When economic times are tough, you’d think that one of the first expenses women would cut would be makeup. After all, a tube of lipstick isn’t necessary for survival. Or is it?
For years, social scientists have observed a curious trend known as the “lipstick effect,” in which women spend more money on beauty products during a recession than in times of economic prosperity. Why? Previous studies hypothesized that women were motivated to enhance their physical appearance to attract a mate who could theoretically help secure their financial future. (Because why else would women need to look good, right?)
Now, however, a study published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that, today, the lipstick effect can largely be attributed to women buying more beauty products to move up in their careers and better support themselves.
While it’s a sad fact that women’s personal grooming habits can affect their careers, research continues to suggest that women who wear makeup are more likely to be viewed as intelligent and competent and more likely to get promotions. So it makes sense that woman would intuitively take this step during a time of economic hardship to better secure her financial security.
To test this hypothesis, researchers from Bocconi University in Italy and University of Notre Dame conducted several experiments using women recruited from both Amazon's Crowdsourcing platform Mechanical Turk and a market research firm. Each study involved at least 172 women from the United States, who were a mix of married and single.
In one experiment, 200 female participants were asked to rate statements such as “It is absolutely necessary for my partner to be financially stable” and “It is absolutely necessary for my job to be financially stable” on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree. The survey was intended to measure if women were more interested in a partner as their source of financial stability or themselves.
Next, the women rated how much they wished to be perceived as likable and intelligent in their workplace. They also rated the extent to which they desired six appearance-enhancing items: lipstick, dress, mascara, nail polish, perfume, and face cream.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that both motivations—seeking a partner and seeking a job—had an influence on the "lipstick effect." In other words, women were looking to enhance their appearance to both find a mate and be highly regarded at their job. Which seems obvious. However, when researchers controlled for marital status, they saw no significant effect—which led them to believe that career aspirations probably outweigh marriage aspirations when it comes to increased beauty purchases.
"That marital status of women does not influence the lipstick effect could suggest that women may not be ultimately interested in finding a partner to support them when they are economically concerned," write the authors.
For the next experiment, the researchers recruited a new set of participants and asked them to read one of two news stories: One was about the dismal state of the economy and the other was about a flu outbreak. The women were then told that the experiment was actually about gaging interest for an online tutorial being offered. The two options: learning about makeup tricks to look more professional or learning about makeup tricks to appear more attractive to men. (These sneaky social scientists!)
Participants then answered questions about which tutorial they were more interested in watching—and, yes, they were more into looking professional. "Economic-recession cues affect women’s interest in learning how to appear professional (as explained by economic concern) but not how to appeal to men," write the authors. Essentially, the stress of a bad economy made women more interested in enhancing their career, not their dates.
Of course, it's difficult from these experiments to fully determine whether women might be buying makeup to look good for her job, a mate, or both—so the authors set out to conduct an experiment that specifically separated the participants' motivations.
For the final experiment, participants were asked how concerned they were about (a) having a lot of money, (b) being a victim of a bad economy, (c) having a steady income, and (d) having a good job. They were then asked to read an article that stated as fact that men can view women either romantically or professionally, but cannot simultaneously view women as both.
This of course isn't true—it was meant to prime the women for the real test. After reading the article, the women were told the experiment was for a marketing agency looking to unveil a new lipstick ad and were asked which ad appealed to them more:
Pouty Pink Lipstick: It may not get you your dream job, but it will get you your dream man.
Professional Pink Lipstick: It may not get you your dream man, but it will get you your dream job.
Results showed that as women’s economic fears increased, the odds of them selecting the professional pink lipstick also increased. Specifically, women whose economic concern was above the median indicated that Professional Pink lipstick (65%) was more appealing to them than Pouty Pink lipstick (35%). Once again, the incentive to look good for work outweighed the incentive to look good for a man.
While more research is needed to draw any real conclusions, the study’s authors believe that women's motivations for buying beauty products during times of recession may be shifting as they seek to secure financial freedom on their own, rather than relying on a mate.
"It may have been that in the past women have relied on their partners or spouses to provide for them, but nowadays women have gained more independence, likely due to increased workplace opportunities available for them,” Ekaterina Netchaeva, the study’s lead author, told me over email. “Specifically, our studies demonstrate that in recessionary conditions women prefer to rely upon themselves to ensure economic stability.”
Ultimately, the results are good and bad: While it's fantastic that women would rather rely on themselves for financial security than a male knight in shining armor, it's unfortunate that women's appearance still plays such a large role in "making it."
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.