Not Made Up: UNE Research Reveals the Very Real Effects of Sexism on Self-Esteem and Cosmetic Pricing
See the pretty girl in that mirror there
Who can that attractive girl be?
Such a pretty face
Such a pretty dress
Such a pretty smile
Such a pretty me!
I feel stunning
Feel like running and dancing for joy
For I'm loved
By a pretty wonderful boy!
So goes the well-known song from the classic musical West Side Story. In the 60-plus years that have passed since the musical was written, a lot has changed for women in the U.S. As a society, we’ve experienced the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s; the two subsequent decades that brought us the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice and the first woman in space; and another two decades that saw the first female speaker of the House, a reverse on the ban on women in combat, and the launch of the #MeToo movement.
After so much progress, it would seem plausible – even likely -- that long gone are the days when a woman’s value was almost entirely dependent on her appearance and inextricably tied to her status as the object of a man’s affection (as was apparently the case for West Side Story’s heroine, Maria). But have things changed all that much? Do people still overvalue women’s physical appearance, and, if so, how does that overvaluation affect women? Do they still disproportionately derive their sense of self-worth from their looks? Is a woman’s self-esteem dependent on the level to which she feels she is romantically accepted by a man?
Questions like these are common in the classroom of UNE Associate Professor of Psychology Julie Longua Peterson, Ph.D, who teaches courses such as Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies and Self and Self-esteem. Among other things, she introduces her students to research on the social construction of attractiveness and the importance of appearance in women’s success. Peterson has done significant research into the effects of romantic rejection on women. Specifically, her lab has performed research that suggests that romantically rejected women are willing to pay more money for cosmetic products as a way to reestablish their social value as a mate.
In the summer of 2018, student Mackenzie Deveau, B.S. ’19, a psychology major and double minor in women’s and gender studies and political science, conducted a study as part of the Peterson Lab that took this research a step further, neatly tying together her interests in her academic major and minor fields. In her junior year, Deveau, who then served as vice president of UNE’s Women’s and Gender Studies Club (and later became co-president), applied for a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) grant through the College of Arts and Sciences. Between her junior and senior years, she worked in the Peterson Lab, devising a study that would test a very specific hypothesis. Predicated on previous research demonstrating that interpersonal threats result in behaviors that aim to repair social value, and based on Peterson’s work that indicates that romantic rejection of women (a specific form of an interpersonal threat) results in a willingness to pay higher prices for cosmetics, Deveau set out to test the effects on cosmetic pricing behavior from another type of interpersonal threat: sexism.
“Sexism is just another type of interpersonal rejection,” explained Deveau. “It’s not always perceived as such, but it’s a threat on who you are as an individual, and it has the effect of devaluing you.”
Deveau contended that women who live in capitalistic and patriarchal societies, which tend to prize women for their beauty and encourage consumerism, are limited in how they compensate for devaluation and are drawn to buying beauty products as a way to gain acceptance. “When society tells you that you’re valued based on how attractive you are and then something happens that makes you feel devalued, you’re going to reach out for the cosmetic products,” she said.
Many people don’t want to see that there is a problem [with sexism] … and this study is just one more study upon many that I hope will show that there is, in fact, an issue.” -- Mackenzie Deveau, B.S. '19
In order to test whether sexism has a devaluing effect on women and if it leads to the overvaluing of cosmetic products, Deveau devised an online survey that was administered through Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing website. She sought to differentiate between the effects of different types of sexism: hostile and benevolent. Hostile sexism, she explained, is sexism that involves an aggressive dislike toward women. An example would be the statement that “once a woman gets a man to commit to her, she usually tries to put him on a short leash.” Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, disguises itself as being pro-female and adheres to traditional views of femininity. An example would be the statement that “women should be protected by men.”
Appearing on its surface to be a memory test, the survey that Deveau created divided its female participants into three categories: a control group, a group exposed to hostile sexism, and a group exposed to benevolent sexism. Women were presented with six sentences that exemplified hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, or that were completely neutral in nature. They were then asked a series of questions to determine how much they would be willing to pay for various beauty products, including lipstick, foundation, contour kits, mascara, and anti-aging cream.
Deveau hypothesized that exposure to sexist statements would directly affect participants’ self-esteem and would then indirectly affect how much they valued the cosmetics. She anticipated that hostile sexism would have the greatest effect because it would be the most hurtful and would, therefore, spur a more exaggerated attempt to regain self-worth.
Surprisingly, the results of the online survey showed the exact opposite: the control group was willing to pay more for cosmetics than either of the groups that were exposed to sexist statements. And it was the group exposed to hostile sexism that was willing to pay the least.
Deveau presented her findings at the fall 2018 SURE Symposium with a poster titled “Not Just a Pretty Face: Sexism and the Female Consumer.”
This [research] is showing how detrimental the sexism is that these females in the #MeToo movement are exposed to and how it affects their self-esteem … These are results that show exactly how detrimental it is.”
