Proctor & Gamble study proves gender-based discrimination, fails to notice

Recently the always interesting Siouxsie Law wrote a letter to Proctor and Gamble about their garbage study (in partnership with Harvard, so yes, money can buy credibility) that allegedly proves you need to wear makeup to be perceived as a serious business professional.  Of course, media reporting on science-y things always turns all vaguely ridiculous and so I thought maybe that isn't what the study said.  It was published in a PLoS journal so is open-access so you too can read it here.  Indeed, the study doesn't say what P&G claims in their press release mainly at all and has even less relation to the problematic portrayal of the study in the media which Siouxsie already wrote well on. 

Okay, here is what it claims to prove: makeup production and use functions as an extended phenotype to overlay our natural traits to make an individual's features more in line with facial features which humans seem to have an intrinsic preference for (you know, assuming your makeup is normally applied by professional makeup artists under the direction of beauty scientists, differences which are heavily glossed over in the literature).  Or, in slightly less science-y speak, we use makeup as an evolutionary strategy to be pretty and people's positive reactions to makeup are intrinsic.  There is a large body of research on traits which are intrinsically attractive (all of which nonetheless demonstrates a wide range of variance by individuals).  This study used four women of different ethnicities, made them up at three different makeup levels: light, moderate, and heavy, but the same general palette and styling was used for each level.  They showed pictures of with either no makeup or with the three levels, in one condition for 1/4 of a second and in another for an unlimited time.  Results (mostly, not sure what happened to moderate makeup):
From this they concluded, surprisingly considering they were sponsored by a cosmetics company, that yes makeup does function as an extended phenotype to make people like you more (well, find you hire-able and bangable, only light makeup makes you likable or trustworthy)!

I could spend several not very happy hours de-constructing the discussion section alone which is just filled to the brim with gendered assumptions (lol your suggestion that that naturally attractive people are nice, but ladies who wear a lot of makeup to fake attractiveness are probably shallow and promiscuous*), but instead I will just make a general point.

It's moments like these that I think back to all the times any of my hard science friends made fun of anthropology, sociology, or psychology and think, yeah, this is why my field is just as valid as yours (crotches) and we should probably interact like people from different but equally valid specialties which occasionally touch on each other normally do.  These results are completely expected and explainable by anyone remotely versed in social construction of gender theory.  First, let's talk about how this study used adults from similar cultural backgrounds, obviously you have to use adults to rate these specific traits, but the reasons psychologists in this area generally use babies is in order to filter out the profound effect of encultured beauty standards.  Without that filter their studies would have been totally non-compelling *coughnudge* and close to meaningless.  The alternative to babies is generally cross cultural research, which is not perfect, but a huge improvement. They do actually have a line about that in the discussion that says: "our study included only North American subjects; we do not know if such effects will be found in subjects from other cultures".  Or: Hey our study proves nothing outside of our own cultural assumptions, but yeah perceptions of makeup are totally innate.

So now, to the study authors: In case you are wondering, this cultural beauty standard and the cultural construction of cosmetic use on women perfectly explains what you considered to be the deeply anomalous result of the profound difference between the rating of trust, likability, and attractiveness for women with glamorous makeup depending on how long study participants looked.  While 1/4 of a second is only enough time to register a vague impression of an image, when given the opportunity to look harder study participants could see clearly that those women were wearing a lot of makeup.  Wearing a lot of makeup is pretty culturally loaded (the fact that lots of makeup is more culturally significant than natural makeup also explains the profound differential between short and long looking times for "glamorous" vs. "natural" makeup), because it is perceived as aggressive and slutty.  We often associate aggression with being good at business, and sluttiness with being bangable but unlikable and untrustworthy.  So what I am saying is, all you have proved is that socially constructed beauty standards expect women to alter their appearance through makeup, but too much alteration, while still being more attractive, will cause them to be judged more harshly.  So, congratulations Proctor and Gamble you just proved Naomi Wolf right!

Also, what exactly is this studies' justification for only using women?  Seriously?  I just can't....
Shouldn't the fact that men don't use the apparently brilliant evolutionary strategy of makeup being kind of a big red flag.  I'm starting to think Harvard's Psychiatry cirrulum doesn't include any Foucault at all.

*No seriously, it says that: "In general, there is less agreement about whether beauty invariably signals social cooperation, with some studies suggesting that there is a ”dark side” to beauty characterized by vanity, immodesty, or greater likelihood to cheat on a partner. Our findings suggest that it may be fruitful to disentangle the effects of beauty from beauty enhancement, or phenotype from extended phenotype here [lol, how? how do they suggest that?]. It may be that natural beauty or natural appearing beauty leads to positive inferences of social cooperation, where more obvious beauty enhancement may lead to neutral or even negative inferences."
Okay, so technically it just says that naturally beautiful people are assumed to be nicer whereas heavily made-up people are assumed to be lying whores, it doesn't say they actually just implies that if you have read the research they are referencing.


Sarahbelle said...

I've always liked Naomi Watts.
She came to Seattle, in the middle of a nasty lawsuit against Northwest Airlines when they fired a female flight attendant for not wearing makeup on the job. She appeared on a local talk show, and the media was to surprised to note (and agave her a very hard time about it) that she was both attractive, AND wearing makeup. she defended her choice by saying that she never said it was wrong for women to wear makeup, only that it was wrong for employers to compel them to. She allowed exceptions for employers that were in the cosmetics or fashion biz -- but flight attendants (and nurses, and schoolteachers, and waitresses, and secretaries and, and, and) ought to be judged on their ability to do their job, and not how gussied up they get themselves to do that job.

That said: please remember what I have always tried to teach you: while it is morally wrong, and frequently inaccurate, to judge other people by their looks; it would be naive of you to not assume that others are judging you by yours.
Ergo: if you really want that job, polish your shoes, iron your clothes, and put a little lipstick on your forced smile.
It's wrong that it's true -- but it's still true.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for posting. Great take.

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