Friday, 6 September 2013

Out With the New, In With the Old: On Anti-Ageing Products and Ageism (editorial)

  • Study claims that many anti-ageing advertisements promote ageism
  • Despite the value often given to looking younger, a further study finds that efforts to look younger might not always be positive because they may lead to negative evaluation by others
  • Trying to conceal one's true age can result in lower self-confidence
  • However, Garnham argues that practices such as cosmetic surgery aren’t ageist; rather they’re a form of “designing ‘older’”

Earlier, in the bathroom, I dropped a bottle of moisturiser into the toilet bowl. While staring down at it, considering how I might retrieve it with as little physical contact as possible, my glasses fell off of my nose and joined it in what can only be described as the black hole that is my toilet. This kind of thing didn’t happen when I was 16 years of age and had perfect vision. Oh, no. My knees didn’t ache when I spent time at the gym, either, and I could eat fast food without following it with a dessert of Gaviscon. My hair hadn’t started to recede by then, and my eyes didn’t look tired. 

At that age I started studiously on Estee Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair and Clinique’s City Block sun protection, because the word was out that sun damage was the worst thing for skin ageing. My 'thing', you see, wasn’t that I wanted to look young forever, but that I wanted to stay young-looking for longer. Since I’d spent most of my teenage years under the influence of depression, I felt in some way that I’d missed out on some of the things normal teenagers did. By trying to stay younger-looking for longer, perhaps I’d be able to buy time that I could use to have a normal life. I was a little misguided, I’d say, but I don’t think I was being vain, the word applied unfairly to many people who look after their skin. 

Despite my dedication to sun protection, I’ve still physically aged. Now that I’m in an age-group where I’d benefit from a little extra help, I’m starting to wonder about the lure of the anti-ageing products on sale. I’m starting to take notice of the anti-ageing adverts in magazines and on television. And something just doesn’t feel right about them. 

For cosmetics companies, there are compelling financial reasons for creating anti-ageing products. The newly-ageing baby boomer generation, one of their main markets, is affluent and willing to spend. The economic downturn doesn’t affect spending on beauty products as it does with spending in other areas (Hill et al., 2013), which further increases the appeal. Even so, the advertising agencies these cosmetics companies employ must make their adverts convincing yet clever. Gone are the days when they could have a twenty-year-old advertise an anti-ageing cream designed for people two or three times their age. They now employ models who are themselves ageing. And that’s great, and it has answered a public outcry. But, that’s only half the battle, because they've entwined the issues of ageing and beauty, which, in my opinion, are two distinct, non-correlating concepts. Ageing doesn’t mean loss of beauty. Beauty isn’t just being youthful, thin, able-bodied, middle-classed and white (LaWare and Moutsatsos, 2013), as these adverts would have us believe. There are lots of types of beauty and none of them conform exactly to the ideals a cosmetics company could prescribe for us. Oh, how boring life would be if that were the case. 

Yet anti-ageing cosmetics adverts are still so convincing. Part of that is due to their false allusion to ideals of feminism. Feminist language and codes are used to create a message of empowerment: the premise is that women should ‘take control of their destiny’, but the reality is that advertisers are suggesting they should do this by fighting against the natural ageing process. So, although these adverts offer self-empowerment through the use of the products they are marketing, it is done in a way that reinforces the ideology of ageism. It is this which might cause some women to look for anti-ageing cosmetics products in the first place (LaWare and Moutsatsos, 2013).

Unfortunately it isn’t just the adverts that are rife with ageism; the television shows that surround them are, too. We are part of a culture that is rife with distorted views of ageing. Ageism is inherent in television shows from soaps to comedies. Singed with stereotypical attributes such as frailty, senility and helplessness, being older, we’re told, is a time of facing facts: we’ll inevitably be a burden.  Being older is viewed as bad by many, whilst being younger is viewed as good. 

However, media portrayals of ageing are quite unlike the actual thing. In reality, only a small minority of people over 65 suffer major ill health or disability at least until they reach age 75 or more. Even then, at 75, three out of four people remain in reasonably good health (Arber and Ginn, 2004; OPCS, 1998; Victor, 1997). It is a shame so many of us will not realise this until we reach old age; it would spare us the unnecessary fear of an inevitable process. 

Paradoxically, a study of three-hundred Canadian women showed that most were critical of the anti-ageing messages peddled by cosmetics companies, but bought the products nonetheless. They also discovered that anxiety about looks and beliefs about the high value of appearances ran hand-in-hand with a greater likelihood of purchasing anti-ageing products (Muise and Desmarais, 2010). What the media are doing is working, then. 

An American study showed that sexual body image is more often than not negative, in findings that apply to women of all age groups. This research shows the extent of body image problems but also, I think, shows that we needn’t feel like an exception if we don’t feel sexually attractive  The study went further to find that women in their fifties and sixties are most likely to accept their bodies compared to other age groups, and they’re also less likely to feel influenced by social pressures Montemurror and Gillen, 2013). 

Ironically, one an article that recently appeared in the European Journal of Social Psychology cited research which demonstrated that younger people negatively evaluate older people (both male and female) who tried to look younger than their years. They posited this was because these older people were then seen as a threat to the younger adults’ social identities (Schoemann and Branscombe, 2011). In effect, these older adults were seen as 'impostors' to a younger social group. They were seen as trying to add value to their own, lower status as part of an older generation. It might be hard, however, to draw a line to show what, exactly, is taking anti-ageing too far. The study points to future considerations, such as researching the ways in which one looks younger; for example, remaining young-looking by staying healthy could have very different social implications that trying to remain young-looking in order to snag a romantic partner. 

