“While at first it seemed like a depressing realisation, I soon realised that make-up is powerful – it’s every woman’s secret weapon.” – Charlotte Tilbury
Ever wondered why we use make-up in the way that we do? Why we enhance certain features? How you can use make-up as a tool to enhance your attractiveness, according to research? Evolutionary psychology has the answers. In an age of Instagram models with orange faces, spidery eyelashes and aggressively contoured cheekbones, I investigate the roots of attraction and explore why and how natural-looking make-up enhances beauty.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to tell people that this way of applying make-up is the only way that’s attractive, or that you need make-up to look attractive, OR that you need to use make-up to attract the opposite sex. It’s simply an article about make-up that’s inspired by evolutionary psychology.
These make-up tips are based on research from evolutionary psychology, ‘a theoretical approach in the social and natural sciences that examines psychological structure from a modern evolutionary perspective.’ It’s been proposed that we gravitate towards certain traits and characteristics of beauty because of the natural instincts that enabled our species to evolve and thrive. These instincts helped us to select healthy mates, who were more likely to produce healthy children to advance the species.
According to evolutionary psychology, men prefer youthful looking women because these women are more fertile and able to reproduce and spread his genes. For women, a ‘youthful face’ means having highly feminized features, because this suggests higher levels of the hormone oestrogen and lower levels of the ‘male’ hormone testosterone. This is because the female sex hormone, oestrogen, regulates the female reproductive system and therefore enhances a woman’s fertility.
I’ll now break the features down and we’ll explore each one, examining what’s attractive, why, and how you can enhance that particular feature in your everyday make-up routine.
What’s attractive, and why?
- Women tend to be naturally darker around the eyes than men; the contrast between facial features and skin colour is greater in women. This is known by scientists as the ‘luminance contrast’. Because the luminance contrast is greater in women, we can appear more attractive by using make-up to enhance the contrast further. For this reason, a face is made up to appear more feminine with eyeliner, eyeshadow and mascara. (Interestingly, researchers have found that this increased luminance contrast is viewed as attractive in women, however for men, the greater the luminance contrast, the less attractive women find them.)
- Another reason for applying darker eye make-up is to make our eyes appear larger, which is characteristic of infant faces. According to evolutionary theory, facial neoteny (child-like features) such as big eyes and full lips increase how attracted we are to a female face, because it indicates youth which again, is suggestive of fertility.
How can I enhance my eyes with make-up?
- Softly outline the eyes with a neutral shadow, subtly drawing attention to the eyes and making them appear larger. When going for the natural look, line the lashline with eyeshadow using a small angled brush instead of eyeliner to help create the appearance of naturally thick lashes when paired with mascara. Using natural earthy colours helps to keep the look ‘no-make-up make-up’ – for classical beauty you merely want to enhance features, not exaggerate.
- Another way to make eyes appear larger is to apply a light, reflective colour in the corner of the eye and middle of the upper lid. A light pink/cream pencil eyeliner in the lower waterline can enhance the contrast further.
- Eyeliner wings can elongate the eyes, however be sure to draw the flicks upward to lift your face and avoid droopiness. I recommend this video by Aly Art if you struggle with what I like to call ‘droopy cat-eye syndrome’.
- Long, full lashes are a sign of good health. Curl the eyelashes to open up the eye and fan the lashes before applying your mascara for fullness. Heating the curlers with a hairdryer prior to application can help your lashes hold the curl for longer, though be careful not to burn your eye! If your natural lashes are short and sparse, you can cheat with individual lashes to give your natural look a boost.
What’s attractive, and why?
- A clear, glowing complexion is attractive to both men and women – this is because facial symmetry, vibrancy, an even skin tone and texture signifies good health.
How can I enhance my complexion with make-up?
- Use a light foundation to beautify the complexion, keeping things looking natural with a ‘dewy’ finish by applying with a damp beauty blender and/or by mixing a drop of oil into the foundation you’re about to apply. To avoid looking greasy/sweaty, powder the T-zone area (forehead, under the eyes and slightly over the tip of the nose). Too much powder can make the skin look old, dry and enhance fine-lines, so be careful to apply gently and tap any excess powder off of the brush before application.
