Makeup can provide a fleeting confidence boost to some

Nancy Etcoff

Nancy Etcoff is an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and a research psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is the author of “Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty.”

Makeup can provide a fleeting confidence boost to some

No one is indifferent to the image in the mirror. At some point between rolling out of bed and stepping out the door, we perform the ritual of grooming. The sociologist Erving Goffman likened grooming to “backstage” preparations

in the theater that ready actors for performance and, by pleasing their own eyes, inspire confidence.

Makeup won’t help the woman who feels like it’s an obligation.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I studied the impact of makeup on viewers. We asked people to rate photographs of women with and without makeup. Seen very quickly (250 milliseconds), women wearing makeup looked more attractive, likeable, competent and trustworthy to our viewers than those who went without it. On longer inspection, responses became varied and nuanced. Faces with natural makeup were seen favorably but faces with more dramatic makeup were seen as less trustworthy. Makeup is a powerful but understudied tool. Studies show that it can have significant impact on facial recognition software, and even on the ability to detect the direction of an eye gaze.

But how does makeup make the user feel? Psychologists distinguish between trait and state self-esteem, a stable sense of confidence versus a transient boost. Grooming rituals can be temporary confidence boosters, and studies suggest that the confidence they inspire is itself attractive. In one study, men who had just sprayed themselves with a scented versus unscented product were judged more attractive by women who could not smell them. The men with scented body spray simply acted more confidently and thus appeared more visually attractive.

But makeup or any other grooming product will not be balms for all. Women who feel that makeup use is obligatory but unwanted, that it requires a forced confrontation with the mirror when they’d rather put their attention elsewhere, do not feel more confident after using it. Research suggests that women can feel objectified by makeup, and for such women, any potential advantage may be offset by the emotional labor of wearing it.

In other words, makeup is what you make it of it. It is a choice. Market trends suggest that males are now surging in self-adornment, and using not only skin products but some color cosmetics. If so, we’ll need a new set of studies.