Alright, ladies, we’ve all got our makeup bags with tales to tell. Whether it’s a simple daily routine or going all out for a special event, why do women wear makeup has been helping us enhance our looks and boost our spirits for as long as we can remember. But beyond the fun and creativity, there are more critical questions about why makeup seems to have so much power over us in that context of women wearing makeup.
So in this brief piece, we’re unpacking everything related to our makeup addiction. We’ll hear from psychologists, sociologists, biologists, and historians—all the experts chiming in on why and how makeup became so central to so many women’s lives. We’ll cover the pros, like self-expression and confidence, and the cons, like health risks, money spent, and impact on careers.
Most importantly, we’ll avoid judging and aim for a balanced, fact-based view of this complex topic. Women often face criticism for their interest in makeup, which people perceive as less intelligent or ambitious. But painting our faces does not define our worth! In exploring this issue openly and honestly, without moralizing, we can figure out how to maximize the positives of makeup while reducing the negatives.
So pull up a chair, grab your favorite shades of eyeshadow, and let’s get real about our makeup—from an honest, non-shaming place that centers women’s desires, joys, and humanity everywhere. Sound good? Then let’s get started!
Makeup as self-expression
Okay, so first up, let’s talk about the most fundamental reason many of us put on makeup: because it’s fun! Who doesn’t love discovering a gorgeous eye look or makeup trend online and then recreating it? Makeup enables us to temporarily transform our faces into miniature works of art and try on different identities. Ever wonder what you’d look like with a winged liner or a dark lip color? Makeup magic allows us to find out.
For some women, makeup is a creative outlet similar to painting or crafting. We get to mix colors, blend textures and create visually appealing combinations that make us feel joy.
And while social expectations indeed play a part for many of us, makeup also fulfills a basic human desire to beautify ourselves and our surroundings. Changing our lip color, eye makeup, and other beauty looks on a whim helps us explore different aesthetics and versions of ourselves.
Remember that putting on makeup is an act of self-expression, experimentation, and joy. Own that power, feel excitement over transforming your features, and let your face become a canvas for mundane and sublime creativity. After all, makeup is meant to please us, so savor the simple thrill of personal adornment and beautification through color.
Psychological benefits of makeup
We all know the feeling of putting on some lipstick, applying mascara, and suddenly feeling like we can take on the world. Makeup has long been associated with confidence, empowerment, and mood-boosting. So, let’s dig into the emotional benefits a little deeper.
First and foremost, makeup can increase our feelings of competence and capability. Simply applying our favorite products and perfecting our looks often leaves us feeling put together, polished, and poised for the day ahead. This translates into greater self-assuredness at work, in social interactions, and beyond.
Makeup may also help reduce stress and anxiety for some women. Applying cosmetics allows us to focus on one task at a time. And when we look in the mirror and see a face we feel gorgeous in, it can diminish worries and lighten our mental load. Feeling aesthetically pleasing often goes hand in hand with feeling emotionally content.
In essence, makeup provides an outward expression that enriches our inward self-image. When we accentuate our best features and craft a harmonious blend of colors, we are subconsciously telling our brains that we are worthy of time, effort, and enhancement—that we deserve to “look our best.” And that message of self-worth tends to spill over into our entire perspective, raising our moods and confidence.
So the next time you reach for your favorite lip gloss, remember the magic it holds beyond simply improving your aesthetic. In those tiny tubes and compacts lie real psychological benefits that can help brighten your mood, strengthens your self-esteem, and provide a moment of mindfulness to center yourself for the day. Your makeup bag isn’t just makeup—it’s self-care in disguise.
While makeup offers the immense sentimental benefits we’ve discussed, viewing makeup trends through a wider sociological lens is essential.
For many women, an interest in cosmetics begins as a learned social behavior passed down from female role models like mothers and peers. From a young age, we observe the women around us applying makeup and internalizing its role in achieving a desirable feminine aesthetic. Makeup thus becomes woven into our perceptions of ideal womanhood and sexuality.
The media and advertising industries only reinforce these conditioned behaviors by pervasive marketing of cosmetic products as necessities for confidence, attractiveness, and success. Nearly every TV show, movie, and magazine depicts women wearing makeup as the norm, while advertisements specifically target insecurities around youth, beauty, and romance to drive makeup sales.
Stepping back, we see that makeup historically marks a woman’s social class and respectability. In different periods and cultures, particular styles indicated wealth, professionalism, and moral virtue. Makeup trends have long aligned with shifting expectations of femininity within patriarchal structures.
