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A Totally Rational, Research-Backed Argument in Favor of Shopping

Like it or not, women can use makeup to gain an edge at the office.

Photo: Tracy E. Robey

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If you’re a woman who buys clothing and makeup when concerned about money, a new study says that you’re actually shopping strategically to maximize the chance of long-term financial stability. Most Racked-appropriate scholarly study ever? Probably.

The "lipstick index," attributed to Leonard Lauder, ties increases in lipstick sales to economic recessions. Lauder argued that lipstick is an affordable extravagance that women seek when more costly items like vacations and luxury vehicles are no longer within reach. While the lipstick index was discredited when lipstick sales failed to be inversely correlated to the economy during later recessions and periods of growth, subsequent research on what’s now called the "lipstick effect" suggests there’s an amazing level of strategic thinking going on in women’s minds when they shop for cosmetics and clothing while worried about money.

The "lipstick effect" suggests there’s an amazing level of strategic thinking going on in women’s minds when they shop for cosmetics and clothing while worried about money.

The article, "Strategically Stunning: The Professional Motivations Behind the Lipstick Effect," appeared in the August 2016 issue of peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science and sheds light on the causes of the so-called lipstick effect. And it’s not just lust for lip kits and special collections. While earlier discussions of the lipstick index in the popular press tied it very literally to lipstick, authors Ekaterina Netchaeva and McKenzie Rees wrote via email that the lipstick effect, as they studied it, "encompasses a broad category of products that enhance a woman's appearance." The lipstick effect isn’t just about lipstick, but rather everything from makeup, skincare, and hair products to clothes and shoes.

An earlier study posited that the lipstick effect is driven by evolutionary goals — women wearing makeup to attract financially secure partners — but as Netchaeva and Rees argued, "times have changed and women no longer rely solely on their partners to provide for them." Rates of divorce and more women in the workforce suggested that women have broken away from their evolutionary programming and find investing in their own professional success a better bet.

In a series of experiments, Netchaeva and Rees demonstrated that when women are concerned about money, whether due to a recession or their own circumstances, they use makeup to alleviate their worries "because through the use of makeup, women feel more confident in their ability to find a romantic partner and to get (or keep) a job," said Netchaeva and Rees. In one study, in which the researchers asked women to choose between two lipsticks, they branded one shade as both "Pouty Pink," with a tagline "It may not get you your dream job, but it will get you your dream man," and also "Professional Pink," which claimed the opposite. Women concerned about money were significantly more likely to select Professional Pink. "Between the options of securing resources through getting a job or attracting a partner, women opt for the former," Netchaeva and Rees wrote.

Given the rhetoric of a presidential candidate regarding the appearance of his female employees, not to mention the general culture in many workplaces, I don’t need to tell you that the nasty side of all of this is that appearance certainly plays a role in how women's professional capabilities are judged. You know it, and you probably participated in the human bias for beauty even before you consciously knew about it; babies prefer to look at beautiful (read: symmetrical) faces. Men, too, are judged, penalized, and rewarded for their appearance — but shoe lifts don’t offer the possibility for total transformation that makeup does.

Supplementing a solid resumé and the right business cards, women have used makeup to turn their faces into an edge at the office.

Supplementing a solid resumé and the right business cards, women have used makeup to turn their faces into an edge at the office. A 2011 study showed that a woman wearing makeup was judged as more attractive and competent than the same woman without makeup. Minimal (think Bobbi Brown makeup applied with a light hand) and moderate makeup (along the lines of a Naked Palette and nude lipstick) looks were tied to higher scores of likability and trustworthiness, while bolder makeup (something like a Kat Von D look, but not quite Instagram makeup) resulted in lower scores of trustworthiness. If you find yourself adding Urban Decay’s new Ultimate Basics palette to your cart while concerned about an upcoming performance review, you know what’s up.

In hyper-competitive, status-aware South Korea, men also splash out on skincare and even makeup to gain the same benefits. Perhaps the future will involve not so much a deprogramming of bias toward beauty, but a regendering of it that makes a BB cushion as useful as height, designer cufflinks, and an impressive golf handicap for men looking to ascend to the corner office.

If you’re not a woman or not stressed about financial stability, and are instead just feeling a bit down, retail therapy research (yes, it’s a thing) shows that you’ll even shop strategically while "sad spending" — and the results aren’t temporary or disastrous. One study found that unplanned pick-me-up purchases ended up costing about half as much as planned celebratory purchases. When people shopped while sad, they didn’t tend to blow their budget. Moreover, unlike celebratory purchases that subjects tended to regret over time due to their high cost, treat purchases made to improve mood "did not lead to feelings of guilt, anxiety, or regret after the fact." Retail therapy works.

While I feel like something of a propagandist for capitalism, it feels pretty great to share on a site devoted to shopping that the activity isn’t as mindless, self-destructive, and frivolous as some would have you believe. If you’re feeling worried about the economy or just sad, Treat. Yo. Self.