Going out tonight? For many women, this means time in front of the mirror with an array of cosmetics. Minutes, sometimes an hour or more, and even the occasional professional consultation may be a part of the process of enhancing attractiveness. Within our bag of tricks, we typically find similar products—foundation, eye shadow and liner, blush, lipstick, etc.
But where did this particular assortment come from? Is there a psychological basis for the makeup we use today? And if so, can we use this to our advantage? Rather than asking "should women wear makeup?" while acknowledging that many women do, might we instead try to figure out why we wear the makeup we do wear?
We talk of cosmetics as products designed to enhance physical beauty, but what is "beautiful"? Cross-cultural research has demonstrated world-wide variations in what is physically appealing. Such relativity roots beauty in socialization, not evolution.
Thinness, for example, is not a universal feature of attractiveness. This was aptly noted by People magazine’s onetime "Most Beautiful Woman" Gwyneth Paltrow, who said, “If we were living in ancient Rome or Greece, I would be considered sickly and unattractive.”
Despite cultural variation, a few physical characteristics are generally considered universal markers of beauty. Human preferences may have evolved over millions of years to favor certain physical characteristics linked to reproductive fitness—youthfulness, for example, is a generally reliable cue for fertility, potentially explaining why it’s considered attractive. Likewise, skin homogeneity and facial similarity, both signs of good health, have wide appeal (Fink, Grammer, & Thornhill, 2001; Thornhill & Gangestad, 1993). To a lesser extent, other features associated with sexual arousal (plump lips, for example) may be perceived as beautiful, because they have reliably fostered reproduction.
Are today’s cosmetics consistent with these ideas? Here’s what we know:
In general, modern cosmetics do seem to target features that make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Since women’s fertility is linked to youth and health, why not use makeup to promote impressions that are consistent with those characteristics?
As for the longstanding question of why most men don’t typically wear similar makeup, evolutionary psychologists might point out that men have different demands when it comes to reproduction. Instead of exaggerating youth and health to showcase their fertility, men, unburdened by a shorter fertile window, might focus instead on displaying wealth or resources, potentially valuable assets for women choosing partners (Buss, 1988).
In the end, makeup can make a difference in perceived physical attractiveness, but that only takes one so far: Despite the advantage that physical beauty may have for short-term relationships, people seeking long-term connection do prioritize “inner beauty” over exterior appearance—emphasizing, for example, kindness, intelligence, and a good sense of humor.
Photo credit: Francisca Ulloa