Makeup makes you competent?

The other day, The Times ran an article, “Up the Career Ladder, Lipstick In Hand,” about this study in PLoS ONE on how makeup changes people’s perceptions of a woman’s competence.

I was really surprised by the results.

From the abstract:

“In two studies, we asked viewers to rate the same female faces with or without color cosmetics, and we varied the style of makeup from minimal (natural), to moderate (professional), to dramatic (glamorous)…The results suggest that cosmetics can create supernormal facial stimuli, and that one way they may do so is by exaggerating cues to sexual dimorphism. Our results provide evidence that judgments of facial trustworthiness and attractiveness are at least partially separable, that beauty has a significant positive effect on judgment of competence…”  Source: Etcoff, et. al. PLoS ONE 2011.

Here’s an image from the first figure of the paper:

Models without makeup and with styles of makeup from minimal (natural), to moderate (professional), to dramatic (glamorous). Source: Etcoff et. al. PLoS ONE 2011

In my workplace- a biotech company- I would say that most of the women I encounter are either without makeup or with ‘natural’ makeup at most.  If someone shows up at work with ‘professional’ or ‘glamorous’ makeup on, it would prompt questions about what the occasion was that had them so done up.

I myself wear ‘natural’ makeup pretty much everyday, and definitely every work day.  I used to wear no makeup at all, but in grad school, thanks to lack of sleep, and perhaps age, it got to the point that I was always looking tired.  Some concealer, nude shadow, and mascara go a long way to hiding my lack of sleep.  I wear it not to look more competent, but to feel more comfortable, hoping that I don’t look as exhausted as I feel.

I was surprised that beauty in this study correlated with competence.  I wonder if competence really encompassed what the subjects were perceiving.

I know for me, make-up doesn’t scream competence- perhaps ‘put together,’ as in a woman who has time to spend time on her appearance before coming to work.  Maybe ‘well-rested,’ as in a woman who wasn’t up all night with a cranky toddler.  Perhaps even ‘lucky,’ as in a woman who is naturally pretty.

Do you think makeup changes how competent the women in the image appear?  Do you wear makeup to work?  If so, what category do you fall into- natural, moderate, or dramatic?  Why do you wear it- to appear more competent?


Filed under Scientist

5 responses to “Makeup makes you competent?

  1. bayareajoywriter

    Dear Momma Comma,
    This is such and interesting topic. I have to admit all of the ladies in the far right hand look more polished, put together, confident and —dare i say? — beautiful. Somehow this makes me blush and want to whip out a lipstick at the same time.

  2. I don’t usually wear makeup to work. Apparently I have sensitive skin. There are only 3 commonly available brands that I can wear without itching.

    On the occasions that I do wear makeup, I usually go for a ‘natural’ look, mostly just foundation, to smooth out my coloring.

    I have rarely gone on to the “Professional” look, but often those are when I am making a big presentation, such as a paper at a conference.

    One of the reasons I’m not big on makeup is cultural, I had/have three generations of men who disliked makeup in my family: my maternal grandfather, my father, and my husband. Their reasons differ greatly.

    I’m not sure why my grandfather opposed it on his daughters. Given his era, I suspect that makeup was not the sort of thing a respectable woman wore. At least, not in the rural Midwest.

    My father had a number of reasons. One being that he took an anthropology course under a professor who apparently specialized in body modification. The piercings that people do grossed him out so much that my father opposed any kind of body modification. He is also devoutly religious, Catholic Charismatic, and so I think he was also influenced by the concept that body paint is a pagan practice that Christians shouldn’t do… and makeup fell into that category.

    My husband thinks I’m beautiful just the way I am. He doesn’t think a “glamorous” woman looks pretty. And when I do wear more professional makeup, he doesn’t think it looks like me.

  3. dcardonadcardona

    Great blog! I found you through your participation in the evolution video. I’ve seen this study and it makes me sad and angry. The concept of makeup/female beauty signifying professionalism just up to the point of perceived incompetence (“glamor” makeup) is a social construct that ought to be abolished.

    • Thanks!

      I agree that beauty/makeup or whatever it is, shouldn’t be such an influential factor (or a factor at all) in judging competence. I just can’t see how to abolish it. I hope that this study is really just measuring first impressions- and that in actual interactions people don’t rely solely on that first impression.

      The saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” has been around for so long (probably as long as there have been books!)- so this isn’t a new phenomenon- even if quantifying is recent.

      In my own interactions, I try really hard not to be swayed. However, I’m sure I am- even if it’s just to think, “Wow- this woman has her act together.”

      Although, perhaps my ability to look past appearance to determine competence comes from years of grad school and post-doc training where everyone looked exhausted and raggedy, no matter how brilliant!

  4. Pingback: A day in the life of a Scientist/Mother (#SciMom) | mommacommaphd

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