What Does Your Make-Up Usage Say About You?

Psychologist Anthonieta Looman Mafra discusses what women’s make-up usage patterns might say about their self-esteem and body image.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 13, 2022

A new study published in PLOS ONE explores the relationship between a woman's self-esteem, body image, and her make-up habits. The research suggests that prolonged make-up usage might be more of a social practice than a personal preference.

I recently spoke to Anthonieta Looman Mafra from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of São Paulo in Brazil to understand this relationship in greater detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the relationship between body image, self-esteem and makeup usage, how did you study it, and what did you find?

In my Ph.D. research, I found that Brazilian women of lower socioeconomic status tend to invest more money in beauty products as they have a better financial condition, but this investment was not related to their self-perception improvement.

On the other hand, it was found that men who invest more in beauty, also have higher self-perception of their faces, bodies, sociability, and agreeableness. This result shows that women who invest more in beauty did not tend to enhance their perception, suggesting that their investment in beauty might be influenced by social pressure.

Women frequently (if not always) suffer from social pressure to look as good as possible.

It does not matter if we do not have enough time to do everything we were supposed to, such as being a mother, studying, working, or being a good friend and partner, people always pay attention to how we look.

Additionally, Jaroslava Valentova and Marco Varella (University of Sao Paulo, Brazil) were working on this amazing project about appearance modifications and makeup, and I joined their team.

Makeup usage is popular around the world and, even in times of financial struggle, the cosmetic industry continues to grow. Women may try to improve their appearance to attract a better romantic partner who may be willing to invest or even to compete with rivals and get a better job.

We also knew that self-perception is related to general self-esteem but little is known about social self-esteem. Thus, we decided to investigate the interaction between social and general self-esteem, makeup usage, and a more punctual aspect of self-perception: body image.

Please explain the positive correlation between physical appearance and appearance satisfaction.

In the scale of body image, individual physical appearance is a part of their appearance satisfaction: individuals who feel better about their body and facial appearance feel more satisfied with their appearance.

It is distinct from appearance orientation (another factor of the body image) because it focuses on individuals' vanity, the importance one gives to his/her appearance, and self-care. While the latter focuses on one's feelings about her/his appearance, the first focuses on the importance one gives to his/her looks, in order to always look nice.

The paper identifies both social self-esteem and general self-esteem. What are the distinct differences between the two phenomena?

Both self-esteems refer to individuals' feelings and thoughts about themselves.

General self-esteem takes into account the spheres of the individual life, how good they are at something, their ability to do things as well as other people, and how the person feels about themselves.

Social self-esteem is directed to one's perception of their social interactions, how confident and comfortable they feel when interacting with others.

Between social and general self-esteem, is one more influential on an individual's life than the other?

I could not say which one influences someone's life more. I believe it depends on the individual's personality. I couldn't claim that without a study about it, though. Most studies focus on general self-esteem, but self-esteem may have different dimensions that are relatively independent.

General self-esteem measures one's perception of oneself as a whole while social self-esteem is a specific dimension of it, more directed to social interaction situations.

Why is it important to have a good sense of self-perception?

Accurate self-perception is important so you realize/recognize your value in each situation, each context. It prevents you from staying in a situation or environment that does not fit you.

For example, if you are too qualified for a job and you are not being recognized for your efforts, would it not be better if you try to get a more appropriate job for you?

So I could say that a good sense of self-perception allows you to make better decisions and to not waste time and energy on something that is not the best option for you.

At the same time, underestimating one's looks or abilities is a very frequent self-image distortion, which can lead to severe issues and pathologies, including:

  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Or, even suicidal behavior

What is an appearance schema and how is it developed throughout life?

An individual develops their appearance schema throughout their life, through evaluations they receive from other people and their experiences, such as comments from relatives or when they alter their appearance through clothes or makeup.

Body image would be the belief people internalize about their appearance throughout their lives by interacting with others and receiving feedback. How we feel and think about ourselves calibrates throughout our whole life, partly because individual appearance changes during the ontogeny.

The most abrupt appearance changes occur during puberty, and this is the time when many body image distortions start. It is thus very important not to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their look, and support all human variation to boost a healthy self-esteem and a realistic body image, especially among young people, for whom looks are even more important than at older ages.

Your research speaks about how appearance orientation may be used as a measure of self-objectification. What would this behavior look like in practice?

It is an interesting and also sensitive point to talk about. Unfortunately, due to the social pressure women suffer, we normally have had the idea that women always have to look good and be young with beautiful and perfect bodies that fit perfectly in a standardized pattern.

This pressure may lead women (and others) to see their bodies as an object that has to be shaped in order to be accepted as part of the pattern established in society, or as a tool to please others.

People can invest a lot of time, money, and energy to take care of their bodies only because they were taught to give more importance to their physical appearance than to other aspects, such as identity, personality or abilities, but more study is needed in order to investigate the relation between self-objectification and appearance orientation.

Humans are visual animals, and visual categorization is thus inherent to our thinking and world understanding. That is why we should spend more energy to overcome appearance discrimination.

What practical advice do you have for individuals struggling with social or general self-esteem? What would you like people to take away from your research?

I think one of the most interesting results we found is that women who feel confident and comfortable with social interactions tend to spend more money on makeup than women who do not feel this way.

While women who feel good about themselves tend to use less makeup than women who don't feel good about themselves, women who give greater importance to their appearance,

tend to use more makeup. This study suggests that makeup is not used because women want to feel good about themselves but because they want to look good, and this may have several reasons, but most of them point to social pressure.

It is difficult to fight against the established pattern of women's looks and behavior but we believe we are walking towards it.