A small Christmas party. 2021. Two conversations I had that evening with two different family friends coincidentally surrounded the same theme: youth. In the first conversation we speak about moisturiser with SPF – apparently it helps you ‘age well’. Whilst SPF is important for blocking harmful rays from having contact with the skin, the conversation generally surrounds the aesthetic benefits of wearing this specific moisturiser. The second conversation is strikingly more upsetting than the first. “When I look in the mirror, I just see an old and ugly woman. My hair is thinning, I have wrinkles and I seem to be the only woman whose boobs got bigger after childbirth”. I was alarmed to hear these words from someone who has always been a beautiful figure of love in my life. Such conversations naturally prompted me to ask; why do we idolise youth as the starting point for beauty?
Whilst advances in modern medicine and technology are increasing our life expectancy at a faster rate than ever, patriarchal ideology is pushing the standard that women should never appear older than slightly post-pubescent. It is hard to pin-point when youth started to enter the relentless list of societal beauty norms, but it may have roots in the traditional belief of a woman’s function to bear children. Colleen Fenno mentions in her article ‘Zadie Smith On Beauty, Youth and Aging,’ that “most Anglo-American literature before the mid-20th century ignored women’s age after marriage or childbirth.” In other words, once a woman has completed her task for society, her role is no longer cared about and therefore neither is her beauty. That didn’t give women much time to thrive, be it culturally or aesthetically. In fact, the saying “mutton dressed as lamb” originally described women who pretended they were younger in order to have children- derogatively reinforcing how a woman’s age determined her place in society.
So why not kick a woman when she’s down? The cosmetic industry has capitalised on these problematic ideals and further pushed the marketing of age as undesirable. After all, It generates revenue. In 2020 alone the total global sales of anti-aging products (disregarding cosmetic procedures) were estimated to be 58.5 billion U.S. dollars. Such cosmetics products and procedures to keep the modern woman ‘youthful’ include anti-wrinkle creams, hair thickening shampoos, and not to mention the more permanent option of plastic surgery to stop the face from any movement which might give away one’s age.
As suggested, anti-aging cosmetics exploit women by instilling insecurities around the aging process. We’ve seen this trick before in the first advertisements in 1915 for women’s razors and hair removal. This in itself conforms to the idealisation of pre-pubescent youth. But I think that’s a conversation for another day. Boiled down to essence, it was a money-making scheme. To explain, when short-sleeved clothing became more popular, the cosmetic industry decided to shame women’s body hair and profit from this narrative they push. I’m here to tell you that the cosmetic industry for ‘anti-aging’ has done the same thing, just at a slower rate than the sudden reveal of the razor. Michele Havana Smirnova published a paper exploring advertisements of anti-aging products in the US between 1998 and 2008. In the advertisements she found 53% of cosmetic products included advertisements involving age. Anti-aging slogans include quotes like: “get 10 years back”, “Wash away 10 years”, “advance to a younger looking you” – all implying a turning back of the proverbial clock. Smirnova also notes the presence of anti-ageing rhetoric in fairy tales, for example Aurora (or as you might know her, Sleeping Beauty) preserves her youth for 100 years, and Jasmine’s entrapment in a sand-timer both point to the interdependent relationship between youth-as-beauty and time. When these fairy tales are used as jargon in anti-ageing adverts, they not only attack the beauty of an older woman, but dare to tell women that if they reveal their true age, it will affect their personal disposition too. You don’t want to end up like the evil witches in stories, right girls?
These advertisements have made us become intrinsically afraid of age, however there are societies that have existed, and still exist, where the elderly are the most important people within the community. Their wisdom and experience are what is valued. And therefore, their beauty comes through in that. I don’t want to believe anymore that ‘youth is wasted on the young’ because age and the aesthetics of age don’t have to be seen as a negative thing. I want the older women in my life to be proud of their age and the beauty in it. It needs to start by creating more space for older women in the public eye and media. If not, we continue to align ourselves with the sexist ideal that all women have an expiry date.
· Zadie Smith “On Beauty”, Youth, and Aging, Author(s): Colleen Fenno, Source: Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature , Fall 2014, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Fall 2014), pp.179-202, Published
· Mutton dressed as lamb origins: https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/mutton-dressed-as-lamb.html
· Anti-aging industry worth https://www.statista.com/statistics/509679/value-of-the-global-anti-aging-market/