Natural beauty is in, at least on social media. Millions of #nomakeup posts have appeared across many online platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Users claiming to be free of makeup or “all natural” post selfies with the hashtag. The trend reflects a growing consumer interest in natural beauty, the kind that seems untouched by human intervention—honest, fresh, and effortless.
But the call to look natural does not necessarily discourage cosmetic use—on the contrary, it can encourage the use of enhancements to achieve simply the appearance of naturalness, suggests research by University of Georgia’s Rosanna K. Smith, Elham Yazdani, Pengyuan Wang, Saber Soleymani, and Lan Anh N. Ton.
The researchers propose that this is because calls to look natural highlight a tension typically faced by women. On one hand, women are often expected to achieve a certain standard of beauty, yet those who put effort toward their appearance (such as putting on makeup) risk negative judgments. Thus, in response to the call to look natural, consumers may instead strategically present a look of naturalness to appear both low effort and attractive. This has implications for cosmetics companies and others in the beauty industry.
Drawing on previous research in attribution and self-presentation theory, the researchers posit that others often assess a person’s attractiveness in relation to how much effort the individual put into appearance. The less work it seems to have taken, the more attractive the person is considered to be. As a result, a woman might create a natural look to convey low effort—but at the same time, enhance her appearance by using cosmetics.
The researchers tested this reasoning by exploring the relationship between the rise of the no-makeup movement on Twitter and cosmetics sales. Collecting all #nomakeup tweets posted each week from the start of the movement in 2009 to 2016 (the year singer Alicia Keys announced at the MTV Video Music Awards that she wasn’t wearing any makeup), they compared those with weekly facial cosmetics sales data for the same period. They used weekly scanner data, from the NielsenIQ Datasets housed at Booth’s Kilts Center for Marketing, which provided information on all facial cosmetics products sold in 206 geographical areas in the United States.
Although the rising no-makeup movement ostensibly encouraged consumers and celebrities to free themselves from artificial beauty practices, this analysis revealed that the movement was not associated with an overall decline in cosmetics sales. Sales across most cosmetics categories, including concealer, mascara, and other products, were positively associated with the movement. The researchers propose that these findings may be because the no-makeup movement did not diminish overall desire for cosmetics but rather may have encouraged consumers to use cosmetics more covertly in order to present a low-effort appearance to others.
In further support of this reasoning, the researchers’ analysis of a set of #nomakeup selfies posted on Instagram reveal that, although people who used the hashtag were claiming to be makeup-free, a subset of them were, in fact, wearing makeup. The researchers used image processing techniques to identify the makeup-enhanced selfies, and then, using a machine-learning model, they tested whether these selfies were perceived to be more attractive and whether they received more likes than bare-faced selfies. The answer was yes: the enhanced selfies had a significantly higher overall score in attractiveness and received more likes.
A set of follow-up experiments provided more evidence that when individuals simply appear to have a low-effort look, that enhances others’ perceptions of their attractiveness. The researchers conclude that consumers, in response to the call to look natural, will likely present an image of low effort rather than forgoing their appearance-enhancement practices, such as wearing cosmetics.
The findings may have lessons for executives at cosmetics companies, and those in other industries and areas. When consumers say they want naturalness, the researchers write, they “may want a constructed aesthetic that can actually be artificial.” Executives need to recognize a potential disconnect between people’s posts on social media and their ultimate decisions and purchases.