I couldn’t help but be intrigued that my stiffest competition for winning the $10,000 Blogging Scholarship was a makeup blogger. What is it about cosmetics that is so appealing? Why do people wear makeup, and what might have caused early man to play around with blush and lipstick? Well, like everything else in life, a lot can be explained by science.
Makeup has been around for centuries. The earliest records of makeup use date back to around 3000 BC when ancient Egyptians used soot and other natural products to create their signature look. Evidence suggests that the origins of makeup may go back much further. Our closest relatives, Neandertals, may have used colored pigments on their skin some 50,000 years ago, and paint pigments date back 75,000 years, suggesting people may have used body paint before they wore clothes. Most people will say that makeup makes women look younger and more attractive, but the question is, why? What is it about a little eye shadow, some pink cheeks and red lips that makes a woman look prettier? Like a lot in life, it’s probably about sex.
Makeup works because it’s a good lie. In much of the animal kingdom, females advertise their youth, health and sexual availability through physical signals. Whether it be red rumps, special scents or elaborate behaviors, girls of the animal world know that sex sells, and they make it well known to the men in the area that they are ready for and capable of producing some stellar offspring. Like a peacock strutting his feathers, women do this to convince the opposite sex that they’re a good choice for a mate. But in humans, these signals are far less pronounced. Women’s bodies don’t advertise fertility loudly like our closest relatives. Instead, it’s almost impossible to tell if a woman is ovulating – almost. There are subtle signs if you know what to look for, and even though they might not realize that they realize it, men (and women!) do take notice. Studies have shown that women’s faces are more attractive to both sexes during the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle. Makeup works because it exaggerates or even completely fabricates these signs of fertility and sexual availability, thus making a woman seem more appealing.
Those ancient Egyptians were on to something with the eye makeup, for example. Women, in contrast with men, tend to be naturally darker around their eyes. Eyeliner, eye shadow and mascara all enhance this effect, thus making a face look more feminine. Studies by Richard Russell at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania have shown that the darker the eyes are in relation to the rest of the face, the more attractive a woman appears, while the opposite is true for men. In fact, the darkness of the eyes compared to the rest of the face is so important, the exact same face can be perceived as either male or female depending on the level of contrast – just take a look at the images on the right, which are of the same face with the same eyes and lips but one has a lighter skin tone, creating more contrast. Eye makeup also makes eyes seem wider and larger, and bigger eyes are perceived as more youthful.
As with eyes, Russell found that women have darker mouths than men of the same skin tone. Manipulating lips to be darker than the rest of a woman’s face makes it appear more feminine and attractive. But it turns out that the color of the lipstick matters, too. When women are ovulating, the relative concentration of the hormone estrogen rises in comparison to progesterone. This hormonal shift enhances vascular blood flow under the skin’s surface, which has a number of side effects. Women near ovulation (when they’re most fertile) report that they’re more easily turned on and have more interest in sex. They also tend to have redder lips! By putting on reddening lipstick, women are accentuating a natural signal of fertility. On top of that, blood flow also increases during arousal, so those red lips are not only saying that she’s young and healthy – they’re specifically giving the illusion that she’s interested in YOU, which of course is bound to draw attention. That increased blood flow also pinkens the cheeks, so blush, too, adds to this effect.
But it’s not just bold colors that make a difference. Foundation and cover-up also play a large role in making a woman look more attractive. That’s because we are naturally drawn to even skin tones. As our skin ages, it tends to get discolorations, whether they be from the sun, scars, or other kinds of damage. So it’s not surprising that an even skin tone, no matter what the topology of the face is, strikes us as younger and thus more attractive. One study found that eye makeup and foundation were most important in explaining why makeup makes women appear more attractive and younger. Again, it’s about producing offspring – youth in and of itself isn’t all that useful except in the context of sex, fecundity, and fertility.
But, I hear my female readers saying, MY (boyfriend/husband/whoever) says that I look prettier without makeup! Well, it’s true that when you poll men about their makeup preferences, as many as one in five says their significant other wears way too much makeup, while one in ten wishes that women didn’t wear makeup at all. While that’s certainly a nice sentiment, their actions speak louder than their words. Study after study has found that when shown pictures of women with and without their makeup, men consistently rate images with makeup as more attractive, confident, and healthier. Men also think women wearing makeup come off as more intelligent and having higher earning potentials and more prestigious jobs. I’m not saying wearing makeup is more likely to get you hit on at a bar… but Nicolas Guéguen is. He found women wearing makeup were approached sooner and by more men.
When you look at the science, it’s no wonder that more than $40 billion dollars a year is spent on cosmetics. Makeup works, and it does so because our bodies are programmed to perceive sexual signals from the coloration of our faces. Makeup tricks our brains just enough for it to be worth the time and effort if you want to look hotter. Of course, modern media and the way women are portrayed certainly helps boost sales. But makeup has been used for centuries in disparate and diverse cultures in strikingly similar ways for a reason. In the end, we are drawn to makeup is that it taps into our primal urge to find a young, healthy mate who will produce lots of kids so that we can pass on our genes. As Theodosius Dobzhansky might have predicted, even makeup only makes sense in the light of evolution.
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