A Tale of Dominance and Prestige: How Make-Up Influences the Perception of Social Status

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

The beginning of wisdom about social status is learning to distinguish its two (and only two) primary forms: dominance and prestige. These are, as one research paper puts it, the “two ways to the top.” If dominance is the kind of status we get from intimidating others, prestige is the kind of status we get from doing impressive things or having impressive traits or skills.” In other words, both dominance and prestige can be used to reach higher status in society, but the systems on which they’re based are almost complete opposites. If you’re dominant, it means you prefer using forcefulness or manipulation to make people follow you. However, you can gain high status by prestige—your positive merits and qualities make others want to follow you.

Women who wear make-up are routinely perceived as having a higher professional status. Therefore, a recent study published in the journal Perception (Sex differences in the perceived dominance and prestige of women with and without cosmetics) aimed to determine whether or not the perception of higher professional status linked to wearing make-up was associated with the perception of either dominance or prestige.

For the study, researchers digitally applied a standardized amount of subtle make-up to real images of women’s faces. The amount of applied make-up was based on the average amount of cosmetics worn by a sample of women. Then, the researchers asked men and women to rate the same faces—with and without makeup—for attractiveness, dominance, and prestige.

The study results were surprising. Both men and women rated the faces with make-up as higher in attractiveness. However, only women rated faces with make-up as higher in dominance. In contrast, only men rated them as higher in prestige. Thus, men think women who wear make-up are more “prestigious”, while women think women who wear make-up are more “dominant.”

The researchers then carried out a follow-up study to investigate whether or not jealousy was a factor contributing to the enhanced perceptions of dominance from women. They found that women experience more jealousy toward women with cosmetics, and view these women as more attractive to men and more promiscuous.

Thanks to the study findings, now we are aware that women who wear makeup appear more dominant when they are judged by other women, but appear to be more prestigious when judged by men. So, what are the practical implications of these findings?

Viktoria Mileva, lead author of the study, said in a press release: “For example, at a job interview, knowing whether the hiring committee will consist of men or women might influence a female candidate’s decision about wearing make-up. Whether the interviewers will view her as attractive, dominant, and/or prestigious can affect her and the interviewers’ actions and perhaps the outcome of the interview itself. Thus, understanding the potential implications of cosmetics use are important not only for the wearer, but also for the perceiver.”

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11 comments

  1. I believe that makeup being perceived as dominant or prestigious is interesting. Dominance is usually a negative connotation and prestige is usually a positive connotation. Women wear makeup for many different reasons. Mainly, millennial women wear makeup because it’s an art form or fun. It is interesting to see how men and women perceive other women who wear make up because interpretations can vary. Women think other women who wear make up are dominant, men think they’re prestigious, women who wear it think it’s just fun. Sadly, women are subjected by their looks and not their work ethics which overshadows their intellect and self worth. Make up is simply an accessory and I don’t think that it makes a women prestigious or dominant. Yes, makeup is used to be more attractive but not promiscuous per say. The idea that makeup can say a lot about a woman is ludicrous yet it still happens every day.

    • Make-up is definitely used to enhance one’s appearance. I have always found it strange that women are led by society to wear makeup and comply with societal standards of beauty, while men are discouraged from wearing makeup. It is not surprising that women would use the word “dominant” in this context. Makeup is another way women are pitted against each other. Another competition to divide us. While the word dominant in itself is not negative, it is seen as such when describing a woman. When using the word to describe men, it comes with a sense of prowess and ambition. Personally, I think this study shows another example the gender biases within our society. A simple word can be seen as good or bad depending on the gender of the person you’re using it for. How absurd is that?

  2. I didn’t realize make up could be thought of in terms of dominance or prestige, but I guess I can kind of see it after reading this post. I think for women, make up is usually a form of a security blanket, especially if they’re like me and have suffered from having bad skin my whole life. In my twenties, I loved playing with make up. It was more about making a personal statement about my style than trying to evoke a particular response or consideration. Now, in my thirties, I really don’ wear much make up, and when I do, it’s as natural as I can make it. I think it’s because I’m more comfortable in my skin, and I don’t really care what other people think of me, especially if they’re making judgements based on my makeup. Granted, I do believe that there are times where make up would be warranted, like an interview or a performance, but I think that is to look more professional. I also know that when I’m in a situation that makes me nervous, if I’m wearing make up, I’m at least not worrying about how tired I look or the giant zit on my chin. I can focus on the task at hand with out being self conscious. It’s sad that there is this double standard that women should do whatever they can to look more beautiful, but men are expected to be naturally handsome, and primping usually is a negative thing for men. We still live in a world of rash judgments and masculine dominance, so I think the make up thing will be an issue for a while. Attractiveness is always going to be an issue for men, but it’s more so among women. We are our own worst critics, so when a man compliments us because we look pretty with a face full of make up, we appreciate it and are more likely to keep wearing make up. We need to build more self confidence in our appearances, something I’ve been working on since I was a teenager. But some women, like Alicia Keys, are now staying 100% natural and not wearing make up, even for performances and photo shoots. They have enough confidence to go natural. I applaud her and the other women who are strong enough to not need make up to protect them, and I hope I get there one day.

