Previously, we established the role played by the media in influencing people to wear makeup. However, throughout history, and long before the advent of marketing or capitalism, makeup has thrived independently in microcosmic societies, suggesting that the desire to alter our features runs deeper than simply seeing an image of a model and deciding that’s what we want to look like. In this article we will examine the potential explanation for this; evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary psychology is built on Darwin’s theory of evolution; that the universal goal of all animals is to propagate their species and pass down their genes, and that despite humanity’s repression of instinct, this primal drive has not ceased to exist. With regards to makeup, evolutionary psychologists theorise that women even their skin tones, enlarge their eyes, and rouge their cheeks in order to subconsciously mimic visual cues for health and reproductive fertility, hoodwinking receptors in the brains of onlookers.
In order to make assumptions, evolutionary psychologists often draw comparisons with animal kingdom. Psychologist Nancy Etcoff even described makeup as an extended phenotype”, an external genetic property, just like a bird’s nest or a spider’s web. Another observation is that, many animal species have facial features suggestive of their genitalia, such as the mandrill, whose blue and red face matches its undercarriage. Zoologist Desmond Morris suggested that women’s lips are similarly meant to mimic the labia, as humans are the only species to perpetually display the mucosa which is otherwise hidden. He went further to note that lips redden and swell with arousal, just as the labia does, and that this is the effect that lipstick seeks to mimic. This hypothesis would suggest that women are more likely to wear lipstick when they are looking to find a sexual and indeed several studies have shown that women wear more makeup during their monthly peak in fertility. Many people reject evolutionary psychology, due to the implications that it makes about makeup being worn for the subconscious reason of attracting a sexual partner. It would call into question the argument that people wear makeup for themselves, especially when the vast majority of people will only wear makeup if they are going to have social encounters. They are in a way wearing makeup for others, even if it is in order to attain benefits for themselves that come with being perceived positively. But perhaps the argument of wearing makeup for oneself is simply a defence against a society that shames people for admitting to using their physical appearance for their own gain in any way. Indeed, people may simply understand the perceptions of makeup and beauty in society and harness them to their advantage. The situation is described succinctly by Naomi Wolf:
When a brilliant critic and a beautiful woman puts on black suede spike heels and a ruby mouth before asking an influential professor to be her thesis advisor, is she a slut? or is she doing a duty to herself, in a clear-eyed appraisal of a hostile or indifferent milieu, by taking care to nourish her real gift under the protection of her incidental one?
It is well known that the window for making a good first impression only lasts a matter of seconds, and being perceived as beautiful has many advantages. For example, various studies have found that attractive women are far more likely to be hired for a job and earn a competitive salary, they are more likely to convince others of their opinion, and they are judged by others to be more competent and mentally stable. They are also more likely to incite altruistic actions in others, with one experiment that placed two women of differing attractiveness by the side of the road beside a car with a flat tire, finding that men were three times more likely to come to the aid of the beautiful woman. It was also found that women that wear makeup are perceived by men as prestigious and by other women as dominant. Having lived their lives under the watchful eye of the ‘male gaze’ and with awareness of this sociocultural beauty privilege, it is likely that many women are well versed in manipulating their appearances to their own advantage. This echoes the concept of survival of the fittest, makeup is used to emulate sexual and bodily fitness in order to reap benefits that will increase chances of survival and reproduction. Using makeup in this way is empowering, allowing people to take control of the way others treat them, and to be offered benefits that they would not otherwise receive.
Evolutionary psychology may also explain why men often object to women wearing makeup. Although their protestations would appear to contradict the premise of the science, it in fact suggests that makeup is so effective at emulating good genes that they struggle to discern reality and have grown mistrustful. This does appear to be the case, as today the idea behind the common jibe take her swimming on the first date” has become so culturally significant that retaliation to it has become a marketing strategy, with beauty brands making millions from water-proof setting sprays and kiss proof lipsticks. And this is not a modern sentiment, in fact the English parliament even passed a law in the late 18th century, imposing the same sentence on cosmetic use as on witchcraft. It would seem that perhaps we are in some ways predisposed to wear makeup. Despite the cases for media and evolutionary psychology being presented as though they are in opposing camps, in reality, both work in tandem. The two are inextricably intertwined to inform subjective experiences, leading to makeup being a highly complex and psychologically rich entity, starkly contrasting the sociocultural stigma of self-absorption that is attached to it.