fits your political and social values, but in the current economy, that’s probably not all that feasible. Instead, you should seek to find a compromise between your inner, core values, and the message that you think will resonate with your crowd.

Tone up or down your face’s sex typicality.  Although the structures of the face play a large role in perceptions of sex typicality, a study by U.K. researchers (Stephen & McKeegan, 2010) suggests that you can alter your face’s message in cosmetic ways. In this study, Caucasian women were seen as more feminine when their lips were much darker than their face tone.  Although there may be an evolutionary explanation for this finding (i.e. dark lips reflect sexual arousal, which would make the woman a more desirable mate), there is also a social one as well. In our society, red lips are as associated with traditional femininity as are the blond curls of a Marilyn Monroe.  Red lips aren’t so much a call to mating as a part of the social image of a sexy woman.

The Bottom Line

The face you present to the outside world sends a myriad of cues about yourself. Rather than bemoan the fact that studies such as Carpinella and Johnson’s produce results linking political attitudes with appearance, we might as well learn from them. With these tips in mind, you’ll literally be able to put your best, and most authentic, face forward.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012

References:

Burriss, R. P., Roberts, S., Welling, L. M., Puts, D. A., & Little, A. C. (2011). Heterosexual romantic couples mate assortatively for facial symmetry, but not masculinity. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 601-613. doi:10.1177/0146167211399584

Carpinella, C.M. & Johnson, K.L.  (2013). Appearance-based politics: Sex-typed facial cues communicate political party affiliation Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 156–160

Stephen, I. D., & McKeegan, A. M. (2010). Lip colour affects perceived sex typicality and attractiveness of human faces. Perception, 39, 1104-1110. doi:10.1068/p6730

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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