It’s no secret that the beauty industry can be an oppressive force in a woman’s life. These days it starts earlier and earlier, with women ages 18-24 surveyed in a 2021 poll saying they started wearing makeup at just 13 years old. And once you’ve been initiated into that world, it can be difficult to remember life before it—to imagine a life where you don’t feel the constant pressure to enhance your appearance through the purchase of various products, tools, and procedures that are incessantly being marketed to you.
Beauty processes like putting on makeup or following a skincare routine can be fun mediums for self-expression or self-care, but they can also exacerbate insecurities and make women believe they’re somehow deficient if they don’t follow current beauty trends. The hottest trend in the beauty industry at the moment? Anti-aging, a purported “solution” to the natural process of aging.
I first started worrying about incorporating anti-aging products into my skincare routine at the ripe age of 22, which is, frankly, a ridiculous sentence to type. But it was the height of the pandemic, and with that came Zoom face syndrome and ample time to scrutinize my appearance and dive deep into skincare lore.
I’m not the only one, as the global anti-aging products market size was valued at 40.49 billion dollars in 2020. And women are starting to use anti-aging products earlier and earlier—one poll reveals that 30% of women under 35 regularly use anti-wrinkle products, and this includes one in five women under the age of 24. How did we get here?
The Anti-aging Hype
Like any other consumer industry, the beauty industry cycles through trends. These trends are both shaped by consumer behavior and artfully designed by marketing consultants, creating a feedback loop where beauty brands are able to claim that their products, and their focus on a particular aspect of appearance, are only responding to the demand in the market. While there’s some truth to this, our demands as consumers don’t spontaneously arise in a vacuum. Much of the time, they’re a result of an industry selling us on not just the solution to a problem, but the very existence of a problem itself.
With this, the beauty industry’s obsession with anti-aging relies on propagating the assumptions that aging is bad, and concealing the ways it changes your appearance is desirable. Even if these assumptions are shrouded in more empowering, positive language, like offering women the opportunity to “age gracefully”, the underlying message is the same: you will never look as good as you did when you were young, and you should spend money and energy on your skincare to mitigate some of the visible effects of growing older.
Human’s interest in anti-aging and preserving youth can be traced back millennia, to when the Ancient Greeks searched for a Fountain of Youth. Youth can serve as a symbol for health, strength, and vitality, causing both men and women alike to chase it, but the focus for men has traditionally been less on appearance and more on preserving their body’s abilities. In contrast to women, men are often considered more attractive as they visibly age—one study about online dating that assigned people “desirability scores” (based on the activity their profile received) showed that women’s desirability peaked at age 18 while men’s peaked at 50. As actress Carrie Fisher once said, “Men don’t age better than women, they’re just allowed to age.”
While the social pressure for women to appear young or else forfeit their desirability may date back a long time, the pressure has certainly intensified with the development of new anti-aging technology, the rise of social media, and the recent shift towards more openness when discussing anti-aging treatments.
“I think that the interest has always been there but in the last few years it has become more acceptable to talk about anti-aging,” says President of The Dermatology Institute of Boston, Emmy Graber, MD, MBA. “Ten years ago, no one wanted to tell their family and friends that they had Botox and now, people are posting on social media and announcing to their work colleagues that they had Botox!”
This process of changing the conversation, what some might call “normalization” or “destigmatization”, can certainly serve to eliminate shame or a need for secrecy for individuals who choose to get certain anti-aging treatments. On the other hand, it can also create new benchmarks for what is considered a standard, or aspirational, beauty routine for women, and reinforce the underlying belief that visible aging should be hidden and delayed. Today, 28 percent of women under 25 admit that they ‘regularly’ worry about their signs of aging, and this number increases to 42 percent for those aged 25-34 and 54 percent for those aged 35 to 44.
Do Anti-aging Products Work?