So while cosmetics undoubtedly offer meaningful self-expression and psychological boosts for many of us on an individual level, we must also acknowledge their role in perpetuating narrow beauty ideals that disadvantage those who choose not to conform. As a society, we’ll make real progress when a woman’s value lies beyond adherence to constantly changing makeup and beauty trends dictated by commercial and cultural forces.
For now, wearing makeup can be a confident, empowered choice—so long as we do so with eyes wide open to the sociological forces that have shaped its role in our lives from a very early age.
Let’s consider some evolutionary perspectives on women’s makeup use. Some experts hypothesize that cosmetics help highlight signs of youth, health, and fertility—traits that would have improved the odds of reproductive success for our female ancestors.
Makeup can effectively make a woman appear younger by covering signs of aging, defining facial features, and concealing blemishes or dark circles. Subtly enhancing the complexion, cheekbones, and lips might signal improved health and nourishment, which are qualities that would indicate a mate with good genes for producing offspring. And certain makeup styles, like accentuating the eyes and lips, could implicitly communicate a woman’s sexual maturity and availability.
We can see parallels in the rituals surrounding courtship and mate selection across human cultures. Adorning the face and body with decorative items is a widespread practice that—from an evolutionary viewpoint—likely attracts potential partners with optimal genes for offspring. Even today, men often report finding women wearing at least some makeup to be more aesthetically attractive than those wearing none.
While these evolutionary explanations provide interesting hypotheses, they remain speculative and reductionist. They fail to account for cultural and individual variations in women’s makeup behaviors beyond biological imperatives. Still, they at least offer an alternative lens for understanding some of the profoundly ingrained allure that makeup appears to hold for many—both those who wear it and those exposed to it.
Makeup enhances physical attractiveness
We have to acknowledge the reality that, for most people, makeup does functionally make women appear more physically attractive. But we’ve got to examine what ‘attractiveness’ actually means in this context.
Beauty standards are socially constructed, varying widely across cultures and shifting over time. Different eras and locations may perceive what is conventionally attractive as unusual or unappealing. Yet at any given moment, there tends to be broad agreement about which facial features and proportions align with mainstream beauty ideals.
With that in mind, makeup allows women to visually minimize perceived flaws and accentuate features that align with the current beauty standard. From concealing blemishes and undereye circles to accentuating full lips and defined cheekbones, makeup techniques essentially tweak a woman’s face to more closely resemble cultural ideals of attractiveness.
This isn’t to say women who wear makeup necessarily try to conform—many enjoy the creative process and psychological benefits. But objectively, makeup does tend to make facial features comply somewhat with ideological constructs of beauty predominant within a given society.
So while makeup can undoubtedly increase a woman’s attractiveness as judged within the frameworks of current beauty standards, we should remember two things: first, society arbitrarily sets these standards, and second, we should not define or determine a woman’s worth based solely on her physical appeal.
Let’s strive to cultivate a world where women’s value lies beyond adherence to ever-changing ideas of beauty that Eurocentric privilege features, youth, and narrow ideals. For now, wearing makeup remains a tricky balance of navigating social norms while carving out spaces for self-expression—hopefully with open minds to the complex interplay between cosmetics and cultural beauty standards.
Effect on male perceptions and Behavior
While a woman’s worth does not hinge on her attractiveness to men, we must examine the reality that makeup impacts how men perceive and treat women, especially in how they are perceived and treated by men.
Research consistently finds that men, on average, rate women as more attractive, likable, trustworthy, and competent when they wear makeup compared to no makeup. Even subtle cosmetic enhancements activate positive traits commonly associated with femininity in the minds of male raters.
These perceptual biases likely stem from cultural conditioning that associates femininity with adornment and links conventional attractiveness with positivity. As a result, simply “looking good” activates a halo effect where women are judged more favorably on unrelated traits.
The effects extend beyond perceptions. Studies show that when women wear minimal makeup, men interact with them differently, initiating conversations more readily, responding more helpfully, and perceiving their social overtures more positively.
Although many men are undoubtedly able to see beyond a woman’s appearance, implicit biases influence initial impressions and behaviors. And for women seeking roles like employment, promotion, or leadership positions that rely on others’ judgments, looking one’s “best” through makeup can provide advantages, however unfair that may be.
As long as society disproportionately evaluates women on beauty rather than merit, makeup reinforces the gender status quo by perpetuating insidious power dynamics.
But at this moment, women can still harness cosmetics, albeit imperfectly, as one tool to navigate a largely male-dominated world that judges individuals based on appearances. However, extensive systemic changes are still needed to move towards a society that goes beyond superficial judgments.
