Darwin’s birds and the lipstick effect

Darwin’s birds and the lipstick effect

In the quest for survival colour can be your best ally.

Photo by Anna Sastre

Photo by Anna Sastre

What do the Superb Bird of Paradise and the Satyr Tragopan have in common? Well, besides having been included in the BBC’s top Ten Sexiest Male Birds in the world (the flying equivalent to People magazine’s annual ranking), both are masters in using colour to spark the interest of a potential partner. While other birds grow three-foot-long tail feathers and some even grow horns, these horndogs endanger their lives for the sake of mating boosting loud colours that attract female attention but also predators.

The complex mating rituals that occur in nature are often a beautiful spectacle, however it’s impossible to please everyone. Charles Darwin, the famous scientist, for instance, wasn’t too impressed by the lively palette of the peacock. In 1860 he wrote to a friend saying: “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”. The scientist behind the Theory of Evolution saw no use for this décor since it didn’t contribute towards the survival of the animal and in fact made it more difficult. 

Bewildered by so many useless props in the animal kingdom Darwin eventually came up with a theory that explained their purpose. In the peacock example, its heavy feathers may make it harder to move and thus definitely do not help him find food, but they do serve another vital need: sex. According to Darwin’s Sexual Selection theory, the bird with the most beautiful feathers has more opportunities to procreate and generate more offspring. Let’s call it survival of the cutest meaning that the most handsome gets to shape the future generations according to its own striking features.

Since it was developed in 1871 Sexual Selection has been a powerful idea and scientists keep adding new twists to it. One of its latest derivations is a study called “Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline: Mating, Spending and the Lipstick Effect”. Humans can’t pop out some bright colours in their hair when summer comes nor grow an elegant tail every Friday night, however they’ve managed to artificially create the same kind of illusions that come naturally to other animals. Using make up and other beauty products we are able to exhale alluring scents, make our lips stand out or add a new shade to our hair. All that evolution didn’t give us we resourcefully took from technology. What this new study says is that we do it more during harsh financial periods.  

The authors of the study, Sarah Hill, Christopher Rodeheffer, Vladas Griskevicius, Kristina Durante and Andrew Edward, examined fluctuations in American unemployment over the last 20 years and found that when unemployment increased and there was less spending money available consumers actually spent more on personal care and cosmetic products. Their findings suggest that we are genetically predisposed to prioritize mate-seeking during difficult periods as passing our genes becomes a greater priority in harsher environments. No big deal, say those familiar with Darwin’s theory. However, unlike birds, when humans are the subject, it’s the females not the males putting on new colours and enhancing their buttocks.  

When the biggest economies started slumping in 2008, sales figures from one of the world’s largest cosmetics companies, L’Oreal, boosted a growth of 5.3%. This then lead Leonard Lauder, Chairman of Estee Lauder, to note that lipstick sales rise during tough economic times. Since his statement, this phenomenon has been named the Lipstick Effect and discussed in every women’s magazine on the planet.

However, you don’t have to be Einstein to realize how powerful a lipstick can be. Although the so-called Lipstick Effect theoretically relates to all cosmetics none other has such an ability to immediately and dramatically transform appearance. Alongside the eyes, the lips are generally considered the most attractive feature in a woman’s face. Still, no eyeliner or eye shadow can be seen from a distance nor have the same impact as a pair of plump red lips. 

Pink, orange and above all red are associated with lust, desire and love. For the observer, they compose an invitation for sex, love and adventure. For the woman wearing it, lipstick is a bold statement of confidence – the confidence she is feeling or the confidence that she needs to see reflected in the mirror in order to go through another day. It was Elizabeth Taylor who notoriously stated” Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick and pull yourself together”. After all said and done, the Lipstick Effect could be no more than the basic expression of women’s natural instinct to counteract the depressing effect of the recession – on herself and in others.

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