Looking at "Looking Good for Your Age"

"You look so good for your age!" This so-called compliment is ubiquitous, but what does it really say about how society views age and appearance?

by Lexi Croft / Garnet & Black

"Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison." - Mary Wollstonecraft

How applicable could a quote from the 18th century be to the lives of college students today? As it turns out, very. Women's looks have always been the subject of scrutiny. Though the lives of women today look much different than they did in Wollstonecraft's time, the ideal of youthfulness has been hard to shake.

It is tempting to believe that the societal significance of women's physical appearances is over-exaggerated, but the effects are evident. One in three women under 35 reported using anti-aging products daily in a 2017 survey conducted by OnePoll. In the same survey, there was a clear generational divide. Women over 55 reported they did not start using anti-aging products until 47 on average, while the average millennial started using these products at 26. When young social media users are marketed products like preventative botox or special straws designed to prevent lip lines, it's no surprise that so many have a warped view of what the natural aging process looks like. 

USC student Carlynn Rychener said that at 18, she's not too concerned about her own aging, but she sees women less than a decade her senior already under duress. 

"I feel like for women who are in their 30s, or even just their late 20s, there's a pressure to still be young and look young." Rychener said.

The pace of social media has accelerated not only shifting trend cycles but has also led to the growing, alarming belief that women in their late 20s are almost obsolete. 

While ageism largely runs rampant on social media, that doesn't mean other forms of media are blameless. Becca Agrest, another USC student, remarked on the lack of media representation for older women. 

“Everyone has a standardized ‘look’ and older women just don’t fit that because they don’t have that certain ‘20-year-old woman look.’” Agrest said. 

San Diego State University's 2022 "Boxed In" study found that women represented 50% of major characters on streaming programs and 48% of major characters on broadcast network programs. However, these numbers change significantly when age is considered: 42% of all major female characters on broadcast networks are in their 30s, 15% in their 40s and only 3% are 60 or over.  

Even the women aged 60 and over who make it to the screen are not necessarily representative of what an average aging woman looks like. Dr. Melina Malli, a research fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Aging, writes that when a woman in the public spotlight shows signs of aging, people are quick to comment that she must be "letting herself go." Women who are perceived as aging badly receive "little mercy" from the entertainment industry. She notes that while there is increased representation of aging actresses in advertising media, their appearance is usually about "urging us to take control of our lives, the message they convey is that this is to be done through combatting and curing aging and by 'turning back the clock.'"

Media representation is just one way that anti-aging sentiment is perpetuated in society. Women's desire to slow or reverse their body's aging process has become a lucrative business. According to Vantage Market Research, the global anti-aging market had a value of $63.01 billion in 2022. This value is only expected to increase in the coming years with an anticipated value of $106.05 billion by 2030.  This market includes all products, procedures and methods that have the objective of slowing or stopping the appearance of aging. According to Mayo Clinic, creams that boast ingredients such as retinol, vitamin C, niacinamide and azelaic are among the most successful for achieving younger looking skin. However, even these ingredients only "might" improve skin's look. Popular anti-aging procedures include botox, filler, facelifts and dermabrasion. One procedure, known as a chemical peel, involves a doctor using "an acid to peel away the outermost layer of skin."

Botox, possibly the most widely known anti-aging procedure, has gotten its own facelift in recent years. The stigma that used to surround botox and other cosmetic surgeries is fading. In the past, most mainstream media characterized cosmetic procedures as shallow. But what once was shallow is now self care. This apparent switch is evidence of how quickly societal norms can shift. Forbes writes, "millennials have embraced botox as part of their self-care routine and even bring in their parents for treatment." Now women don't even have to wait for wrinkles to appear before trying to get rid of them. Some doctors recommend starting preventative botox at around 25. The effect of this increase in popularity is the normalization of altering appearance for purely cosmetic purposes. This adjustment inevitably leads to a population whose beauty norms move in an increasingly unattainable direction, as more people strive for younger and conventionally attractive aesthetics. 

Lexi Croft / Garnet & Black

The anti-aging market exists in a strange and morally gray area. The apparent skyrocket in popularity is mostly due to how technology has made the products cheaper and therefore more attainable. From 1998 to 2018, the average cost of cosmetic procedures fell behind the rate of inflation, even as hospital and healthcare costs rose above it, according to Dr. Mark Perry's research in the American Enterprise Institute's 2019 study. The study compared the costs of 19 cosmetic procedures with inflation rates and found that these procedures' costs fell by roughly 31% compared to blue-collar worker's average compensation.

This leap in affordability means more women than ever before are encouraged to examine their body not as a whole, but as individual parts that can be fine-tuned and molded to shape the standards of the time. Women can scroll through social media and see hundreds of influencers, many sponsored by companies claiming to empower women to look their best—naturally implying that to look good is to feel good and to be good. 

There are undoubtedly health benefits to some of these promoted products. Sunscreen can lower the risk of skin cancer, vitamin C can reduce damage from the sun and pollution and azelaic acid can function as an antibacterial, according to Mayo Clinic. While products containing these ingredients may be medically advantageous, their marketing tends to focus on how they can improve women's appearances rather than women's health. The assumption on the companies' part seems to be that people are more prone to buy products that enhance aesthetics than they are to purchase ones for their well-being. Rosie Bennett, a USC student, says she frequently encounters beauty products, and even sunscreens, that promote their features by using rhetoric that implies wrinkles are inherently bad. Bennett describes the marketing as “intimidating” due to its constant presence.

"It's so pushed at you that you feel like if you’re not doing it, you’re doing something wrong," she said.

