Gad Saad Ph.D.

Homo Consumericus

Why Do Women Apply Facial Cosmetics?

Make-up amplifies an existing facial sex difference

Posted Jun 30, 2014

In two of my books, The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature, as well as in several of my articles, I have argued that men and women use sex-specific products as sexual signals (see the recent review of my two books published in the Journal of Bioeconomics). Cosmetics constitute one such product used by women to amplify various evolutionarily relevant cues (cf. Etcoff et al., 2011). On a related note, some readers might be interested in my earlier Psychology Today article on the links between people’s perfume self-preferences and their idiosyncratic body chemistries. In today’s post, I’d like to briefly discuss a 2009 paper authored by Richard Russell and published in Perception that examined a very interesting aspect of women’s use of cosmetics.

It turns out that the skin color around our eyes and mouths is darker than that of the rest of our faces. This holds true for both sexes, but the contrast is more pronounced on women. In study 1, Russell established the latter fact using photos of East Asians and Caucasians. Using software that calculates skin luminance of various facial regions, Russell confirmed that the facial contrast was greater on women’s faces as compared to men’s across the two cultural samples. In study 2, Russell manipulated an androgynous face by making it appear more masculine or feminine via an altering of the aforementioned facial contrast. Participants subsequently evaluated the transformed faces and in line with his prediction, Russell found that by altering the facial contrast, this yielded a corresponding change in how masculine or feminine the particular face was perceived to be (greater facial contrast implies a more feminine face). Finally, in study 3, women were asked to apply cosmetics on their faces, as they would do normally. Photos were taken pre and post application of the cosmetics, and using the same procedure as that of study 1, Russell found that all faces exhibited greater facial contrast after the application of make-up.

Bottom line: Cosmetics are used to accentuate an existing sex difference in facial contrast. This does not mean that women engage in this beautification practice with knowledge of this sexual dimorphism. Rather, as Darwinian beings, we are all aware of certain realities even though we cannot necessarily enunciate consciously the evolutionary genesis of the phenomenon in question.

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