We all use cosmetics in one way or another, admittedly some of us more than others. Cosmetics by definition are products (or procedures) that affect only the appearance of a person with the aim to improve or enhance it. The term cosmetic covers anything from make up, lipsticks, nail varnish and even hair styling products. But how did we come about using these? How did it all start? And…why?
Humans have been decorating their face and body, by using paint pigments, for over 75 000 years suggesting that it is possible that as a species we decorated ourselves before we decided to wear clothes!  Interestingly, despite what some might think, the tendency to body and face decorate has been a widespread phenomenon independent of culture. Perhaps the difference is in the purpose or meaning of the decoration. For some cultures it might have started as ceremonial, for others it could have signified feelings but for many it was used as a personal improvement to enhance attraction. Researcher Robert Brain went as far as stating that “body decoration in some societies is the most important of the arts, and in many cases may justly be termed a fine art”. If you are into make up you know for sure that it does require some skill especially when done on more complicated projects such as for character development in movies or other shows.
However, like with anything, our taste for make up has changed over the years. During the Victorian era the use of cosmetics was looked down upon and was even perceived as morally unsound!  Interestingly, the Victorian women understood the importance of attraction and persevered by using other, more subtle, methods to enhance their appearance. Such methods included biting and pitching their lips and cheeks to give a more rose colour and carefully selecting their clothes’ colours to enhance their complexion. And while there were other occasions were countries or organisations tried to ban cosmetics, such as in communist countries, they were all unsuccessful.  To this day cosmetics are widely used with the cosmetic industry becoming one of the largest industries worth several billion pounds.
Many anthropologists and psychologists argue that the persistence of face and body decoration, and therefore by extend the use of cosmetics, has come from their ability to give us a sense of identity and individuality  and of course to enhance or improve the not so perfect characteristics that nature gives us. No wonder then why some of us never leave the house without applying at least the minimal cosmetics (like for example a lip stick) and some of us are even concerned about getting caught during different occasions without anything on! Stop your judgemental thoughts there though, if you think that some are crazy for even applying makeup before childbirth you might be surprised to know that many people leave instructions on how they want their make up to look like when they die and even the ancient Egyptians applied red lip stick on their dead. If you ask me, if it makes you feel good, go for it!
Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin who served in the British Army in 1945 wrote:
“It was shortly after the B. R. C. S teams arrived, thought it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of a genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. Do you see what I mean? At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.” [2, 6]
There have been many studies on facial attraction. Researches across many Universities and Institutions have presented focus groups with images of both males and females with different facial characteristics and make up. But while the use of cosmetics and the concept of beauty is universal and culture free, cultures can influence the “design” patterns or colours used, a bit like cultures following different fashion trends. Interestingly though, the human’s ability to define and perceive beauty has not been a product of culture. Studies done on infants that are too young to be culture or socially influenced, have shown differences on the relative attractiveness of different faces. As a result, there is a fair amount of evidence showing that, to a certain extent, the concept of attractiveness and beauty is biologically based.
However, although a good amount of attraction and beauty is hard wired in our system (survival of the fittest/survival of the prettiest? – animals do all sort of things to attract a mate it is not just humans) there is no good, strict definition on what exactly we as a human race find beautiful. Nevertheless, there are certain characteristics that have been identified as “beautiful markers” one of which being how consistent our face skin colour is (i.e skin homogeneity = not red or purple or lighter or darker in patches, all one even colour). As a result, it is easy to understand the use of foundation make up, specifically, to cover skin imperfections, including colour imperfections, and give a smooth perfectly coloured face. Interestingly, analysis of the natural male and female skin across all races, cultures and origin has shown that naturally, the female skin has a lighter colour than males, except around the eyes and lips.[2, 9] So it is not that strange after all why females would feel more feminine or pretty with the use of foundation or eye and lip colour make up!
Additionally, it is very interesting that the human visual system is sensitive to contrast rather than overall luminance.  This can be illustrated easily by taking a picture of yourself with no makeup and simply darkening, slightly, the areas of the eye and lips (don’t give yourself a black eye obviously). You will immediately notice that the second picture is a lot more attractive and of course it mimics the exact effect that make up has. Similarly you can slightly lighten the facial skin and you will immediate notice that the face looks more feminine.  Moreover, the female skin is apparently naturally more “green” based than “red” based, as opposed to the male one, which could also perhaps explain to an extent why we use make up to colour correct!
Eyebrows are interestingly, one of the features humans use to decide whether a face is male or feminine. No wonder then why females pluck their eyebrows and even increase their contrast by shading them with an eye brow pencil. But it is not just female attractiveness that cosmetics offer, there are also other “attractive features”. Cosmetics can give an appearance of youthfulness (unless you used too much!), skin homogeneity, averageness (relating to the rest of the population, something that humans as a social species like to do) and symmetry of the face. Some studies even suggest that cosmetics give the appearance of “professionalism” as you will appear well put together and taken care off (obviously there is a limit to this). So funnily enough, although cosmetics are a product that is applied on the face of the wearer, they are designed to work in the eyes of the perceiver.
So there you have it. The use of cosmetics is not random and definitely not just as simple as women being girly. It follows deeper human behavioural patterns on a social and biological level. Many researchers believe and have shown that the use of cosmetics give us individuality. The fact that this is a widespread, culture and time free phenomenon gives humanity a sense of unity. The use of cosmetics, enhancement or improvement of one’s appearance is a source of expression and an act of caring to one’s appearance and perception of themselves. Perception, not necessarily by others but by one’s self as well! It is very human after all to always strive to be the best we can be and to feel and look good! So please, do not listen to all the haters that might be against cosmetics or criticise you for wearing make up. It is your choice, however little or much you feel good with, it is part of your identity after all! So go on, wear that red lipstick because life is too short and not colourful enough!
I am not affiliated with any cosmetic brand. This article is based on peer-reviewed research studies and in some parts my opinion as a researcher and woman.
- R. B. Adams Jr., N. Ambady, K. Nakayama and S. Shimojo, The science of social vision, Oxford University Press, 2011.
- R. Brain, The decorated body, Hutchinson, 1979.
- N. Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest: The science of beauty, Anchor Books, 1999.
- Gonin L. C. M. W., Report on the liberation of Belsen, Imperial War Museum, Department of Documents, File 85/38/1, 1945.