Q: I’m seeing so many women on Instagram who’ve had themselves made over to be super-hot through cosmetic surgery and injectable fillers. They all have the same face—with big, luscious lips and huge doll-like eyes. In every shot, they’re in full makeup—crazy eyeliner, tons of contouring. Do guys actually like this plastic Barbie look? Are guys cool with cosmetic surgery in general?—Curious
A: If only these women of Instagram were honest in their photo credits: “Hair by Luigi. Makeup by Annabelle. Face by Dow Corning.”
Countless men insist that they prefer “the natural look,” yet they never go “Wow . . . gorgeous!” when you sashay toward them with a face full of unconcealed pimples. Helpfully, zoologist John R. Krebs and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explain that “living organisms” can easily be tricked by crude fakes—fakes that bear only the itsy-bitsiest resemblance to the organisms’ real life stimuli. They give the example of what I call “Popsicle birdie”—how “a black-headed gull will show its normal aggressive response to a stuffed gull’s head mounted on a stick, with no body.”
Guess what, fellow humans: We shouldn’t be too quick to feel superior to our friends with beaks, gills and tails. Krebs and Dawkins note that a man can get “sexually aroused” by a mere photo of a naked woman. Of course, he knows it isn’t an actual woman, but the photo “has enough visual stimuli in common with the real thing to have a similar effect on his physiology.”
Though it’s unlikely that women getting their faces remade in Klonedashian-esque ways are versed in anthropology, the enhancements they’re having done align with the female facial features that anthropologists like Douglas Jones have found are attractive to men across cultures. These are “neotenous” features—meaning somewhat baby-like ones—like big eyes, full lips, a small jaw and chin, and clear skin. These features are basically evolution’s billboard, advertising a highly desirable interior—meaning that they are cues to health and fertility.
However, though men evolved to prioritize looks in a woman, it’s obviously not all they value, especially when they’re hoping to get into a relationship. So these cosmetically and surgically redeveloped features may catch a man’s eye, but then, mentally, he may take a step back: “Oh, wait—she’s gotten all this work done.” And beyond how we all tend to feel threatened and even angered by fakery, many men see a woman’s extensive re-mod as a red flag, reflecting less-than-healthy psychology—an empty interior hidden behind a fancy paint job and a new, um, deck.
Research by Cari Goetz that I cited in a recent column finds that women with an overtly sexual look are generally not seen as long-term mating material by men. Though that research explored what women wore—scanty attire—it’s possible that women who wear a pile of makeup, with an overtly sexual look, would trigger the same reaction in men: basically, thumbs-up for a hookup or regular sex sessions, but not so much on introducing Mom to a woman who looks as if her work uniform is sequin nipple tassels.
However, there’s a counterpoint to all of this. Consider that it’s now possible, through medical innovation, to survive many diseases and conditions that were usually fatal. We don’t expect people with diseases to do what’s “natural”—suffer terribly and die. Maybe we’re a little too harsh on women who jump ahead in the beauty hierarchy through cosmetic procedures. (After all, we don’t knock men for using Rogaine, those little blue pills or deodorant.)
Additionally, maybe stigmatizing any sort of line-jumping stops discussion of the need for restraint in beauty upgrading. As I see it, the most successful “work” is the sort we don’t notice—women who look like themselves, only, uh, “better rested” or something. Ultimately, if a woman invites a man to meet her closest relatives, he isn’t at a loss for whether she’s asking him to a family reunion or to hit the aisle in Home Depot where they sell that expandable foam insulation stuff that people spray into their walls.