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Beth Teitell

Testing the true makeup of women

A study finds that cosmetics can make one look more trustworthy and competent. Oh really?

Is it depressing news - or helpful? New research shows that wearing cosmetics makes a woman look not only more attractive, which we already knew, but also more competent, trustworthy, and likable.

Unless ChapStick counts, I’m not what you’d call a cosmetics person, mainly out of laziness. With kids, a job, and a hungry Twitter feed, who has time to line her lips? But considering the groundbreaking findings, maybe I should ask the opposite question: Who doesn’t have time?

To borrow from Billy Crystal, it’s better to look competent than to be competent.

The study has come under attack in part because it was funded by Procter & Gamble, which sells CoverGirl and Max Factor, among other makeup brands, and has what might be considered a vested interest in the outcome. Jezebel, a caustic, Gawker-owned website, summed up the negative feelings in a piece headlined “Your Lack of Mascara Is a Sign of Your Utter Incompetence.’’

But people are paying attention to the study because it was led by an assistant clinical professor at Harvard University, Nancy Etcoff, who’s also an associate researcher in Massachusetts General Hospital’s department of psychiatry. Etcoff’s team showed 268 men and women high-resolution pictures of female subjects who were photographed in four states: barefaced, and made up at levels informally classified as “natural,’’ “professional,’’ and “glamorous.’’ The photo subjects ranged in age from 20 to 50, and self-identified as African-American, Caucasian, or Hispanic.

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Observers judged the barefaced women lowest in every instance except for one. When allowed to look at the pictures for as long as they wanted, the participants found the dolled-up women less trustworthy than the idiots wearing no makeup (although still more likable, competent, and attractive).

The results sounded pretty straight forward, but I wanted to test them for myself.

My first stop was a Back Bay makeup boutique, where an artist spent 18 minutes applying the “natural’’ look: concealer, pressed powder, something called “lustre’’ drops, blush, three different colors of eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara, lip pencil, and lip gloss in a shade named “Enchantress.’’

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Enchantress? If this study is right, and makeup can indeed make people look more reliable, the cosmetics makers might attract new customers with lipstick colors like “Office Manager of the Year’’ and “World’s Number One Room Parent.’’

As the minutes ticked by in the makeup chair, I pondered the math: on a daily basis, would I be better off spending 18 minutes making myself look capable, or working harder to actually become capable? From a financial perspective, would the after-tax earnings boost I might enjoy as a more talented-looking worker be greater than the per-unit cost of lip gloss?

My good personality applied, it was time to hit my three research sites:

My hairdresser is always very nice to me, but even so, I can tell she enjoys other clients more. Maybe this was my chance to take our relationship to the next level. “Beth!’’ she called out enthusiastically when I walked in, and I was about to chalk up one for P&G, but as my stylist began - once again - raving about mutual acquaintances, I had the same old feeling: I don’t measure up, concealer or not.

At Starbucks it was the same story. I seated myself at a large table, and while I was waiting for someone to notice my three layers of eye shadow and ask the trustworthy me to watch her stuff, I started choking on some nuts, and no one even feigned concern. That’s not what happens to a likable person.

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My final stop was home, to make dinner. Usually I perform this job without makeup, and receive the following feedback from two of my clients (10- and 11-year-old boys): “Are we having that again?’’ “Can’t we please order a pizza?’’ “Ethan’s mom makes steak.’’

I stood at the stove making burritos, and as my boys came downstairs, I quickly reapplied my lip gloss. Who wouldn’t enjoy what a competent mom cooked? The begging to go out for dinner because it was such a nice night started immediately.

“But don’t I look like the kind of mom who would make delicious food?’’ I countered.

There was laughter.

And that, dear friends, is my take-home message from the study: You get to a point in your life where people see you wearing makeup and think not, “I must hire this amiable woman and leave her in charge of my affairs,’’ but, as one of my sons said: “You look like regular mom, but with makeup on.’’


Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.