More worrying, however, is the cost to ones sense-of-self by trying to look artificially younger. Barreto, Ellemers and Banal (cited in Schoemann and Branscome, 2011) found that people who conceal membership of a lower-valued group, such as that to which older people are seen by some to belong, have lower self-esteem and confidence and report more guilt and shame. 

It might be in our best interests, then, to embrace ageing by continuing to ensure we look good (as we might always have done) but not in a way that specifically conceals or denies the ageing process. For example, if one chooses to buy a face mask which brightens the skin, such as an exfoliator with proven benefits, including anti-ageing ones, or if one were to exercise and eat well, one is tackling looking good in a very different way than if one were to use specific anti-ageing interventions such as those that tackle deep lines which may have limited use, set unrealistic expectations, provide poor performance, and may be costly. 

An alternate view is that of Garnham (2013), in The Journal of Ageing Studies, who discusses older people’s choice to have cosmetic surgery. She claims that it is unfair to label this practice as perpetuating ageism. She argues against the oppressive interpretation that older people who have cosmetic surgery do so to look younger, and instead argues that they do it to look better. Garnham suggests that cosmetic surgery is in fact a form of taking care of oneself and is undergone from the standpoint of ethical agency and creative self-stylisation. She feels that cosmetic surgery can be re-imagined as a practice used for designing ‘older’, rather than denying, ageing. 

It might be hard, later, to re-make our choices about ageing, however. If this fashion for looking younger continues, people who don't use cosmetics are going to appear artificially much older than those that do, even unconsciously, by performing acts such as applying moisturisers with sun protection. In the future, as cosmetic surgery, SPF use, injections and interventions are more common, people who don't do these things are going to stand out as older. That's part of the reason why I have been so scrupulous about using sun protection; it is one of the biggest causes of ageing and it is something which cannot be reversed. I fail to see how this alone would reduce my self-confidence, in a way that adopting fashions aimed at people years younger might, or applying thick cover-ups, or avoiding smiling to prevent lines could. 

So, can we say that being involved in the anti-ageing cosmetics bug is ageist? When I flick through my posts on Beauty Insignia I realise that if this is so, I am as guilty of ageism as some of the advertisers I criticise here. Every reference I make to anti-ageing products or their benefits is a mild, unintended but some may say certain nod to the view that being younger, and having younger-looking skin, is superior. In some ways it pathologises the process of ageing; a process which is actually inherently natural and good. Some cosmetics brands refuse to use the word anti-ageing at all; some instead use de-ageing, others just refer to the product’s benefits such as ‘reducing dark spots’ or ‘tackling deep lines and wrinkles’. 

Cosmetics can be wonderful at any age, if one wants to look better, and needs a little help. Not only does skin in good condition look great and increase attractiveness, it is healthier, and it is more able to protect the body from foreign bodies. If we choose to use cosmetics to look younger, then there is nothing wrong with that; to use Garnham’s words, we are “designing ‘older’”.  However we should be considerate to the potential negative effects to our self-esteem if we rely on overt interventions. Most of all, though, I don’t think we should be told by cosmetics and advertising companies, subtly or not, that ageing is bad. We should have free reign to make our own decisions about the lengths we are comfortable going to in order to look good now and years in the future. Whether we choose to purchase anti-ageing cosmetics or not, that's our individual choice. To have them there as a tool is a good thing, because it gives us choice. But, above all, if we remember that beauty isn't about following fashions, it is about looking good, then we can be sure our choices are right for us and that we look the best we can do--for ourselves, not anybody else.  


Arber, S. and Ginn J. (2004) ‘Ageing and gender: diversity and change’ in Social Trends 34, pp. 1–14, London, The Stationery Office.
Garnham, B. (2013). Designing ‘older’ rather than denying ageing: Problematizing anti-ageing discourse in relation to cosmetic surgery undertaken by older people. Journal Of Aging Studies, 27(1), 38-46.
Hill, S.E., Rodeheffer, C.D., Griskevicius, V., Durante, K., White, A.E., 2013, Boosting beauty in an economic decline: mating, spending, and the lipstick effect, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 103, pp. 275-91. 
LaWare, M. R., & Moutsatsos, C. (2013). “For Skin That's Us, Authentically Us”: Celebrity, Empowerment, and the Allure of Antiaging Advertisements. Women's Studies In Communication, 36(2), 189-208.

Montemurro, B., & Gillen, M. M. (2013). Wrinkles and Sagging Flesh: Exploring Transformations in Women's Sexual Body Image. Journal Of Women & Aging, 25(1), 3-23.

Muise, A., & Desmarais, S. (2010). Women’s Perceptions and Use of “Anti-Aging” Products. Sex Roles, 63(1/2), 126-137.

Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys (1998) General Household Survey 1995, London, HMSO.
Schoemann, A. M., & Branscombe, N. R. (2011). Looking young for your age: Perceptions of anti-aging actions. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 41(1), 86-95.

Victor, C. (1997) Community Care and Older People, Cheltenham, Stanley Thornes.

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