Smart chicks don’t care about the mirror

It seems to be a widely held belief that to be an intelligent person (for the sake of the argument, I’m going to specify ‘girl’) is to relinquish all but the most basic of interests in personal appearance. You can shower and brush your hair. Cherry chapstick and maybe mascara, if you want to push it. After all, beauty is only skin deep, right? Smart chicks don’t spend hours looking in the mirror. That would be vain; a waste of time, quelle Narcissus and all that.

There’s an element of truth to this. It shouldn’t be all-consuming. Nobody wants to completely swallow the you’re-not-good-enough media pill. There is an aspect of the beauty industry that’s entirely too preoccupied with “fixing” what doesn’t need fixing. And if someone isn’t interested in cosmetics or doesn’t feel like wearing them, I say more power to them. For me, however, cosmetics are a fun thing. Not some mask with which to hide my insecurities, but an art form. Now, I’ll qualify this by being the first to admit that I’m insecure as hell, but for me, makeup has never been about covering stuff up. It’s freedom, expression, challenge.

Sarah Lawrence, my alma mater, is a wonderful school, one that affords you the freedom to explore intellectual curiosity as deeply as you might care to go. The serious academics I encountered there were worlds away from the music conservatory I transferred from. I found myself struggling to reconcile my own unassailable love for cosmetics and skincare and fragrance and silly girly things with my newfound academia; pursuing intellectual exploits and doing my best to present myself in a professional manner that reflected the inside of my brain more than the products I used every morning.

SRS ACADEMICS. And not an eyeliner in sight. (c) Sarah Lawrence College

A teacher once confided, “When I first met you, I thought you were one of those theater people. You don’t look like a serious intellectual.” There was an unmistakable condescension in his voice. It was meant to be a compliment about my intellectual capacity, but it only furthered my self-consciousness about the whole thing. The “serious girls” in my classes didn’t wear a stitch of makeup. And this lent them more credibility — even to me. Why? As if in the absence of makeup it was written on their faces that they’d spent that time in the library; spent more time pursuing “serious” things.

A New York Times article in October of last year cites a Boston-based study that concluded that women wearing makeup appeared more competent. The study, “Cosmetics as a Feature of the Extended Human Phenotype: Modulation of the Perception of Biologically Important Facial Signals,” (whew) used a pool of almost 300 participants and showed them, in varying lengths of time, photographs of 25 different women in various stages of makeup from bare-faced to “glamorous”. Overwhelmingly, the made-up women scored higher in likability, trustworthiness, and perceived competence. Interestingly, when viewers had to make a snap judgment based on limited exposure, the associations with all levels of makeup were positive. But the longer the more made-up images were shown to participants, the less trustworthy and “warm” they were likely to be rated. This makes sense when you think about how heavily made-up faces can be perceived as a kind of lie. We’ve all seen those Celebrities Without Makeup! shock horror tabloids. We know makeup can be magic.

See? Magic.

The study concluded that “[…] faces with cosmetics engage both fast, reflexive processes, and more deliberative conscious processes. The fast, automatic effects are uniformly strong and positive for all outcomes. In situations where a perceiver is under a high cognitive load or under time pressure, he or she is more likely to rely on such automatic judgments for decision-making. Facial images appear on ballots, job applications, websites and dating sites. Our results underscore the malleability of judgments derived from facial images of a single individual at zero acquaintance, judgments that can be highly consequential. When inferring trustworthiness, likeability, or competence from an image, we are influenced significantly not only by the attractiveness of the inherited phenotype but by the effects of the “extended phenotype,” in this case, makeup.”

Sounds about right. At first glance, someone wearing makeup often looks pulled-together; like they made an effort. But if you think about it too much, it sort of starts to look like they care too much about what they see in the mirror, and that, conventional wisdom says, is Not Good. I still don’t have an answer for how to be taken seriously if you wear makeup. It’s a balance I still walk and think about all the time. So no grand, tidy conclusions at this point, unfortunately.

I think if I were writing for a magazine, here is where I would offer tips on “Natural, barely-there beauty!” but you know what? Wear as much makeup as you freaking want. I tend to like to keep mine on the natural side for work or interviews, but hell, if that’s not you? Shine on, you crazy diamond.

Just blend that shit. Nobody ever went wrong with lots of blending.