History and cultural variations
Understanding how makeup has been used across cultures and periods provides critical insights into its predominantly social roles.
Makeup has existed for at least 5,000 years in ancient Egypt, with early kohl eyeliner found in North Africa. Early uses likely centered on ritual, religion, and practical purposes like protecting skin and warding off insects.
Over time, makeup evolved to serve increasingly aesthetic and social functions, reflecting broader changes in gender roles and beauty ideals within specific cultures. In some eras and places, cosmetics connoted wealth, status, and morality; in others, they conveyed sexual availability or spiritual devotion.
Today, makeup meanings vary widely cross-culturally. In some more conservative societies, makeup remains taboo or strictly limited to special occasions. In other places, cultural identity and artistic self-expression intricately tie cosmetics. Cultural norms additionally determine what considers appropriate concerning coverage, technique, and style.
Overall, historical and geographic variations in makeup point to its primary social nature. Rather than fulfilling biological imperatives, women’s cosmetic practices reflect shifting socioeconomic conditions and evolving gender norms within specific cultural contexts.
A globally diverse and inclusive understanding of beauty requires recognizing that what constitutes ‘good makeup’ varies widely, just as ideals of femininity and self-expression differ across time and space. There is no universal ‘right’ way to apply or think about cosmetics.
Embracing tradition and innovation in women’s makeup practices worldwide can help expand transnational notions of beauty beyond narrow Western standards. Inclusivity emerges from celebrating—not judging—the myriad ways women adorn themselves across cultures.
As we discussed, sociocultural forces influence women’s makeup behaviors; however, biological factors also play a role.
Hormonal fluctuations across the menstrual cycle appear to impact women’s interest in wearing and spending on cosmetics. Studies find that women experience the greatest desire for makeup and spend the most on beauty products in the fertile phase of their cycle when estrogen and progesterone levels peak.
This spike in the luteal phase suggests that hormones shape women’s motivation to adorn themselves, though the effects vary significantly from person to person. For some women, hormonal changes may have little impact on their interest in makeup, while for others, the hormonal influence can feel pronounced.
Genetic differences also underlie individual biases and preferences around makeup. Since adornment is a form of self-expression, it stands to reason that innate artistic talents and color affinities, which have genetic bases, would shape women’s makeup styles and skills.
But we must be cautious not to overstate biological factors at the expense of social and cultural influences. While hormones and genes contribute to individual variability in women’s makeup behaviors, they do not dictate preferences in any absolute or uniform manner.
Instead, biological dispositions likely interact dynamically with environmental exposure to determine the diverse ways women engage with or abstain from makeup culture. Considering biological factors enriches but does not supersede sociocultural perspectives on women’s cosmetic practices.
Viewing makeup through multiple frameworks—psychological, sociological, biological, and historical—allows for the most holistic and nuanced understanding of its place in women’s lives today. None of these perspectives adequately capture the multifaceted reasons why makeup remains so inextricably intertwined with concepts of idealized femininity.
Makeup as a marker of age
For many women, cosmetic choices are inextricably linked with perceptions of age—both their own and that of others.
Makeup trends tend to skew younger, pressuring women to don techniques to mask signs of aging to appear more sexually desirable and professionally competent. From concealing wrinkles and undereye circles to highlighting features to look “fresh-faced,” countless beauty tutorials convey that women’s worth diminishes as their faces show natural maturity.
For some women, this pressure to constantly “redo” one’s face through makeup can create anxiety about aging and declining attractiveness. The widespread celebration of youthful beauty and scorn of wrinkles in women promotes toxic ageism by signaling that a woman’s value decreases as her appearance becomes less aligned with narrow beauty ideals.
But pushback is also emerging against the stigma of natural aging for females. Many women are vowing to embrace their wrinkles, gray hair, and other markers of mature beauty, with or without makeup, as badges of wisdom, experience, and empowerment gained over a lifetime.
Many people envision a world where women’s value recalibrates to align with sources beyond physical appeal, celebrating gray hair and lines upon the face as symbols of character, accomplishments, and a lifetime of knowledge—all attributes worth celebrating regardless of gender.
By shifting societal perceptions of mature beauty, we can reclaim the feminine aging process as something natural, inevitable, and even beautiful, helping older women redefine what it means to feel desirable and self-assured beyond the constraints of youth.
Makeup in sub-cultures
Within various subcultures, makeup takes on distinctive and robust meanings that expand mainstream understandings of its roles and purposes.
