For a few years now, the beauty lobby and the press have been working against the tide of ageism in skin care. But, as some campaigns suggest, should the term anti-ageing be banned? As a scientist, as well as an educated consumer, I felt compelled to examine the issue. Industry voices argue that, nowadays, only a minority of consumers are looking for immediate, quick-fix results provided by aesthetic medicine or surgery. Their claim is that the out-and-out youth-cultivating era is over and that most women seek natural alternatives.
Acceptance of greying hair, illness and the menopause has become less of a taboo in our modern society, and a large number of French people, for example, are now interested in learning to age well. While older women have always been cherished in France, the glamour and style of Brigitte Macron, the wife of the French President, might have contributed to the new way we look at women of this age. Even if the ‘cult of appearance’ is still present in the media, it is said to be declining, and people are moving towards what the Americans call a ‘life enhancing’ approach. The representation of women in beauty and brands’ focuses have changed: there is more scope for women in the 50 and 60+ age groups to successfully enhance their appearance and improve the condition of mature skins.
It is the quest for truthfulness among millennial consumers plus older generations’ anticipation of healthy ageing that has enabled this shift. Mature women are aware that they have wrinkles and that these will never be reduced significantly, so beauty has become more integrative and focused on wellbeing, which includes the body silhouette and a healthy lifestyle, and incorporates sleep and relaxing practices. Through this approach, focus on mindful beauty and radiance means mature women have come to expect more from their cosmetics; they want emotional engagement and a pleasurable, sensorial experience, as well as sophisticated product textures and efficacy. The strong purchasing power of this group, combined with this new attitude has resulted in greater demand for sensual, radiance-enhancing skin care.
PRESSURE FOR POSITIVITY
There is pressure from lobby groups, based on research published by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), calling for the term anti-ageing to be banned across the beauty and cosmetics industry. The lobbyists feel that frequent use of this phrase paints the ageing process in a negative light, as if growing older is something to be ashamed of. Their data indicate that almost half of the women and a quarter of the men interviewed felt immense pressure to maintain a youthful appearance, while a positive, optimistic view of ageing, on the other hand, is known to be valuable to personal health and wellbeing. And yet, in many everyday conversations and in the media, the language can either trivialise (or catastrophise) the ageing process. The research confirms that women often feel more pressurised than men to reduce visible signs of ageing, which ultimately influences the way they approach their overall wellbeing. The report concludes that the implication that people should try to reverse visible signs of ageing is ‘nonsensical’ and ‘dangerous’, as ageing is simply a natural process in life. In August 2017, Allure magazine announced that it would stop using the term anti-ageing so that it could stop “reinforcing the message that ageing is a condition we need to battle”. The RSPH report puts pressure on specific companies to remove the term anti-ageing from their lexicon, requesting that Boots and Superdrug follow in the footsteps of Allure.
THE SCIENTIFIC APPROACH
But what is it that motivates people from middle age onwards to seek anti-ageing products? And, if consumers admit to using anti-ageing products, do they feel they align themselves with a stigmatised group of old people, or to a particularly feminine concern (which means men might be unlikely to declare their use)? Research published last year, based on in-depth interviews, revealed that people frame the use of anti-ageing products in terms of health and appearance, not anti-ageing per se. Anti-ageing is perceived as being related to a beautiful appearance and is therefore seen as “a feminised activity”. Both genders are concerned about their appearance – albeit in different ways. But the overall perception of those involved was that old age is stigmatised as a stage of life that is ‘unhealthy’ with bodies and minds naturally declining and people being excluded from society. These themes have been seen already in studies on the views of college students, whose worries about body consciousness – in addition to issues like surveillance, avoidance, shame and control – include ageing anxiety, which incorporates fear of older people, as well as fear of loss.