  3. Fascinating! In some way, that makes sense. Men are often oblivious to womens’ interpretations of makeup, while women are often oblivious to mens’. As a woman, perhaps there’s a competitive edge to many things, including makeup. We often associate social status with looks and attractiveness in women, but a high social status is not necessarily associated with prestige, but rather dominance. Perhaps the fact that there are noticeable amounts of competition in groups of women, who also, it should be noted, strongly associate physical attractiveness to self esteem, cause us to associate dominance and high self esteem with the facial enhancement that makeup provides.
    I believe men, as unfathomable as it may seem, may be oblivious to this. They don’t necessarily know the routine and time that makeup takes, or the talent that is put into it. Perhaps they really do think that lots of makeup is beautiful (as long as it doesn’t look too fake), and that she didn’t spend half an hour painting her face in the mirror while they were still sleeping. Flawless skin is associated with being healthy, but men may have a hard time believing that the layer of foundation we put on temporarily conceals the blemishes on our skin. Do we do such a good job of fooling them? Makeup is, after all, created to make our appearance more attractive, and attractiveness is biologically linked to mating possibilities. Perhaps men see a healthy, high class woman when they see that she has no blemishes, perfect eyelashes, prominent cheekbones, and red lips.
    There is one more thought that should be presented. Since our society is still fairly patriarchal, what would a woman truly need to add to her appearance to display dominance to a man, if it is inherently assumed the male always holds the dominant position? Or in other words, how can a woman present herself to appear as slightly threatening to the male who is evaluating her?

  4. I am utterly shocked by most of the findings in this study! I am obviously not shocked by the fact that women in makeup were rated higher in attractiveness, but I am disappointed that other women would rate them as higher in dominance. Dominance is usually thought of as being a negative quality to have, so why would our fellow women assign such a negative trait to other women in makeup? I can only assume that it goes back to women not supporting each other because we’re always trying to get ahead of one another.

    When not in school, I am an avid makeup lover and wearer. I wear makeup because I love creating new looks and gaining a confidence boost. Granted I am extremely aware that wearing makeup is one more thing women do that has traditionally been used to attract men. I always say that I wear makeup for myself, and myself alone; yet I am always seeking out approval from my boyfriend and friends to make sure it looks good. I’m a little disheartened after reading these findings because I never thought my makeup could influence an interview. A lot of women don’t look as awake and prepared when not wearing makeup (especially in college because college equals zero sleep), but now we can look dominant when wearing makeup?

    Based on these findings, I would much rather be viewed as prestigious over dominant, but I don’t think the way I am viewed as an individual should be based on the makeup I wear. Research study after research study just makes me think about if women are ever going to get to where we want, and have the right, to be. Every aspect of our being is constantly judged, and these findings add onto the list. I want to feel good about myself, but not at the potential cost of a job. At the end of the day, it’s just one more thing women must worry about…and one less thing men don’t have to worry about.

    • I agree with you when you mention how it is troubling to know the influence wearing makeup can have on getting a job, but it’s not surprising. No matter who we are, man or woman, we are judged based on appearance: how we are dressed, our hair, our posture, the way we talk, and of course, our face. A woman with makeup who is rated as being dominant, in my opinion, is the synonym for confidence. I do not wear makeup, and when I do, it’s just eyeliner and eyeshadow. When I see women with makeup, I see their attractiveness, but my first thought is confidence. Confidence I wish I had. Confidence I work on every day.

      I would have to disagree with you about it being another thing for us women to worry about and not for men. Makeup for women is equivalent, in my opinion, to facial hair for men. Men are judged on the grooming of their facial hair, whether they have some or not, or whether it’s too much or not. And yes, the “jealousy” women experience from other women about attractiveness could be said for the “jealousy” men with beards receive from men who can’t grow one.

      It’s great to have research out there to understand that it’s not just something we perceive to be true but is true. This, though, should not be surprising. I do not believe it is something that should be used to analyze sex difference, at least not alone. If we are to use this to talk about sex differences, we need to research attire for both sexes, makeup on both sexes (because it is an increasing factor these days), facial hair, and many more aspects. Then compile the factors, to determine the opinions made based on sex. We can also focus on the fact that makeup actually gives an unfair advantage to women that men do not necessarily have. Makeup accentuates the features on a woman’s face, which is pleasing to the eye. Something most men of which cannot take advantage. In all honesty, we should not look at this kind of data, because we do not need to change who we are based on what others may think. If we walk into an interview with confidence, that confidence will show, and if we do not get hired, we go back and evaluate ourselves, then move on to the next job.

      I do agree that women get judged by their looks, but this is also something men struggle with too. I do agree with the paper, that it would help knowing your job interview panel, to be aware of the opinions and judgments to be made based on appearance, but this is a rule both sexes can benefit.