-- Mackenzie Deveau, B.S. '19
Later that academic year, Deveau repeated an in-lab version of the same study, using female undergraduate students at UNE as participants. The results were significantly different and were far more in keeping with what she had hypothesized: Women who were exposed to sexist statements were willing to pay more for beauty products than the women in the control group. And those who were exposed to hostile sexism valued the products the most. When asked how she accounted for the different results from the online survey and the on-campus survey, Deveau pointed to age as a factor. The average age of online participants was significantly older than that of the UNE participants, with most respondents to the Amazon survey being in their 40s.
“We hypothesize, based on past research, that [the discrepancy] is because older females have a more stable sense of identity,” she shared. “We think of collective self-esteem as a possible buffer against [the effect of sexism on cosmetic pricing]. Possibly these females feel more support from their social groups, from close friends, and family. And they also may have more of them. They also may have a stable relationship partner, so they don’t feel the need to overvalue cosmetic products, whereas young people, it seems, are more impressionable. They have less of that security, so I think it’s easier for younger women to feel threatened.” She suspected that older, more secure women felt angered, rather than devalued, by the sexist statements and, therefore, priced the cosmetics lower, in either conscious or subconscious defiance.
Interestingly, this notion that being in a secure relationship can protect against the overvaluation of cosmetics is related to another study that Deveau worked on as part of the Peterson Lab. A pool of female students at UNE were given what they were told was a personality test. At the conclusion of the “test,” they were given a score indicating either that they would likely end up alone in life or that they are accident-prone. They were then asked questions about how much they would be willing to pay for cosmetics. Confirming the researchers’ hypothesis, participants who received the romantic threat were willing to pay significantly more for cosmetics that those who “found out” that they were accident-prone. The knowledge that one is desirable as a partner in either a real or theoretical relationship, it seems, can affect self-esteem and, in turn, affect how much one is willing to pay for beauty products.
Mackenzie did the type and quality of work usually associated with second- or third-year graduate students by her junior and senior year in the lab … I have been truly impressed with her ability to use an interdisciplinary approach for asking difficult questions and entertaining complicated answers.”
-- Julie Longua Peterson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology
Deveau and other student researchers from the Peterson Lab who were involved in the in-lab sexism study and the mate-threat study presented their findings at the College of Arts and Sciences 2019 Spring Research Symposium with a poster titled “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful, Covergirl: The Value of Cosmetic Products When Women Are Faced With Rejection.”
Deveau views the study of sexism’s effect on cosmetic pricing as being particularly relevant to the current conversation about sexism spurred by the #MeToo movement. “This is showing how detrimental the sexism is that these females in the #MeToo movement are exposed to and how it affects their self-esteem … how it affects how they value themselves as human beings. These are results that show exactly how detrimental it is,” she stated. “Many people don’t want to see that there is a problem [with sexism] … and this study is just one more study upon many that I hope will show that there is, in fact, an issue.”
Peterson said that Deveau’s research in sexism and cosmetic pricing far surpassed the work of most undergraduates. “Given the psychology department at UNE does not have a graduate program, Mackenzie did the type and quality of work usually associated with second- or third-year graduate students by her junior and senior year in the lab,” she shared. “Because Kenzie was a psychology major with a double minor in women’s and gender studies and political science, this research was clearly born from her interdisciplinary interests. I have been truly impressed with her ability to use an interdisciplinary approach for asking difficult questions and entertaining complicated answers.”
Although Deveau has graduated (and is now in her first year of law school), the research in which she played such a vital role still continues. According to Peterson, prior to Deveau’s graduation, she was instrumental in devising another relevant study that has been passed along to current psychology majors Ashley Karpowicz (’22) and Kana Colarossi (’20), who are now overseeing data collection for this study and who presented preliminary results at the New England Psychological Association this past fall.
We need to examine how detrimental the effects of our biased attitudes can be to those around us, and then we need to work to change those attitudes.”
-- Mackenzie Deveau, B.S. '19
This ongoing study differs from the others in that it is more clear to participants what the manipulation is: Subjects are asked to recall a time in their lives when they experienced sexism (and are subsequently asked to price cosmetics), and so they generally know that sexism is somehow at the heart of the study. The previous studies, said Deveau, with more hidden objectives, were more reflective of the everyday sexism that women face: the “small” things – a benevolent sexist comment, an airbrushed photo of a model in an advertisement – that women often do not even realize are sexist. It is these more latent and ubiquitous forms of sexism that first inspired Deveau to become involved in the work of the Peterson Lab. “We need to examine how detrimental the effects of our biased attitudes can be to those around us,” she said, “and then we need to work to change those attitudes.”
Without doubt, Deveau’s work in the Peterson Lab provides quantifiable evidence that sexism has a price – and that price is the willingness of women to pay another price – a monetary price – for products that they have been convinced will procure approval by our patriarchal society, thereby closing a loop that sadly perpetuates itself. By uncovering both the direct and indirect effects of sexism on women’s adherence to traditional gender norms and female standards of beauty, the research forces us to acknowledge the inequalities that females face and exposes the negative impacts that these inequalities have on all women – even if they don’t notice it. Or sing about it.