For goth and punk communities, heavy black eyeliner, dark lipstick, and alternative styles convey aesthetics of rebellion, nonconformity, and defiance towards societal norms. Makeup helps form and express collective identities that value individuality and push the boundaries of conventional beauty.
In the LGBTQ+ sub-culture, makeup is frequently deployed to destabilize gender binaries and play with notions of masculinity/femininity. Drag performers, in particular, leverage cosmetics to create exaggerated and fantastical personas that challenge cisnormative identities. Their makeup acts as a creative and political tool for social transformation.
Some religious communities mandate modest dress and actively encourage makeup as a form of adornment and expression of femininity. Within constraints, cosmetics allow women to enact beauty rituals that conform to socio-spiritual value systems.
The diverse ways makeup functions within counter-cultural movements highlight its potential for activism, self-definition, and identity formation beyond and sometimes in opposition to dominant frameworks. When removed from the constraints of ‘normality,’ cosmetics can enable revolutionary forms of self-expression that positively push social boundaries and norms.
Embracing makeup as a tool for self-definition, rather than solely beautification, within marginalized communities points toward its untapped potential for broader societal transformation. When cosmetics serve minority voices and cultivate alternative visions of beauty, they help reshape exclusionary frameworks from the outside in.
Makeup influencers and tutorials
While watching cosmetics videos can be a source of creative inspiration, the emergence of “tinted moisturizers” and influencers raises difficult questions that demand critical analysis.
On the one hand, tutorial creators often empower women by showcasing self-expression through cosmetics and building supportive communities. They introduce new techniques, products, and styles that expand what was once narrowly defined beauty norms.
But on the flip side, the endless bombardment of perfected makeup looks in an ‘idealized’ context–with flawless skin, lighting, and editing–can promote unrealistic standards that induce anxiety, competition, and feelings of inadequacy among viewers.
The commercialization of the beauty influencer industry also raises concerns. As makeup artists become brands in themselves, the content often shifts from honest self-expression towards hyper-curated looks meant to promote particular products and generate revenue. This shift blurs the line between simple tutorials and advertising disguised as inspiration.
The lack of diversity remains a glaring issue, with most influential makeup artists exhibiting one aesthetic—thin, light-skinned, non-disabled, cisgender women. This perpetuates narrow beauty standards that exclude and marginalize many groups, failing to showcase the full range of human beauty and creativity.
Looking ahead, amplifying varied voices, and diversifying the faces of beauty can help mitigate issues of exclusion while emphasizing creativity over perfection. Globalizing the cultural understanding of ‘good makeup’ will require expanding representation to include all women – across ages, sizes, colors, and abilities.
Ultimately, makeup tutorials should inspire joy, connection, and self-expression for women and not cultivate competition, self-loathing, or a hyper-fixation of impossible ideals. But achieving this balance will require an ongoing critique of commercial and exclusionary dynamics that currently pervade the influencer industry.
Side effects and health issues
Makeup is not inherently unhealthy, but some products, significantly when misused, can pose risks worth being educated about.
Chemical dyes, fragrances, preservatives, and other ingredients in cosmetics have potential, though largely unproven, links to conditions like allergic dermatitis, skin irritation, acne, and hormonal disruption. More research is needed, but some compounds have raised concerns among health experts.
Long-term risks may also exist. Regular use of makeup over decades could theoretically increase exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. And heavy makeup use has been linked with higher risks of specific conditions like inflammatory skin diseases in some studies. Again, more conclusive research is lacking.
Improper application and storage of products pose more immediate risks. Bacterial growth on dirty cosmetics, expired products, or inappropriate tool sanitation can spawn infections like conjunctivitis and contact dermatitis.
For health-conscious makeup wearers, some common-sense steps can help minimize risks:
- Avoiding outdated products
- Regularly cleaning and replacing tools
- Using hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, organic, and mineral-based products whenever possible
- Not sleeping in makeup and removing makeup thoroughly before bed
In conclusion, we should adopt a balanced perspective that acknowledges the importance of potential adverse health effects without downplaying or ignoring them while also avoiding extreme fear surrounding beauty products. Informed, practicing proper hygiene, and sourcing conscious products, women can empower themselves to safely enjoy the physical, mental, and social cosmetic benefits while mitigating preventable health risks.
Relationship to mental health
Even though makeup does not cause mental health issues, for some women, its spiraling importance may coincide with or even exacerbate worries relating to depression, anxiety, and body image.
Excessive focus on the outward appearance, perpetuating rising makeup and beauty standards, links feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and thoughts of inferiority among women. When society places so much worth on having the “perfect” look, women who cannot or do not wish to keep up internalize narratives of insufficiency.
