What is the purpose of grooming and can cosmetics alter the perception of ourselves?

In a previous post I investigated “Why do we use make up and…should we?” and found, through various research studies by different disciplines, that make up actually gives us a sense of individuality. And personally, I agree. But have you ever thought if cosmetics, to be general, alter the perception of ourselves? Of course they influence the way others perceive us, but what about how we perceive ourselves?

I’ve always found the assumption, especially by some men, that we wear make up to impress them or others, falling a little short. Personally, I believe that the use of cosmetics goes much deeper than that, to enhance, impress or accept even, ourselves first and then others. Have you ever been in the situation of using cosmetics (deodorant, moisturizers and even make up) when alone in the house? Or when not planning on meeting anyone?

Self-grooming is a behaviour that many animals and us humans do naturally. It does not necessarily show lack of acceptance or self-image issues but rather stems much deeper than that. In a study published by M. Wax titled “Themes in cosmetics and grooming” the author stated that the reason for use of cosmetics might be different with age. Where the younger might indeed exemplify grooming for the opposite gender attraction, the older, women in particular, might use cosmetics to show control. [1] Emphasis of status or role of that person in a given relationship or in general with others, is one reason but there are many more beyond the biology of attraction arguments.

As far as biological evolutionary theories go, grooming with or without the use of cosmetics has a primary social and biological function, to form and maintain relationships, and a secondary hygiene function. [2] Humans have been observed to spend much more time grooming themselves than it would be expected if grooming was simply for hygiene reasons. [2]

Daly et al. from the University of Texas, studied the behaviour of self-grooming (specifically hair grooming, straightening of clothes and looking in a mirror) in a restaurant environment, and found that such behaviours were much higher in early couples during dating or during the “honeymoon” periods, than the ones married or ones that were friends for a while. [3] It is very obvious that natural self-grooming or even self-grooming with the use of cosmetics will enhance our appearance and make us more attractive to the opposite sex (unless you use too much and actually become unattractive) and there are even studies that link the use of make up with appearing well put together and professional. No brainers here. But what is very interesting, is the use of cosmetics that alter our odour. Like deodorants or perfumes.

Interestingly, there is a study that links the behavior of hygiene related self-grooming and the use of cosmetics, like wearing deodorant, with a higher chance of forming a relationship with the opposite sex. [4] Perhaps again no shockers here, no one wants a stinky partner or friend.

However, odours have a much deeper effect than that and have been shown to bias our perception towards others but also towards ourselves. In a study published by J. van Paasschen et al. it was found that odours can have a pronoun effect on how we perceive and how we feel about ourselves. [5] And by extension, how we perceive ourselves has a massive impact on how we interact with others, how anxious we feel in social settings and how attractive we feel and show we are. [5]

In this study 24 men and 24 women of similar ages and cultural backgrounds were asked to describe their body, and their perception was analyzed in terms of how big or small they actually are as opposed to how they felt they were. [5] Fifteen men and ten women underestimated their body size whereas nine men and fourteen women overestimated. [5] This suggests that women tend to overestimate their body size much more often than men, a phenomenon that has been shown in several other studies as well. [5] After a few days the participants were asked to come back and use a deodorant before being asked to describe their body. All participants, both male and female, under and over-estimators were much more exact in their description of their body after they used deodorant than before. The effect was higher in those who overestimated their body previously. [5]

Additionally, the participants who over-estimated their body were of higher BMI than the under-estimators. [5] The authors attribute this to the Western society model where slender is the ideal and therefore perhaps the higher in BMI participants (but all where within healthy levels) had a more negative self-image of themselves whereas under-estimators were possibly more easily influenced by an intervention that boosts their image. [5, 6] Unsurprisingly, there is a strong and direct relationship between weight and negative perception of body image in women (even if the weight is within healthy levels) whereas men tend to be a little less predictable. Perhaps because, as shown in some studies, men are less affected or interested in their appearance than women and spend much less time grooming themselves. This is a generalization obviously, so take it with a pinch of salt.

The choice of deodorant as the cosmetic used in this study is very important. While other studies show that women use cosmetics a lot more often than men, the choice of a deodorant here is perhaps more fair and levels the play field as it is a grooming behaviour that is engaged equally by both genders. [5]

The employment of our senses to alter perception, mood and how we feel about ourselves is very common in the trade industry. Shops will employ visual cues to make you buy more products and will even place certain products specifically on eye level height to catch your attention, sound to make you feel happier and more confident and even smell to alter your mood and perception. Think about it, how likely would you be buying a dress if there was some funky dance music that you enjoy playing in the background while you are trying it out in the dressing room or if the shop smelled really nice?

According to Cash’s multidimensional model of body image, the use of cosmetics, clothing, hair style etc are very important in appearance management of one’s feelings about their body. [6] However, such grooming procedures do not necessarily have to be as obvious as wearing make up or nice clothing, they can be as simple as wearing a deodorant. The employment of odour can manipulate our view of ourselves, improve our mood and behaviour as well as attract the opposite sex. So since our body image fluctuates and is actually bias and open to manipulation, why not wear a perfume or deodorant, some nice clothing or create a nice make up look next time you are feeling a little blue. And perhaps we should wear deodorant before evaluating our gym results next month!



  1. https://doi.org/10.1086/222107
  2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2008.07.001
  3. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00986949
  4. https://doi.org/10.1108/02634509810229955
  5. https://doi.org/10.1111/ics.12176
  6. Grogan S., “Body image. Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women and children”, Routledge, London, 2nd edition, 2008.
  7. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/pms.1994.78.3c.1168



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