The Complex Relationship Between Beauty, Aging, and Cosmetic Industry

In late June, I sat in on a conversation featuring three models, all over the age of 50, discussing aging and beauty. “We need representation of spring, summer, fall, and winter,” declared Swedish model Paulina Porizkova, while Yasmin Warsame shared insights from her birth country, Somalia, where aging is seen as a sign of wisdom. The discussion’s moderator, Allure editor-in-chief Jessica Cruel, mentioned the magazine’s decision five years ago to eliminate the term “anti-aging” from its pages, posing the question, “How are you going to be anti-living?”

The primary message of this panel, hosted by the Aspen Institute, was clear: women should demand visibility and acceptance, regardless of their age, and society should celebrate all versions of beauty, irrespective of one’s birth date. However, beneath this noble premise, there seemed to be a subtle discomfort. Christie Brinkley repeatedly mentioned a specific wrinkle that concerned her and the measures she had taken to diminish it. All the panelists acknowledged the temptation to undergo cosmetic procedures, encapsulating the conundrum of being “shamed if you do, shamed if you don’t,” as Porizkova aptly put it. This led me to contemplate the idea of exploring cosmetic procedures myself.

We’ve become adept at pretending to celebrate older women, yet we struggle to embrace the unaltered aging face. This paradox fuels a multi-billion-dollar cosmetic and skincare industry dedicated to helping people—primarily women—preserve youth or, at the very least, maintain the appearance of youth. According to data from Euromonitor International, the anti-aging market surged from $3.9 billion in 2016 to $4.9 billion in 2021 in the United States alone. Globally, the anti-aging market expanded from $25 billion to nearly $37 billion during the same period.

“Anti-aging” is perhaps the most enduring and alluring promise offered by skincare brands and injectables. “Youth” is the ultimate objective, a goal that, while impossible to attain, conveniently benefits the industry. Dermatologists contend that much of this anti-aging fervor is rooted in deception, with many companies failing to substantiate their claims of reversing the aging process. Some products may even irritate the skin, rendering it more susceptible to environmental damage. Nevertheless, for those products that do deliver results, such as sunscreens for slowing skin damage or retinol for minimizing wrinkles, their effects are finite. Marketers understand that certain consumers will spend exorbitant amounts of money in pursuit of eternal youth, and they will continue to do so for years.

From the moment women reach their 20s, they are thrust into a race against time, one they are purportedly destined to lose. Yet, they are simultaneously encouraged to invest thousands of dollars in the quest for victory.

The advertising landscape surrounding aging has evolved over the years. Throughout much of the 20th century, it took the form of a dire warning, particularly directed at women, emphasizing that as they age, their partners would cease to love them. Heaven forbid that a woman’s husband appear younger than she does. In recent years, the messaging has transformed into an enthusiastic but ultimately hollow embrace. As Amanda Hess elucidated in the New York Times magazine in 2017, the emphasis has shifted away from hiding wrinkles to emphasizing radiant, brighter, healthier-looking skin. The goal is no longer to deny the passage of time but to defy it. Women are encouraged to feel empowered to look their best at any age.

Despite the change in tone, the objective remains consistent: to remind consumers that they should not be comfortable with aging and to motivate them to spend money accordingly. Repackaging anti-aging as a wellness pursuit carries the same old price tag and psychological burden.

Individual experiences of aging differ significantly, influenced by factors such as comparisons with others, familial and societal attitudes, media consumption, and mental health. Nevertheless, a consistent message across generations is that the beauty ideal is “young, thin, and toned.” Women of the boomer generation learned about their bodies from their mothers, who were raised during the Mad Men era.

Men also face a degree of age-related stigma, with a growing market for men’s anti-aging skincare. However, this stigma has historically been less pronounced. As women age, they often become increasingly invisible, viewed as less productive and less valuable in our capitalistic society.

Surveys indicate that women start expressing concern about looking old at a young age, often in their 20s and 30s, and they take action to combat it. Paradoxically, some studies suggest that older women exhibit higher body satisfaction than their younger counterparts. The fact that young women begin worrying about aging early provides ample opportunities for companies to market anti-aging products.

The target demographic for anti-aging products has steadily shifted to a younger audience, with the focus on prevention starting as early as age 25. Once consumers are sold on the notion of combating aging, companies have a customer for life. These products are also frequently exorbitantly expensive. Even over-the-counter creams can be costly. In fact, a single survey revealed that women spend an estimated $225,000 on their appearance over a lifetime, with a quarter of that amount dedicated to facial care.

It’s entirely understandable that individuals would use creams or other products to appear younger, especially if doing so makes them feel better. However, as Jessica DeFino pointed out, this sense of satisfaction often arises from feeling terrible about one’s appearance in the first place, partly due to societal and marketing pressures. Beauty culture initially makes you feel inadequate, only to offer a product as a solution.

The existence of “pretty privilege” is undeniable, but that does not mean it is virtuous. It is disheartening that the increased use of videoconferencing during the pandemic led some people to pursue plastic surgery and that apps like Facetune have fueled paranoia about appearance among younger generations.

Beneath the anxiety about cosmetics lies a fundamental human fear of decay and, ultimately, death. Selling youth is easy because the decline of youth represents a much more terrifying prospect.

While the skincare and cosmetics industry would like consumers to believe that we are entering a new era where beauty is celebrated at any age, they often rely on unattainable ideals and costly procedures. Moreover, much of the aging process is unrelated to the application of skincare products. Factors such as exposure to the elements, hydration, diet, smoking, genetics, and more significantly impact aging.

Martha Stewart has become a skincare influencer on TikTok, but this raises questions about whether such a phenomenon should be celebrated. As DeFino noted, it is not necessarily better; Stewart is celebrated not for her age but for her ability to defy it.

In conclusion, the cosmetic industry perpetuates a complex relationship between beauty, aging, and societal expectations. While advocating for embracing one’s age is crucial, it is equally important to scrutinize the messages and products that promise eternal youth. True acceptance of aging involves understanding that the passage of time leaves its mark on everyone, and there is beauty in those marks.

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