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Research Shows College-Aged Women Buy Cosmetics, Strive for Physical Beauty More During Recession

Published: Monday, July 9, 2012

Updated: Friday, July 20, 2012 13:07

MakeUp lipstick effect

Al Diaz, Miami Herald

Makeup artist and hair stylist Lisa Merritt Lee, left, owner of Alluring Faces, applies airbrush makeup to model Valerie Trueba at her studio


Beauty may only be skin deep, but using good looks to attract a mate is deeply rooted in the psychology of college-aged women, according to a series of studies released earlier this year.

The studies – “Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline: Mating, Spending, and the Lipstick Effect” – found that women are more likely to buy beauty products during recessions in an effort to attract mates, a situation known as the Lipstick Effect.

The paper by researchers from Texas Christian University, University of Texas at San Antonio, University of Minnesota and Arizona State University graduate student Andrew Edward White was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Using historical data on spending and experiments, the authors looked at how and why an economic recession influences women’s patterns of consumption in five studies, focusing on unmarried 18-to-24-year-old women.

The studies reveal that when women catch wind of a recession, their desire for appearance-boosting products increases. According to the paper, the Lipstick Effect is driven by women wanting to attract mates who can provide for them.

The first study shows that during recessions over the past 20 years, women spent more on beauty products and less on products that don’t increase attractiveness. The second, third and fourth studies found that hints of a recession made young, unmarried women want to buy beauty products and care more about their outward appearances. The fifth study found that when women worried about the recession, advertisements for beauty products were more effective when they emphasized attracting the opposite sex.

Sarah Hill, the author from TCU, wrote an overview of the study for Scientific American.

“Our findings consistently supported the lipstick effect, as college-age women, when primed with news of economic instability, reported an increased desire to buy attractiveness-enhancing goods, along with a decreased desire to purchase goods that do not enhance one's physical appearance,” according to Hill.

“Our experiments also found that this increased desire for beauty products, clothing and accessories was fully mediated by a heightened preference for mates with resources," Hill wrote.

In a nutshell, women scramble to find a man who can provide in times of poverty by trying to appear more attractive. Three college-educated working women from Phoenix opened up to share how they have and have not fallen victim to the Lipstick Effect.

ASU Nursing School graduate Kayla Clancy, 22, said she feels like she is always trying to keep up with the newest and best in beauty products apart from her job.

“There is a pressure to keep up appearances,” Clancy said. “I wish I didn’t, but I usually compare myself to other people.”

Clancy is a nurse at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, a job she landed a few weeks after her May 2011 graduation. She said she doesn’t feel pressure to get all dolled up for work, and her uniform is a comfortable pair of scrubs. She mentioned that her fellow nurses rarely get dressed up for shifts.

“I guess some people do, if they want to meet a doctor or something,” she said with a laugh. “You stand out if you do that.”

However, outside of the hospital, Clancy said she spends a lot of money to buy makeup, clothes, skin cremes and hair products to catch and keep the attention of the opposite sex. Her beauty stockpile includes foundations, blushes, mascaras, shampoos, conditioners, lotions and self-tanners from various beauty stores.

“Guys will tell you, ‘you look so good natural,’ but you see the girl that is all glammed up catches their eye,” she said. “It’s like: Do you mean that, or are you just saying that?”

Kate Barnes, 23, graduated December 2011 from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She edits commercials at Clear Channel Radio in Phoenix and is a salesperson in the Nike store at the Scottsdale Quarter.

Barnes said competition to get these jobs prompted her to amp up her looks.

“You can have a really good resume, but you also have to look professional and look like an adult. I think that putting yourself together shows that you’re responsible and organized,” she mentioned.

Barnes said the radio station and athletic clothing store require different beauty routines.

“I don’t face the public and I’m kind of in my own cubicle at the radio station, so I don’t really wear as much makeup as I do at Nike, when I’m in front of people trying to sell products and shoes,” she said.

“I think beauty products are meant to attract people in general and to make yourself feel better,” she mentioned, and added that certain products that improve self-esteem are worth splurging on.

“There’s always going to be that one product when you’re a girl that makes you happy. There’s one product, no matter if I’m homeless on the street, I’ll somehow manage to buy,” Barnes said. For her, it’s the Bobby Brown Brick blush.

“I just have to have it,” she said. “There are girls that say they can’t leave the house without mascara on, or lip gloss or whatever. Mine is that blush.”

Barnes said she is thriftier with other purchases, and doesn’t need all name-brand items, citing her limited paycheck as inspiration for frugality.

Cal Lundmark, a 23-year-old Fine Arts teacher at Teleos Preparatory Academy, said that since college, she splurges more often on clothes, accessories and beauty products than ever before, but not as a result of economic woes.

“I don't feel much like I've had to boost my appearance for the job market. I suppose I did when I was applying for jobs,” she said.

With a degree in religion and zero work experience, Lundmark humorously explained, “I felt like all I had working for me in the way of getting a job was my ‘cute’ appeal and my general charm. Is that narcissistic? Maybe. Mea culpa.”

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