Seeing Red: Making Impressions with Makeup

When I was growing up, I was friends with a girl whose mom was an Avon lady. I remember trying out the makeup samples and coming home to have my mother tell me to wash my face — that I was beautiful just the way I was and didn’t need makeup. (Go, Mom!) She wore almost no makeup herself, so this lesson was an especially good one. But I saw images in magazines and on television of women in makeup and I wanted to paint my face and lips, too. I was absorbing the messages that makeup makes you more beautiful.

All these years later, I wear makeup (sparingly and unapologetically) and I also write about green beauty (because I don’t want my makeup to slowly poison me or you). I like the drama of a bright red lip color every now and then and I like the way the tinted moisturizer with SPF I use protects me from the sun’s rays while blending my skin tone. I wear makeup because I like the way it looks and also because it can be fun, in the same way it is for me to pick out what to wear each day.

But I got pretty fired up reading “Up the Career Ladder, Lipstick in Hand,” an article in the New York Times this week on a study that suggests women wearing makeup are perceived as more competent and more trustworthy. Certainly, we make impressions with what we wear — clothing or cosmetics. I happen to love fashion and enjoy choosing what to wear, but I know women who are disinterested in fashion — the difference is in personality. Yes, we show some of our personality with what we wear. But competence? Trustworthiness? Please, no!

The study involved showing photos of women with makeup and others without it, and respondents basically judged those with makeup as more capable. Maybe with a similar study on clothing, there would be an outcome like this as well. If you put a woman in a suit next to a woman in cut-offs and a tank top and asked a passerby to make a snap judgment on which woman seems more reliable or capable, the answer might be the woman in the suit. Or maybe not. Maybe the person taking the test would stop to ask, How the heck am I supposed to make that determination simply by looking at a person? I wonder if anyone asked that during this study on makeup.

I’m not even sure if comparing clothing to makeup in this scenario is fair, if only for the fact that our society requires that we wear clothing. Makeup? That’s personal. I wear makeup because I choose to, not because it’s expected of me or because it gives me an edge in the workplace. I hate to think that girls and women would feel that kind of pressure to wear makeup to make the right impression.

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