Why do we wear makeup? It's a simple enough question but is heavily debated in our Western society, with many controversial arguments having arisen as a result, notably often with input from people that have never been cosmetics users. The epicentre of current debate about why people wear makeup is often a dichotomy between media and evolutionary psychology, and this 4-part article will explore both arguments in an attempt to provide comprehensive answers to the question above.
In this first part, the role of media in influencing makeup use will be examined, as it is undoubtedly the primary scapegoat when there is speculation as to why people alter their appearance. The bombardment of images of photoshopped models has been vilified for being the root cause of low self esteem, body dysmorphia, and even eating disorders. However, these accusations are routinely challenged, and many studies have found that the media does not have such a drastically negative effect as we are often led to believe.
For example, despite the heightened awareness within society of the unrealistic nature of most media images, the efficacy of this knowledge in positively affecting self esteem is conflicted. One study in which adolescents underwent a "body image intervention” at school found that although participants had increased consciousness of sociocultural pressures when measured two months after the intervention, the program had not significantly impacted their individual body satisfaction. Writer Autumn Whitefield-Madrano suggested that spending time critiquing and disseminating media images may have an adverse effect as it forces people to spend more time absorbing them:
The more media literacy decrying images’ effects on body esteem is incorporated into our day-to-day lives, the more we entrench the idea that our response to media images should be one of injury.”
This may indicate that idealised media imagery has such a potent effect that despite knowing better, people cannot be immune to it. Alternatively, perhaps media has little impact to begin with and self perception is instead to a greater extent shaped intrinsically, or by other external factors such as our social interactions.
The way by which media imagery affects its audience is explained by Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory, which states that people self-assess by comparing themselves to others. Although unpredictable, as it is reliant on one’s self perception, in short, when looking at idealised images, the viewer engages in either ‘social comparison’ or social identification. Comparison to those considered less attractive is a protective behaviour, heightening self-esteem. But if someone instead identifies with images of people considered less attractive, it will have an opposite effect. Conversely, identification with images of people considered more attractive causes people to overestimate their own attractiveness. Comparison to those considered more attractive increases motivation to become more like the image. However, if the viewer sees the ideal as being too far removed from themselves, it creates negative emotions and they disassociate themselves from the image.
Since most idealised images are a vehicle for some form of advertising, companies want to mitigate turning away potential customers. It would seem that democratising the variety of women shown in the media would solve this. Many companies tested this hypothesis. However, despite all receiving praise from readers and plenty of press coverage, most of these efforts were short-lived. This is because if people are too easily able to identify with the the images, there is no aspirational value, nor any positive effect on their self-esteem. This suggests that people enjoy consuming idealised images, provided that they are not so unattainable that they will cause despair. The social comparison theory also explains why seemingly illogical things like TV commercials for perfume still work; although one cannot smell the perfume, unarguably its most important attribute, the aspirational value of celebrity endorsement will stir up desire in consumers that view that celebrity as the embodiment of their ideal self.
When makeup is worn, it is almost always in order to achieve a societal or internal standard for perfection. It is highly likely that this extreme level of attention to external appearance is the result of the manifestation of selfie culture in modern society. The ‘male gaze’ has only recently been verbalised as such, but has existed as a concept throughout history, summarised by John Berger as: "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
This constant self surveillance by women means appearance has become a performative entity; the way one looks stepping out of the house is a performance for society, rather than a true representation of one’s personality or emotional state. This idea has never been more prevalent than it is today as social media, and in particular Instagram, has given rise to selfie culture, which has shifted the role of the viewer from being the eyes of men to our camera lenses. Through participating in this practise, people impose the ‘male gaze’ upon themselves, and it has caused normal people to present themselves in an aspirational way that was once the preserve of celebrities. Having come of age at the same time as these social media platforms, this pressure to be constantly photo ready has become particularly embedded in the psyches of millennial women. They carefully curate online lives portraying themselves not as they are, but as they would like to be seen. However, there is a danger in this, in that others will perceive one as being delusional or dishonest if life doesn't appear to be imitating art. Therefore, there is a pressure to physically become one’s digital ideal self, turning daily life into a performance simply to reinforce an online image.
Whether it be through viewing idealised images of models, or other’s self-curated social media profiles, the media unarguably plays a large part in why people choose to wear makeup. However these arguments do not account for the fact that makeup use far outdates the invention of media. Therefore, in the second part of this article, we will explore the potential influence of evolutionary psychology, and the suggestion that we are predisposed to wear makeup.