Looking in the magic mirror, what do you see?

You stand in front of the mirror. Probably naked – who knows. And you think “Yeah this is me, I got this.” But no, you don’t got this, or rather, you have not got this. You take your brush in your hand – an almighty thing. And you paint your face like a house, but not a house – more circular than that. You put red on your cheeks to give you cheekbones. You draw a black line under your eyes to give you big, Bambi eyes. You drag black sludge through your eyelashes to further accentuate those big, Bambi eyes. And now you are ready.

But why is that? Why do you put your face on? Why does anyone? Rumour has it that we are born with a face already. Is there really a need for a second one to mask the other?

The College View surveyed some DCU students – females would you believe – and over 40% of those surveyed wear make-up six days a week, while 25% wear it every day without fail. They said they use it to cover acne; for confidence, or just because they feel better with it on. Most people said they wear it to make themselves look more attractive. Eight per cent said they don’t wear any at all.

And the value of their make-up bags, cosmetics shelves, or secret annexes of beauty products, comes to €100 or more for 40% of them. That is a lot of money, but it makes sense when the global cosmetics industry is worth $160bn a year.

But why the demand? Those who argue for a natural world are preaching from their cosy pulpits about ‘celebrity culture’ and how orange people influence young minds. You look at Cheryl Cole, those TOWIE youngens or, way down the scale, the Tallafornia crew and think “I must be like them”. Well, contrary to semi-popular belief, celebrity culture is nothing new.

In 1858, 3000, possibly screaming, fans crowded a Dublin theatre to hear Charles Dickens read a tale. It was like an aged, bearded version of today’s Biebs – that’s Justin Bieber if you’re literate. The people loved him. But it must take something more than Charlotte pissing in Gary’s bed to make us want to tan. Mandatory cultural reference: Geordie Shore.

Irish women are the biggest consumers of tan per capita in the world. But experts say that constant tanning could cause infertility, and that some products contain chemicals linked to diabetes, allergies and obesity. They say it is dangerous because tan covers the whole body and not just the face.

Kassy Lucas, from Carlow, is the owner and creator of Decadence – a new brand of organic fake tan – and she told the College View that faking it is perfectly safe. “The only ingredient found in false tan compared to other beauty products is an ingredient called Dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This is a sugar extracted from sugar beet which is no harm to the skin.” DHA reacts with amino acids on your skin to make it turn brown – in the same way that bread becomes toast.

But she does recommend checking the back of your bottles to watch out for ingredients such as parabens and alcohol. “The cheapest tan is normally made of the cheapest ingredients which will eventually damage the protective layer on the skin and cause a reaction.”

But we have always sacrificed our bodies for beauty anyway. Medieval noblewomen swallowed arsenic to improve their complexions. In the 1800s, lead make-up blackened the skin, bulged the eyes, and people died from blood poisoning. At the same time, women sprinkled a poison plant, deadly nightshade, into their eyes to make them brighter.

So why do we do it? Nancy Lee Etcoff is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital. She and her colleagues studied our relationship with cosmetics and they came up with the idea that maybe make-up is the modern human’s answer to evolution. Just like animals change their appearance to attract mates, humans do too. But without thumbs, technology, or tools of any kind, animals take thousands of years, and countless genetic changes, to look different. But we can tint our skin in seconds and become instantly attractive, without wasting years on growing a tail.

Researchers captured photographs of 25 women and each of them had four different looks: no make-up, natural, professional and glamorous. A group of 149 adults then studied each of these photos, for just over two seconds, and judged the faces with make-up to be more attractive, more likable and more competent than the faces without. But when subjects had longer time to study the photographs, people thought that glamorous faces were less trustworthy.

The tests show that increased beauty, if not too glamorous, is a social advantage. Faces with cosmetics engage people, both at first glance and when they have time to consider the reason for the make-up.

Etcoff spoke to the College View and said that we have been called the “naked ape” because we have exposed skin and meagre fur. “But humans are not naked: they are always adorned in some way, and they have been since at least Palaeolithic times [when our tools were made of stone]. A hermit crab acquires a shell; we acquire clothes, makeup, grooming products, and jewellery. It is part of our extended phenotype  – the ‘self’ that we create and use to protect and define who we are. We are the dressed and designed ape.”

You stand in front of the mirror. You take your brush in your hand. Does it define who you are?

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