Highly attractive women are perceived as more aggressive by other women when wearing make-up

Whether make-up results in women appearing more aggressive or a better potential leader depends to some extent on their perceived attractiveness, according to new research published in Personality and Individual Differences. The findings suggest that make-up’s function as a signal of intersexual competitiveness is primarily restricted to attractive women.

“We’re interested in why women wear make-up, the social motives for doing so. Conventional wisdom would suggest that it is simply to improve a woman’s appearance, but prior research suggests that there is much more to it than that,” said study author Dani Sulikowski, a senior lecturer at Charles Sturt University.

Sulikowski and her colleagues conducted two studies to examine how make-up influenced women’s perceptions of other women. They were particularly interested in whether wearing make-up was perceived as a signal competitive intent.

In the first study, 110 women were randomly assigned to view and rate either 70 female faces that had no make-up or the same 70 female faces with light-to-moderate make-up. After viewing each face, the participants were asked “How attractive is this face?”, “How aggressive would this woman be in an argument?”, and “How good a leader would this woman be?”

The researchers found that made-up faces tended to be rated as more attractive, more aggressive, and having greater leadership potential than non-made-up faces. Two interaction effects were also observed. Wearing make-up strengthened the relationship between attractiveness and perceived aggressiveness, but weakened the relationship between attractiveness and leadership potential.

“Make-up did not affect the apparent interpersonal aggression of less attractive women, but it did increase judgements of leadership potential. From these findings we conclude that make-up may well act as a signal of competitive intent, but only when worn by more attractive, high mate-value women,” the researchers explained.

In the second study, 472 women viewed either attractive or unattractive female faces with or without make-up before completing assessments of self-reported facial and bodily attractiveness, self-esteem, and mate value. Among participants with a high self-reported mate value, viewing attractive made-up faces was associated with reduced ratings of facial attractiveness compared to viewing attractive faces without make-up. But participants with a low self-reported mate value were not impacted by make-up regardless of whether they viewed the attractive or unattractive female faces.

“When attractive women wear make-up, other women perceive them to be more interpersonally aggressive,” Sulikowski told PsyPost. “When less attractive women wear make-up, other women perceive them to be better leaders. In terms of the women making such judgements, it is those women who report themselves to be highly attractive who tend to be most sensitive to whether or not other women are wearing make-up – and these highly attractive women tend to see themselves as less attractive after viewing other made-up female faces.”

As with any study, the new research includes some caveats.

“In this study, women viewed and rated the faces of other women without any specific context provided,” Sulikowski explained. “So women weren’t told anything about the faces they were viewing, and there was no suggestion that these faces should be viewed as women who were in competition with the participants (for jobs, or romantic partners or anything else). Future studies should now consider whether these effects transfer over to various kinds of contexts (such as social or work environments) and whether they change when such contextual cues are provided.”

The study, “Mate-value moderates the function of make-up as a signal of intrasexual aggression“, was authored by Danielle Sulikowski, Michelle Ensor, and Danielle Wagstaff.