This disproportionate emphasis on aesthetics may also point to underlying conditions like depression, where a lack of interest in self-care activities like makeup application could suggest diminished overall functioning. Alternatively, for some women, compulsive makeup use may signify an attempt to cope with or mask symptoms of depression or anxiety.
In rare yet extreme cases, the intense scrutiny and “corrections” of one’s appearance required for flawless makeup application may indicate body dysmorphic disorder, a condition in which perceived physical flaws become obsessive and disproportionate to reality. Though relatively uncommon, body dysmorphia stemming from pervasive beauty ideals affects some women.
Through cultivating a social reality that judges women less on aesthetics and more on character, intellect, and contributions, we can help mitigate mental health issues that arise from an excessive societal focus on physical beauty for females.
Impact on career opportunities
For women in professional settings, makeup carries complex implications for how they are perceived and treated in the workplace.
Wearing at least some makeup, especially in male-dominated fields, seems to confer certain benefits compared to no makeup. Studies find that women are considered more competent, intelligent, and worthy of higher salaries when wearing subtle cosmetics at work.
This bias likely stems from a ‘what is beautiful is good’ halo effect where femininity implied through cosmetics coincides with positive traits in the minds of raters. The shortcomings of this association aside, the reality remains that in many contexts, makeup may enhance a woman’s chances of being seen as ideal for specific roles and opportunities.
However, in many cases, wearing heavy or over-stylized makeup at work can backfire on women, indicating unprofessionalism and eliciting perceptions of traits like narcissism, frivolousness, and lack of competence. The “Goldilocks effect” suggests that moderate amounts of natural-looking makeup confer the most benefits while extremes invoke more negative responses.
Research suggests subtle cosmetics may benefit women in professional contexts that value feminine aesthetics. But true equality will emerge only when competence is assessed based on qualities demonstrably associated with it, not appearances aligned with narrow, gendered beauty ideals.
Makeup and disability
Women with disabilities have long been excluded from mainstream conversations about makeup, beauty, and femininity. This must change.
For many disabled women, makeup offers the same creative self-expression, psychological boosts, and social benefits as it does for non-disabled women. But physical, sensory, and cognitive impairments can pose unique challenges in applying and purchasing cosmetics.
Issues like lack of talent, limited range of motion, and sensitivity to textures, labels, and visual stimuli can all impact a disabled woman’s ability to navigate the world of makeup comfortably. And products are rarely designed with their specific needs in mind.
Exclusionary attitudes also abound. Disabled women often face skepticism about being interested in or capable of personal adornment. Many are not depicted wearing makeup in media portrayals of disability.
But by pushing past these barriers, makeup empowers many disabled women by enabling the creative expression of their beauty and femininity on equal terms. When cosmetic brands become more accessible and inclusive attitudes shift, disabled women gain options previously seen as beyond their capabilities.
Looking ahead, amplifying the voices of disabled women within the beauty industry can help drive innovation, inclusion, and awareness. As brands expand product ranges to accommodate diverse abilities and influencers showcase techniques tailored for individuals with impairments, exclusionary norms will shift.
When we recognize that beauty and creativity come in myriad forms, we pave the way for all women—disabled or not—to embrace cosmetics freely as a form of self-expression and empowerment. Makeup belongs to everyone; it’s time the industry caught up to this truth.
Makeup is, and likely always will be, a complex issue with no easy answers.
On an individual level, cosmetics undoubtedly bring many women joy, creativity, and confidence. But on a systemic one, exclusionary beauty norms that reward feminine adornment perpetuate inequalities and limit self-definition.
Navigating makeup culture requires balancing the personal desire for self-expression against an awareness of more significant dynamics that propagate harmful ideals. While individual choices rightfully belong to each woman alone, we must think critically about how our actions, intentional or not, uphold the status quo.
Moving forward, amplifying diverse voices, broadening representation, and reshaping exclusionary narratives can help reshape what ‘beauty’ even means. When all women across lines of ability, age, size, race, and identity feel empowered to determine their looks and worth, meaningful progress becomes possible.
Makeup itself is morally neutral. What matters most is the culture that grows up around it—one that judges women less for their appearance and more for their character, contributions, and humanity.
Until then, wearing cosmetics remains an imperfect tool women harness to navigate a world still fixated on superficial traits. But with eyes wide open to ongoing structural changes still needed, we can envision a reality where makeup acts simply as optional self-expression – not a marker of one’s value or ‘place’ in society.
Let’s keep the conversation going.