Over the last few years I’ve noticed an increase in the number of articles that celebrate the physical appearance of women aged 50 and older. They tend to be published in lifestyle magazines and they follow a similar argument: that the beauty of ‘older’ women comes from the confidence they have developed throughout life, that wrinkles and fine lines are markers of experience that women should be proud of.
And because of this angle the articles can provide an age-affirming read. Which is great; I’m all for a positive take on ‘older’ women’s bodies and physical appearance, on acknowledging that a woman’s beauty doesn’t disappear because she is middle-aged and no longer fits the youthful ideal.
But it would be wrong to accept these articles uncritically.
For example, take a recent (November 2014) article in Woman and Home magazine (which has a readership of women in their 40s and 50s) entitled ‘Love the age you’re in’. The article featured a grey haired model (who looked to be in her early 50s) and focused on the importance of having a positive body image as women entered and passed through middle-age.
It was filled with messages telling the reader that ‘50 is the new 30!’, that middle-age is now ‘middle-youth, that ‘you don’t have to be young to be beautiful’ and that ‘older women exude a confidence and life experience which is supremely attractive’. So far so good.
A number of experts contributed to the piece and gave their advice on how to care for ageing skin. One was quoted as saying that ‘we need to help our consumer to prolong her beauty in a way that is relevant to her…biologically, emotionally and pragmatically’. I liked the idea of that, until I started to question what it meant. According to the dictionary to ‘prolong’ is to extend the life of. To extend the life of beauty implies that it has an end date which begs the question: once we can prolong it no more, what are we left with?
The article also recommended beauty products for women to use, some of which claimed to help ‘hormonal skin’ (another plus in my view) and others to ‘soften, soothe and firm’. One type of product (lightweight skin perfecting bases) was touted specifically on the basis that ‘an uneven skin tone ages you more than any wrinkle’.
Umm so now the age-affirming buzz has turned into a mere fizzle. Clearly, these are not messages that support the focus of the article to ‘Love the age you’re in’. Unless, of course, loving the age you’re in means trying to minimise the signs of middle-age that are etched clearly on our faces.
In my opinion, ageism underlies the pro-ageing narrative of this article and the main story here is one of profit. ‘Older’ women have been a key target of the beauty industry for many years, but the selling tactic has shifted to a pseudo-pro-ageing approach.