Anti-wrinkle cream, firming moisturizers, retinols, and more—if you’ve decided to explore anti-aging skincare, how do you know what really works? First, it’s important to know what’s really happening to your skin as you grow older.
“Our DNA in skin cells becomes more damaged due to cumulative damage from ultraviolet light (i.e. sunlight) and pollutants,” says Dr. Graber. “Our elastic fibers become more broken and our collagen breaks down more easily leading to sagging and wrinkles.”
Skin aging can also be caused by irritants in skincare ingredients like sulfates and artificial fragrance, so ironically, using certain skincare products can actually age your skin even more. This, coupled with the fact that some anti-aging skincare products use unsubstantiated claims in their marketing, means your best bet is discussing your skin concerns and potential products with a dermatologist. Plus, much of what you can do to take care of your skin goes beyond what you put on it, and a lot of it is just plain out of our control.
“We can try to control or coat it with topical products, but [skin] is ultimately a force of nature reacting to the constant signals coming from underneath and outside of it, as it evolved over millions of years to do,” writes Dr. James Hamblin in his book, “Clean: The New Science of Skin and The Beauty of Doing Less”.
In terms of preventative care, Dr. Graber says the “best thing to do is to start wearing sunscreen every single day. Eat a varied diet rich in antioxidants and minimize processed foods and sugars.”
Dr Graber also suggests those concerned with signs of aging, “use a topical retinoid cream (a prescription one from a board certified dermatologist) to help build collagen.”
Notably, retinoids have been shown to reduce wrinkles, though they should be used with caution, because they can cause skin dryness, irritation, and increased sensitivity to the sun (leaving you with another potential cause of skin aging to worry about).
Consequences of Anti-aging Fixation
Fixating on anti-aging has consequences beyond just the money and time you might spend trying to appear more youthful. For one, having a negative attitude towards aging (a natural process you ultimately can’t stop) can impact your health and ultimately your lifespan. Research found that older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.
Additionally, a society full of women obsessed with appearing younger is ultimately a more ageist society. Try as you might to reserve your judgments for yourself, they’re likely to spill over into the way you view other women as well. Today, one in four 18-34 year olds (24%) think “older people can never really be thought of as attractive, while 25% think “it is normal to be unhappy and depressed when you are old.”
We know that rejecting all the anti-aging information you’ve absorbed from the beauty industry and society at large isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. If it were, probably a lot more women would have opted out and it wouldn’t be the billion dollar industry that it is. That said, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the beliefs and attitudes towards aging you’ve adopted and how you might want to reframe them.
“Embrace your age and do what you can but don’t obsess and don’t go overboard with treatments. Moderation is the key to success,” says Dr. Graber. “We have seen some people do too much filler, too much Botox. More is not necessarily better. Take care of yourself and love yourself.”
Nowadays, I do my best to redirect my attention elsewhere when I find myself preoccupied with worries about looking older, worries that I know have been transmitted to me by a culture obsessed with youth and eager to assess a woman’s value based on her attractiveness. I remind myself that chasing youth is an ultimately unsatisfying pursuit, as it’s an impossible goal designed to keep me an eternal customer.
Instead, I seek out older women role models—in my real life, online, in the art world—who show me what “aging gracefully” can mean in its truest sense. Not in grasping onto their youth or maintaining a face that looks 30 years younger than their actual age, but in embracing all that growing older offers them: wisdom, experience, an expansive perspective on life, resilience, a healthy sense of humor, a willingness to be exactly who they are without worrying about the opinions of others.
Taking care of your skin should feel fun and nourishing, not like a life sentence you’re doomed to carry out. With some lightness and reframing, it can be a beautiful ritual of care instead of an attempt to avoid confronting inevitable truths that will find you at some point anyways: time marches on and everything (including our bodies) is constantly changing. With an acceptance of these facts and a skepticism toward the beauty industry’s obsession with making us look young, you may find a healthier relationship with your changing appearance and be better equipped to care for your skin in a way that’s infused with love, not shame.