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Why we shouldn’t have to wear makeup for “professional benefits”

August 6th 2018 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment


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A new study suggests that we can “manipulate” our perceived age through makeup to get ahead in the workplace. How about challenging ageism, and wearing makeup only because we want to?

Makeup makes up a pretty significant proportion of my day job. I wear it to the office every day, I write a makeup column and get to interview some of the best makeup artists on the planet as part of my role description. It’s literally my bread and butter, and to a large extent it pays the bills, but the prospect of securing a promotion or leaping up the career ladder simply because I’ve applied some eyeliner of a morning is certainly not the driving force behind me spending ten minutes blending in front of the mirror after brushing my teeth. I wear makeup because it gives me confidence, sure, and because I love it, but strategic career advancement isn’t a motivator behind my makeup wearing, and nor should it be, which is why the conclusion of a new study is more than slightly grating.

Research published in the British Journal of Psychology by Richard Russell of the Department of Psychology at Gettysburg College, in collaboration with researchers from CHANEL Fragrance & Beauty Research & Innovation, analysed the perceived impact of wearing makeup in 32 women across four different age groups. Women aged in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s were first photographed without makeup, and then photographed in the same lighting and setup after a session with a professional makeup artist. Participants were then asked to estimate the age of different faces visually, choosing from a bracket between 10 and 70, and assess attractiveness on a scale of 0-100. It will come as a surprise to probably no one that faces of all ages were rated as more attractive with makeup, but to travel further down the path of judging women’s faces depending on how much makeup they wear, and how it could apparently deliver better job prospects, is an academic exercise that ultimately serves to highlight widespread societal and professional discrimination rather than serving up a ‘secret’ advantage for women.

Researchers weren’t surprised to find that makeup made women over 30 appear younger, as the authors stated that makeup accentuates three youth-related visual features—skin evenness, facial contrast and facial feature size. As such, “middle-aged faces appear younger with makeup”, yet the team apparently weren’t anticipating the fact that wearing makeup made women under 30 look older. The makeup that had the most bearing on perceived age judgement was all in the eyes- specifically makeup applied to the eye area and skin, while makeup applied to just the skin and lips didn’t affect age judgement as markedly. Anyone who’s scribbled on a kohl pencil en route to a school disco will be aware of makeup’s fairly obvious potential to make young faces appear older, as Russell acknowledges in the face of the science technically saying otherwise:

“In many contexts there are rules regulating when a girl can begin wearing makeup. To the extent that women are more likely than girls to wear makeup, people may learn to implicitly associate makeup with adulthood.”

All pretty patent stuff for most women, but the kicker is the fact that the study implies that we should use the research for serious career gains:

“Because age discrimination is pervasive in employment contexts, particularly for women, the ability to manipulate perceived age through makeup may provide critical professional benefits.”

The only factors contributing to “critical professional benefits” ought to be our intellect, skill, achievements and mastery of our role, not of a makeup brush (makeup artists exempt). As the authors note, women already disproportionately experience ageism in the workplace, and that’s before we’ve considered the gender pay gap alone (14.1%), and the fact that BAME women face an even more staggering level of prejudice (26%).

As much as makeup can have monumental impact where self-esteem if is concerned, we shouldn’t feel pressured into wearing it to “manipulate” and disguise our age (and the experience that comes with it), nor should we have to worry that, on top of the likes of maternity discrimination and gender pay disparities, that not wearing makeup, or not wearing the “right” makeup, might be holding us back from the career advancements and earnings that we likely already deserve. Success in the workplace should centre around both merit and equality of opportunity, not makeup. “Critical”, or just basic, benefits shouldn’t be a surface, cosmetic issue, and the fact that women are still to this day judged on their appearance rather than their aptitude in the office, while remaining outnumbered by male bosses called John in the top 100 FTSE companies, highlights the need for collective professional and political action. I’ll bet that John didn’t have to apply bronzer to secure his bonus and chief exec position, and neither should we.

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