The findings published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that women's appearance enhancement is driven partly by status anxiety and income inequality.
Using a role-playing experiment, more than 300 people from 38 countries participated in a hypothetical society online where each version matched one of the many economies of the world today.
Participants were asked to indicate how anxious they were about social status in their respective society and then chose an outfit to wear for their first night out. Options ranged from least to most revealing.
The researchers found that women assigned to economically unequal societies chose more revealing, sexy outfits for their first night, and they did so because they were anxious about their social status.
As economic inequality continues to grow, so too will women's preoccupation with their physical appearance, and the mental health issues that tie in with this, the researchers said.
"Beauty is one way women can out-do others and try to maximise their lot in life, but it's important to remember that beauty has a shelf-life and obsessing over your appearance comes with other risks and challenges," Blake said.