Since most anti-aging products are cosmetic rather than medical, the Food and Drug Administration  does not inspect the products or their manufacturer's claims before they reach the market. However, on their website, the FDA writes that the agency does have concerns about companies claiming their cosmetic products can alter the structure or function of skin.

The Federal Trade Commission, the US government agency created to protect consumers, can pursue legal action in cases where the false claims are egregious. In a press release on their website, the FTC describes a case from 2020. The company Quantum Wellness was selling a pill called “ReJuvenation” that they claimed could cure “cell damage, heart attack damage, brain damage, blindness, and deafness–and even aging itself." The FTC's unanimous decision imposed a judgement of $993,416 against Quantum Wellness. This extreme example demonstrates that there are limits to what a product can promise. 

According to JD Supra, marketers of anti-aging products must structure their claims around customer perception of aging rather than the actual reversal of the aging process in order to avoid litigation. Additionally, the FTC requires marketers to have proof of their claims before advertising them. Another way companies get around legal trouble is by using "establishment claims" in advertisements that clearly state "the type, and quantity, of evidence that the advertiser has to support the statement." Companies may only have meager evidence to support an anti-aging claim, but if they can find a way to state this without bringing attention to the lack of substance, they can work around consumer protection laws.

With these regulations in place, it's easy to dismiss cases in which consumers fall for magical cure-alls like ReJuvenation. However, by unpacking what makes that pilland other products like it -- so enticing, it can become easier to understand the choices women face when deciding whether or not to purchase an anti-aging product.

Dr. Kathryn Pauly Morgan examines the “paradox of choice” women face in her article, “Women and the Knife: Cosmetic Surgery and the Colonization of Women’s Bodies.” Morgan writes that the companies and physicians who perpetuate the idea that women can and should aspire to look younger “participate in committing one of the deepest of original philosophical sins, the choice of the apparent over the real.” She goes on to say that at first glance it could seem as though a woman’s choice to invest money in maintaining youth is unequivocally positive. After all, this choice offers her the possibility of higher social status, a greater sense of control and professional advancement. Morgan acknowledges that the feelings of self-creation, self-fulfillment and self-transcendence that altering your appearance provides cannot be dismissed. Where are these external rewards coming from? Not from any true difference in her own intellect, capability or skill but from a difference in how the world perceives her body, Morgan explains. Women are forced to seek agency through altering their appearances because they are denied the same respect that their male peers receive solely for their talent and hard work. 

When asked whether they believed men are subject to the same pressure to age in the “right way” that women are, all three interviewees answered with a resounding no. Bennett summed up the difference in expectations: “Women are expected not to have wrinkles, not to age at all, like you’re always expected to look young, but for men, it's completely fine if they age." 

A recent study published in Psychology Today had participants rate the attractiveness of male and female individuals in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. The study's findings suggest women's decline in attractiveness per decade is much greater than men's. The researchers, who are plastic surgeons, attributed this to evolutionary biology. They state that since women experience a more significant reduction in fertility as they age, they also experience a more significant reduction in attractiveness. While this study takes a decided stance on defining attraction in a biological sense, the researchers also point out that their findings could take a different meaning when looked at through a social psychology lens. They note that there is an "inherent inequity" in how gender impacts perception of aging. Interestingly, this difference in perception was consistent in how both male and female participants rated the attractiveness of individuals.

Anti-aging sentiment is so deeply ingrained in society due to a variety of factors. The plethora of products promising to push back the aging process is a result of companies that know how profitable it is to prey on insecurity. Additionally, in the United States, many products in the beauty industry are designed with Eurocentric beauty standards in mind. By marketing procedures designed to make women look more European, the beauty industry is perpetuating not only ageism, but racism as well.  

Leah Donnella explored this idea on an episode of NPR's Code Switch podcast titled "Is Beauty in the Eye of the Colonizer?" Donnella reminds listeners that "it wasn't until 1940 that the rules were changed to allow women of color to enter the Miss America pageant." She said, "Obese women, old women, queer women, women of color and all the intersections get particularly scrutinized, even when they're trying to conform to gender norms." Limited research has been done on the intersection of structural racism and ageism, but the American Geriatrics Society's 2022 study suggests that it "exacerbates disparities in social determinants of health, including poor access to healthcare and poor outcomes." 

In a world with many companies that stand to profit off of women’s self-doubt, self-acceptance is not only challenging; it’s radical. In ToneMadison, Sonya Renee Taylor, an activist who writes about the connection between racial justice and body liberation, invites readers to ask themselves: “Who is profiting off of my insecurity?” This question allows women to pause before purchasing the next round of products with brazen claims about providing improvement and to ponder whether they actually need the improvement being promised.

The marketing and media that women are consistently exposed to has permeated today's culture and in turn the way women view themselves. While companies with something to sell may suggest that to have a natural body is a travesty, consumers don't have to take this as fact. As individuals, people may not be able to put a stop to the societal standards that overemphasizes women’s youthfulness and undervalues their achievements. However, that doesn't mean there isn't hope. Consumers have the chance to influence how cosmetic products are marketed by trying to give their business to companies that promote self-acceptance instead of self-consciousness.  

USC students are among those ready to reject the pressure placed on women's appearances. Bennett summed up her own stance on aging, “I feel like it's just a part of life. You get wrinkles and it's a sign you lived and enjoyed your time outside.” 

In a society that tells women they should spend their time, money, energy and effort on achieving an unachievable physical appearance, practicing self-acceptance is a radical act. Fully enjoying life — rather than spending it in a race against the body that provides it — is a true accomplishment.