The Makeup Trap: Is It a Feminine Trait?

Is wearing makeup an inherently ‘feminine’ trait mimicking naturally occurring changes due to ovulation, or a dehumanising trap which hypersexualises women?

Some studies, over the years, have claimed human females change their facial appearance during ovulation, turning them more “attractive” to the male sex, just like most animals do at mating season. But the evidence gathered so far seems to show that the differences women would show while fertile are not perceptible by the naked human eye.

What the evidence suggests is that makeup has been around for thousands of years, and was famously worn by ancient Egyptians of both sexes. Therefore, not an “exclusive” feminine trait. In Richard Russell’s study, he points to differences in male and female appearance that can give us clues as to why humans wear makeup, like women tending to be naturally darker around their eyes – and slightly more around ovulation, which can be mimicked by eyeliners, mascara, etc. The study even claims that darkening around your eyes when you are a male (like Boy George does, for instance) will give you a “feminized” appearance.

The same can be said about the blush: it would mimic vascularisation – a greater flush of blood – on women’s faces, causing more redness. To the same effect, the lipstick – but not any old colour: again, red was claimed to be a more accurate colouration for a woman’s fertile period turning their lips darker and more noticeable, with some studies even claiming that this can be more true in warmer weather. In cold weather, women would then resort to lipsticks to artificially get the appearance they would naturally get in warmth. As for the foundation, it would give women a more even skin tone, which can be “translated” by our brains as healthier, thus better for reproduction.

Which, in turn, begs the question: do women need to wear makeup at all to look “female”, since these studies seem to claim that we already look different from men, even when out of our ovulation period, with darker eyes and redder lips and cheeks?

Adding to the mix of doubts about the usefulness of makeup, research shows that the many endocrine disruptor substances found in cosmetics – such as phthalates – can be linked to a range of health issues, especially regarding the female reproductive system. The main effects highlighted include infertility, the onset of puberty (gradually starting earlier than ever in human history, affecting mostly girls with an earlier menarche), and pregnancy complications like gestational diabetes, among many others.

Some readers might think that, since the changes in women’s appearance are not perceptible by the human eye, then the makeup is only necessary to help emulate ovulation. In social terms, that would be a great way of curbing male sexual harassment of women. All you have to do, as an adult female, is not to wear makeup when you are not up for intercourse. Problem solved. Right?

Unfortunately, things are far more complicated than that. Apart from the fact that these chemicals are affecting our endocrine system – so even when we do feel up to sexual activity, we should not be binging on chemical facial enhancers, and we don’t need to – another recent study tried to approach a quite unexpected social (and dark) aspect of wearing makeup: dehumanisation.

The research, led by Philippe Bernard of Free University of Brussels, found that women wearing heavy makeup can be viewed as “less human-like”. The author explained that “body sexualization prompts dehumanization and objectification”. Both male and female participants were shown images of women with and without makeup on. The images where women were wearing makeup were rated as “having less humanness, agency, experience, competence, warmth, and morality”.

Another conclusion was that women’s faces were perceived as “more sexualized” with makeup, which, according to the researcher, “indicates that sexualization can be communicated through facial cues (e.g., lipstick and mascara) and not only through bodily cues (e.g., through tight-fitting clothing, suggestive postures)”.

Is this study, then, in agreement with the body of research suggesting women’s face might change slightly during ovulation, claiming that we look like we are (more) sexually available? That would certainly make sense at many levels, at least for reproductive purposes. But isn’t it also suggestive that participants rated women as less “moral” when they were wearing makeup, not 50 years ago, but in the 21st century?

The research might give valuable clues about women’s objectification through porn, actually. The researcher argued in his interview with PsyPost that “heavy makeup prompts men and women to focus more on women’s sexiness and sex appeal than on their personality, thereby causing a subtle form of dehumanization”.

And images of women wearing makeup, nowadays, are absolutely everywhere. Women of all walks of life wear makeup in all societies, particularly in urban settlements. So much so that the singer Alicia Keys was cast by the media, initially, as someone who was not right in her mind when she decided to ditch makeup completely a few years ago. In a piece about the No Makeup Movement, the author writes that “she’s even braved high-profile red carpet appearances like the 2016 BET Awards and MTV Video Music Awards and the 2018 Grammy Awards makeup-free”.

But she also acknowledges that Alicia herself had expressed that she felt empowered by not worrying anymore to be seen without makeup. The singer said: “I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.” Which suggests that Alicia sensed, even if on a subconscious level, that the makeup was dehumanizing her – she would not be perceived as a human with thoughts, dreams and struggles, but an object, created by hypersexualisation.

Which is, in turn, what several studies are also starting to show: that porn dehumanizes women by sexualising their image, literally “stripping” them of all of their human traits, apart from their sexual aspect.

Which leads us to the question in the headline: can we consider wearing makeup a feminine trait? Or should we be questioning the heavy marketing around women’s images, shouting out loud that is not feminine to wear makeup, because femininity doesn’t come in a bottle – we are born feminine for having female anatomy?

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