This belongs in the category of not necessarily fair, and not necessarily logical, but generally true: Cosmetics are important to how women are perceived, and wearing makeup on one’s face does convey a better impression. That difference in perception goes to credibility, and for that reason, most female witnesses and attorneys cannot afford to just skip the cosmetics. Based on the social science, the makeup has two main functions bearing on perception: One, it makes the skin tone more uniform, and two, it creates greater distinctions between the features, in effect outlining the major landmarks of eyes, lips, and cheek bones.

Now, as a male writer, I can’t fully appreciate the social pressure, and can only imagine how it would feel to know that, based on society’s view, my face is just not enough, and needs some enhancement in order to be viewed in public. I suppose that could be looking at it the wrong way, though. Makeup could be seen as just a way to add creative diversity to human appearance, and women can get away with it, but at this point men -- at least those who aren’t members of Duran Duran or the New York Dolls -- really can’t. Only in practice, for women it isn’t so much an opportunity to use makeup, as a penalty for not using makeup. According to the social science, both men and women will evaluate women negatively for not using cosmetics. So being credible in a courtroom context most likely requires awareness of and adaptation to that social convention. But it is not so simple. New research (Mileva, Jones, Russell & Little, 2016) indicates that men and women react differently to makeup. Practical experience also adds that how makeup is worn matters as well, and a natural look and “a little goes a long way” is probably the best advice for the courtroom.

The Social Science: Cosmetics Convey an Advantage

The recent research (Mileva, Jones, Russell & Little, 2016) used realistic photographic manipulations to show the same faces with and without cosmetics, asking participants to rate the photos on a number of factors. The authors helpfully review much of the prior research. As discussed in that article, women who wear cosmetics are viewed as:

  • Healthier
  • More attractive
  • More feminine
  • Higher social status
  • Higher paid

The new study results were in line with that tendency as well. "We found that men and women both viewed the faces of women wearing cosmetics as more attractive and as higher in status." However, they observed one interesting difference that separated the reactions of male and female research participants.

The Difference: Men See Prestige, and Women See Dominance

Prestige and dominance are seen as two distinct routes to influence. Dominance refers to influence through power, force, or intimidation of a particular group. Prestige, in contrast, is influence that is conferred by the respect from a particular group. As the authors summarize, "prestigious individuals are looked up to by members of their group, while dominant individuals are generally feared." So, it boils down to a comparison of positive and negative power. While both work to exert influence, prestige is more highly valued.

In that context, it is interesting that female research participants saw those with cosmetics as higher in dominance, while male research participants saw them as higher in prestige. In a follow-up study, the researchers found one possible explanation for women viewing the madeup as having the more negative form of power: jealousy. Women reported greater feelings of jealousy toward the women wearing cosmetics. That might sound like a stretch, but perceptions can often hinge on small factors. One implication is that if your jury is dominated by women, a female witness or attorney may want to go extra-light on makeup to make sure it isn’t calling attention to itself.

The Advice: Use What Makes You Comfortable, But Take It Easy

It is probably a good idea in general to make sure that any cosmetics don't appear to be too-heavy or unnatural. I think it is useful to look at one of the stimuli images used in the study. The image below, with makeup on the right and without on the left, is a composite developed from photographs of 45 different women with the makeup added by computer.

The difference is noticeable, of course, but still relatively subtle. The face on the right with cosmetics is not garish and the makeup doesn’t call attention to itself: That's a good rule of thumb.

Mileva, V. R., Jones, A. L., Russell, R., & Little, A. C. (2016). Sex Differences in the Perceived Dominance and Prestige of Women With and Without Cosmetics. Perception, 0301006616652053.