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The Psychology Behind Gender and Makeup

Makeup is a multi-billion dollar industry making viral stars of aspiring makeup artists in small towns and aspiring models born to celebrity parents. But how these spring lipstick colors, contour pallets and smudge-proof eyeliners are applied not only influences how people think of a person in terms of “pretty,” “hot” and “on trend,” they can actually influence how the different genders view the wearer's personality traits.


In a June 2016 article from the psychology journal Perception, researchers from the University of Stirling in Scotland write that men and women make different assumptions about women who wear makeup. Overall, their study found that:


...males cited women wearing makeup as more “prestigious” while females labeled these same women as “dominant” and “more promiscuous.”


Researchers used computer software to digitally alter pictures to show women wearing different amounts of makeup. Then, male and female research subjects rated the faces based on attractiveness, prestige and dominance. The study did not find a significant difference between how the sexes viewed the attractiveness of the women: both genders agreed that makeup makes women more attractive.


The genders went in opposite directions, however, when it came to the remaining two categories. Men found makeup-wearing women to be higher in prestige, but not in dominance. The flip-side was true for women judging their own sex; they found their cosmetic-clad peers to be higher only in dominance.


Additional testing found that women often view makeup-wearing women as “more attractive to men and more promiscuous.” The study also found that these same women are more likely to be jealous of women who apply a full-face of makeup than those who go au naturel.


So what does this mean in terms of psychology in the real world? The lead researcher, Viktoria R. Mileva, pointed out that these gender-based perceptions can affect how women succeed in the workplace. For women, the choice to line those lips or eyes may come down to who's the boss: a straight man who will find the look prestigious or a woman who may judge it promiscuous.


Discussion Questions

  1. How do you think unconscious biases affect the different sexes?
  2. In what ways might the role of makeup on women manifest in today's job economy or even in education? (Possible ways include gender pay gap and the discrepancy in leadership positions.)
  3. Do you think these type of judgments are only gender-based or could other factors affect them? (Additional factors could be age/generation and socioeconomic status.)
  4. For women: Does this information influence your future makeup decisions?
  5. Do you think these biases can be corrected, and if so, through what kind of education?


Before sharing this information, show pictures of women in different styles of makeup and ask students to describe the women. Compare these answers to those in the study.