Women just can’t win — makeup alone promotes misogyny

This is simply depressing.


All it takes for a woman to be reduced to an object is too much eyeliner

Arwa Mahdawi

Arwa Mahdawi

A new study finds women who wear heavy makeup are perceived as less competent. Perhaps it’s time to make our own rules

Sat 1 Feb 2020 09.00 EST Last modified on Sat 1 Feb 2020 11.06 EST

You’ve got to wear makeup, but not too much makeup!

You’ve got to wear makeup, but not too much makeup! Photograph: Hillary Kladke/Getty Images

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Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s the patriarchy

The more makeup you wear, the less human you seem. That’s the rather depressing conclusion of a new study published in the journal Sex Roles, which looked at how cosmetics influence the way we perceive women. Researchers asked 1,000 people (most of whom were from the UK and the US) to evaluate women’s faces with and without heavy makeup. They found that both male and female participants rated women wearing a lot of makeup as less human, less warm and less moral. Gotta love that internalized misogyny! Advertisement

The study’s findings are even worse for those who prefer a dramatic smoky eye to a loud lipstick; “faces with eye makeup were attributed the least amount of warmth and competence.”

“It might be that faces with heavy makeup are perceived as possessing less human-like traits because they are visually processed in a way that resembles how most objects are processed,” Philippe Bernard, the study’s lead author, explained. Bernard, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels further noted that while there’s a growing body of research showing how sexualized images prompt the dehumanization of women, less attention has been paid to “whether subtler forms of sexualization such as makeup” influence objectification. As it turns out, all it takes for a woman to be reduced to an object is a touch too much eyeliner.

Don’t chuck out your cosmetics quite yet, however. According to a 2011 study by researchers from Boston University and Harvard Medical School, women who wear a “professional” amount of makeup in the office are seen as more competent, capable, reliable and amiable than women who sport a bare face. (It’s worth noting that the study was funded by Procter & Gamble, which owns cosmetic brands like Olay and SK-II; so take it with a pinch of bath salt.) [emphasis added]

While wearing “professional” levels of makeup may help you at work, you do have to be careful not to look too nice. A 2019 study found “attractive businesswomen are judged as being less truthful than less attractive women”. Mind you, another study found that attractive people earn more than their plainer peers and that “grooming accounts for the entire attractiveness premium for women”.

We haven’t even started on how your hairdo affects how you do in life. There are various studies which suggest women with long hair are seen as being “high maintenance” and of high “reproductive potential”. Long hair can also signal “decreased forcefulness” and can be seen as less professional. (Which might be why Ivanka Trump recently got a bob.) Hair is even more complicated for black women, of course, who are often forced to conform to white beauty standards to be seen as professional.

Being a woman means constantly walking a tightrope between being invisible and being objectified. You’ve got to be nice, but not too nice! You’ve got to be attractive, but not too attractive! You’ve got to wear makeup, but not too much makeup! Perhaps it’s time to slap on the warpaint and make our own rules.

One thought on “Women just can’t win — makeup alone promotes misogyny

  1. There are strange ideas about this by both sexes. A woman told me she thought men who dyed their hair were dishonest. I didn’t ask her about make up or if she dyed her hair. She may have been on to something though given the orange hair and skin in the White House.


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