- Apply a nude-peach coloured blush to the high points of the face that the sun would naturally hit (cheekbones, bridge of the nose) to mimic a healthy, sun-kissed glow.
- Freckles naturally appear after sun exposure, so lightly placing a smattering of faux freckles over the same areas as your blush will enhance youthfulness and make your skin look sunkissed and more ‘real’ after you’ve applied a layer of your foundation. You can use a brown eye/lip/brow pencil for this but be sure to blend the freckles slightly by patting them with your fingertip. Ideally, they’ll barely be visible, especially if you don’t already have freckles to draw over. I learnt this tip from the queen of make-up, Charlotte Tilbury.
- Apply highlighter to the high points of the face – the brow bone, bridge of the nose (though not the tip – this can make it look bulbous and oversized) and the inner corner of the eyes to draw attention or slim down these features by drawing light to them.
- Evolutionarily speaking, a smaller nose on a woman is more attractive because it’s more infantile-looking (remember, neoteny!). Highlighting the ridge of the nose will attract light to this area, creating the appearance of a slimmer nose (Warning: don’t apply highlighter to the tip of the nose unless you want to enlarge it, as this can make it appear bulbous and oversized). Here I’ve linked a video on highlighting the nose by the wonderful Wayne Goss. For wider noses, the sides of the nose can be lightly contoured for extra slimming power!
What’s attractive, and why?
- Plucking, shaping and filling in the eyebrows neatly frames the face, increases facial symmetry and indicates youthfulness in fulness because as we age, our brows become sparser and lighter.
How can I enhance my brows with make-up?
- Using an eyebrow gel or pencil to achieve fuller, darker brows. Comb through your lashes with a brush before applying product to keep them neat. An eyebrow gel can be applied over any colour to ensure your brows stay put all day.
What’s attractive, and why?
- Prominent lips make a woman’s face more attractive, mimicking neoteny.
- In Caucasians, much of the luminance contrast between the lips and facial skin is in the redness. Red lips have been considered attractive in women in cultures across location and time, possibly because they mimic vasodilation, indicating high oestrogen levels, sexual arousal and cardiac and respiratory health. In one study, participants could change the colour of the lips of face photographs. On female faces, participants increased the redness contrast to increase the femininity and attractiveness of the face. Wearing the colour red also improves attractiveness – another study found that red grabs male attention in primates, as well as in humans – we find red sexually desirable. This ‘red-sex link’ most probably has roots in our biology – many female primates display red on their body (genitals/chest/face) when nearing ovulation – the most fertile period of the female cycle. So, it makes sense for this to be ingrained in our sense of what we find attractive.
How can I enhance my lips with make-up?
- Drawing over your lip shape with lip liner can improve the symmetry of your lips and increase the size. Prominent lips can be achieved by using a colour that’s slightly darker than your natural lip colour and definitely no lighter than your foundation which can wash you out and make you look ill (and, to be frank, reminds me a little of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride).
- Applying highlighter to the cupid’s bow (the little M-shape above your top lip) draws light to the lips, making them look larger and more prominent, as does washing the lips with a sheer gloss.
Lastly, research has shown that positive facial expressions enhance facial attractiveness for women because they signal interest and kindliness – evolutionarily speaking, resting bitch face isn’t very alluring. 🙂
Until next time,
Kościński, K. (2007). Facial attractiveness: General patterns of facial preferences. Anthropological Review, 70(1), 45-79.
Stephen, I. D., & McKeegan, A. M. (2010). Lip colour affects perceived sex typicality and attractiveness of human faces. Perception, 39(8), 1104-1110.
Mulhern, R., Fieldman, G., Hussey, T., Lévêque, J. L., & Pineau, P. (2003). Do cosmetics enhance female Caucasian facial attractiveness?. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 25(4), 199-205.
Elliot, A. J., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: red enhances men’s attraction to women. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95(5), 1150.