A recent story in the New York Times entitled “Up the Career Ladder, Lipstick in Hand,” by Catherine Saint Louis describes a study at Harvard which found that a woman wearing a “professional” amount of cosmetics increases others’ perception of her “likability, her competence, and (provided she not overdo it) her trustworthiness.” When I originally read this piece, I felt completely offended that this study even existed, and then attempted to argue that its findings had to be innately wrong because I don’t want to be judged by my lackluster makeup-applying skills, goshdarnit. But then I looked at the article again. And then I felt like an idiot. Because, while it is demeaning and strange and probably sexist for a society to demand that women wear mascara and blush and lipstick in order to be taken seriously, this wasn’t the point of the study. The point of the study was something which isn’t universally true, but is true for many women: wearing makeup can make you feel more attractive, or tough, or demure, or sexy – wearing makeup can make you look the way you want to feel, and the way you want to be perceived. This can often come across as confidence, which is kind of an important thing to have in the workplace, and, really, just in life. Do I think that the female professors quoted in the article are given less respect in their professions if they show up to teach a law class sans Maybelline? No. And I highly doubt that a ship-shape professor’s choice to not put on eyeliner really detracts from her intelligence and teaching abilities.
Of course, many women choose to go barefaced for a variety of reasons. And the sad part of the study is its implication that a woman who just doesn’t like to put substances on her face is a lesser worker and a less likable person. From personal experience, I’ve found that days where I don’t wear makeup are not days I should go shopping; I get treated like a less-important consumer. I do not know if this is a common phenomenon, and I do know that without makeup or hair products I look like a crazy-eyed cat lady with a surprisingly clear complexion. But if I go to the doctor, I’m not going to discount my medical advice because my physician isn’t wearing any makeup; I’m not going to tip my favorite Starbucks barista any more if she comes in one day with perfect wing-tipped eyeliner. Once again, this could just be me.
It’s important to note that this study was funded by Procter & Gamble – parent company of CoverGirl cosmetics. Which could mean that the entire study should be dismissed, this blog post is invalid, and we should all instead be wondering exactly how unbiased this entire debacle even was.
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