ASIAN CULTURES LEAD THE WAY
However, in some cultures, ageing seems to be better accepted. Drawing on interviews with elderly women living in urban South Korea, the appearance of the body and the presentation of self in their everyday life does not follow the ‘the elderly discourse’ that frames the ageing body as passive, undesirable or out-of-control. The narrative of these women describing their daily beauty practices suggests that the “act of sustaining a well-ordered appearance” in later life allows for an enforcement of their positive selves. Maintaining the best appearance plays an important part of their everyday lives. It creates a ritual that signifies not only a control over ageing but also a continued enjoyment of the ritual and its results. Their beauty routine, therefore, emerges as an ‘embodied practice’ of mediating social encounters through which their self-esteem rises. It rises through efforts to show oneself in the best light to others as a form of respect. The legendary ‘Because you’re worth it’ phrase, coined by L ’Oréal Paris, comes to life in this research. This is in contrast to anti-ageing rituals being shown primarily as self-indulgent or driven by anxiety about the body’s inability to fit within the existing youthful ideal of beauty. When ageing, we need the social support of our peers. Research demonstrates that greater satisfaction with one’s own appearance is associated with higher levels of social engagement, wellbeing and better mental health. One thing is clear – when women feel dissatisfied with their appearance, they limit their social contact and, as a consequence, their health and wellbeing may decline as well.
IS OUR OBSESSION JUSTIFIED?
Young and healthy-looking skin is a feature that is universally admired and considered attractive among humans. However, as we age, skin condition deteriorates due to a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. These are determined not only by genetics and physiological health but also by our behaviour and lifestyle choices. Evolutionary psychology suggests that skin signals aspects of ‘mate value’, and the relationship between perception of skin condition and homogeneity of colour is important. Skin colour homogeneity, driven by melanin and haemoglobin distribution, is positively linked with the perception of attractiveness, healthiness and youthfulness, and negatively with estimated age. For women, estrogen is known to have a protective and favourable effect on skin health – with a peak in the mid-20s and a dramatic decline by 50 years of age and after menopause. The loss of estrogen with ageing contributes to a decline in facial appearance. Clearly, there is a positive link between high estrogen levels and perceived age, as well as facial attractiveness and youthful appearance in ageing women. However, if hormone replacement therapy is not an option in the quest for youth, then sun protection is one route to enhance the skin’s health and youthful looks. We fully understand that cumulative, repeated exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation is linked to skin damage responsible for the majority of the visible signs of skin ageing. And it is during middle age where the decline of hormones and accumulation of sun damage meet. In an evolutionary psychology context, age-related changes in visible skin condition are significant when it comes to human social perception and interaction: visibly signalling a hormonal decline of the female body. This indicates that we are wired to seek out youth and, to a degree, justifies our obsession with a youthful and healthy appearance. These insights – like them or not, even if layered with societal concern and kindness – bring true emotional impetus to the adoption of sun protection strategies and a healthy lifestyle. If we no longer say anti-ageing but pro-age, if we no longer fight against the irremediable, but accept it as given, what is next? Women have always felt more than what the image in the mirror reflects over the passage of time. Moreover, signs of ageing and fatigue can be reduced by an intensive and efficacious anti-ageing routine.
However, real youthfulness requires more of a health focus and personal responsibility. In today’s hectic world, functional medicine provides an approach to optimising health in a holistic way. It contrasts sharply with today’s standard of care medicine as it looks at the body as a whole – not only dealing with acute health crises (injuries and infections), taking each individual’s lifestyle and chronological life events into consideration. Where traditional medicine seeks to manage disease through drugs or surgery, functional medicine seeks to identify and resolve the causes by taking a personalised approach. It is the cult of personalisation that has to occur in both health and skin care to deal best with ageing. Regardless of the lexicon, taking into consideration lifestyle factors including sleep and relaxation; exercise and movement; nutrition and hydration; stress; and relationships, in addition to the use of topical skin care products and treatments represents the future of pro-ageing.
This article first appeared in SPC Magazine/Cosmetics Business.
Further reading: Ageing Well and Living Forever Chic