  5. Make up doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are many other factors besides make up that contribute to an overall impression of a woman: body language, wardrobe, tone of voice, how she interacts with others. I just don’t think these results should be considered absolute. But like Tamryn said, it’s good to be aware of how your image influences how you’re perceived. You have to know the rules to know how to break them!

    I think it is interesting that men and women had different perceptions of women because of their make up. Like Ashley said, women are competitive with each other. Because we are constantly comparing ourselves to other women, we sometimes feel threatened by women who appear more beautiful or seem to spend more effort on their appearance. Men don’t have to make this comparison to women, so they probably don’t feel as threatened by beauty alone.

    Addressing Christina’s question about how women can dominate men, this goes back to my point about make up not existing in a vacuum. There are plenty of things a woman could do to be perceived as dominant: interrupt people, take up a lot of space, act superior. These results were going by make up alone, but a complete interaction is much more complicated than that.

    This makes me wonder about another potential sex difference – our own reaction to the word “dominant.” Most of the comments have said you don’t want to be perceived as dominant. There’s something uncomfortable about it, but I wonder if men would feel the same way?

  6. I have to say that there seems to be an implication that the word dominant is negative. I guess I wasn’t particularly bothered by this study because dominance and assertiveness have always been traits that I have admired. I’ve always seen these as positive traits. So for a woman to be able to rate another woman as dominant is great. This, to me, means that the woman is strong and can get the job done. This study can be taken into many contexts based on the way you view the words. To me, a woman in make-up is prestigious, she is dominant, and she is attractive (who doesn’t love clear skin?!). Just as equally, a woman without make-up can display all of these traits. Dominance, prestige,and attractiveness are driven more by attitude and confidence at the end of the day.

  7. I remember looking at this picture that stated you’re not ugly, you’re just poor. Under poor, there was a girl without makeup on and her hair was pulled up in a bun, and in the other one she had makeup on and her hair was styled. I laughed at this post initially, but after this article, I found myself wondering. As a matter of fact, I am not surprised women see this as a show of dominance and men see it as prestigious. For men, it’s easier to explain. Why wouldn’t a prestigious women be more focused on their appearance? Is it not their job to impress everyone? Maybe, they just see a correlation between makeup and prestige. Women on the other hand are a little more difficult to explain. Makeup and fake hair is the new popular trend. We see it perfectly done in almost all of our current idols, actresses, surgeons, and business leaders. We notice the correlation and sometimes find ourselves more intimidated in front of a woman who looks as such. They also probably appear to be more confident which may come across as dominance. I do not think this, but, I can definitely understand why someone could believe it.

  8. I find this post very interesting. It is interesting because it seems like an attempt to make women insecure, make women question their choices, pit women against each other, and make women continuously change and conform their choices to fit into men’s view of what it should be. After reading about the research study, I googled if a study has been done on how attractive, dominant, or prestigious men find other men when they have beards (beards have been used as an equivalent of raising attractiveness to women wearing makeup). Within the top results, not a single article came up that discussed how men felt about how men chose to wear their facial hair, so I am confused on why it was necessary for women to be asked how they view other women who wear makeup, and also that the question of jealousy was involved. This whole study just aggravates me in a way, because it seems extremely sexist and laced with subtleties that aim to put women down for their choices. I feel as though it should not matter what a woman or man thinks about a single individual’s choice: if you want to go makeup free for a fresh-faced look or put on a full face of makeup like you are about to walk down the runway; if you want to assert your dominance through your attitude, attire, or makeup or be the laid-back person in the back of the room taking it all in; if you want to seem prestigious cause you are faking it until you make it, or because you really are, or if you do not even know how to act prestigious because you are just trying to make it as your own woman in this world that tries to make it a woman eats woman world. None of that matters as long as you are comfortable with you. The validation of other women is not necessary, and the validation of men is not necessary, either. On the topic of how make-up influences the perception of social status, who cares? As a woman in this world doing the best she can, you should hold your head up high, regardless of what people think of such a superficial thing such as how you look. Be proud, because you are accomplishing something every day that half the population could never do; that is, being a woman.

  9. I see why the results for this study reflect the viewpoints of women in makeup. I really never was into the whole make up scene. I felt like it made you “fake” and no one could actually see the “real” you. Also many of guys would say they dislike make up so I didn’t want to run anyone off. Like some have stated, it can be a comfort blanket to hide any imperfections, but I feel, like many, it’s a major confidence booster. When I started college, I got more into the whole makeup scene. Especially seeing my mom enjoy it after experiencing so many negative things in her life. For us, we don’t see it as a necessity, we use it as a uplifting agent. When we are down, we do our make up. Your feel more confident in what you say and what you do . People view you as being more proud, strong-willed and assertive. It’s this glow that you receive from putting on makeup. You receive a better attitude and outlook on your day ahead.

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