What's our obsession with anti-aging?

The only real solution to ageing is, of course, death. But our way of dealing with that inevitability is to to delay and deny it. Amanda Hess examines our obsession with anti-ageing.
What's our obsession with anti-aging?

There is something telling about the moments when we, as a culture, all agree to make a change that feels right and good and true, then go on behaving in approximately the same way that we did before. Consider the September issue of American magazine, Allure.

On the cover, the 72-year-old actress Helen Mirren wears the tattooed arm of a 20-something guy slung around her neck as if it’s the hot new accessory. Allure calls her “the hero we need” as the magazine enlists the beauty industry in its new pet cause: “the end of anti-ageing.”

Inside, the editor Michelle Lee resolves to stop using the term “anti-ageing” in her pages, opting instead for a “celebration of growing into your own skin — wrinkles and all”.

This is not to say that she will stop promoting products that promise to make women look younger: As she puts it, “No one is suggesting giving up retinol.”

What Lee wants to change, at least to start with, is the “packaging and marketing” used to sell retinol. She seeks to embrace euphemism: “Changing the way we think about ageing,” she writes, “starts with changing the way we talk about ageing.”

Elsewhere in the issue, an ad for a new L’Oréal Paris moisturizer — part of the Age Perfect line — promises to “get your rosy tone back” through a pseudoscientific process that “stimulates cell turnover from within” using ingredients like “Imperial Peony” and “LHA.” That ad also stars Helen Mirren.

The only real solution to ageing is, of course, death, but our central mode of dealing with that inevitability is to delay and deny it.

“In an era in which people actually live longer and longer,” Susan Sontag wrote in the 1972 essay ‘The Double Standard of Ageing’, “what now amounts to the latter two-thirds of everyone’s life is shadowed by a poignant apprehension of unremitting loss.”

In this culture, to age is to be erased; to be deemed irrelevant, disappear from magazine covers and popular films and get tucked away into facilities, managed and cared for. For women, it also means being turned from a coveted object into a disposable one. We spend our lives fighting our own disappearance.

Corporate interests have discovered that they can make a killing by selling coping mechanisms.

The beauty industry grapples with all of this psychodrama most literally, constantly pushing the right psychological buttons to gain entrance to our medicine cabinets. It’s not just the elixirs themselves: The images, the celebrity spokespeople, the branded jargon and sales copy all work toward the same goal.

They must paper over large and knotty things — our discomfort over our own mortality, our deep-rooted habit of valuing women largely in terms of their attractiveness, our growing sentiment that both ageism and gender roles ought to be things of the past — with a cheery promise that a little face cream will help.

Every woman is always getting older.

And in the century or so that the beauty industry has been hawking products to try to fix that problem, the goods themselves haven’t necessarily evolved: A 1908 issue of Woman Beautiful magazine promoted a multiproduct home regimen for fighting facial wrinkles that sounds something like today’s, combining an astringent, creams and an electric vibrator massage.

The branding, however, has evolved in a ceaseless process of linguistic renewal, constantly shifting to exploit generational mood swings concerning how a woman should be.

To the beauty industry, “changing the way we talk about ageing” is not a challenge; it’s an invitation to spin old products to new consumers.

Early on, the need for facial treatments was typically located in the desires of men. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Palmolive ran a series of bluntly shaming ads in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Farmer’s Wife. The soap company invented the problem of “ ‘middle-age’ skin,” a condition it claimed could afflict women as young as 22, then blamed it for all kinds of romantic disappointments, from “girls with empty date books” to the wife who “loses love”. (One ad featured an illustration of Cupid, sitting with his head in his hands, crying, “I give up!”)

The judgmental gaze of other women also played a role. A 1926 ad for an in-store facial treatment blares, “Poor Lois — see how old she’s growing!” Female self-loathing was acknowledged openly. One ad asks, “Is it the greatest crisis of a woman’s emotional life?” Meaning: “that sudden, merciless message from a mirror’s crystal depths... ‘you are fading, just a bit.’ ”

These campaigns framed women as desperate, as waiting helplessly for a product to save them from the humiliation of age.

The past few decades, though, plunged us into a very different way of thinking: the Golden Age of “anti-ageing”.

The ads shifted from cautionary tales to stories of inspiration, in which plucky women successfully race against time to take charge of their own looks.

Social shaming was sublimated into an aggressive personal narrative. Militarised language became chic: Advertisements started instructing women to “tackle,” “combat” and “fight against” ageing, to stage an “intervention” on their skin.

Revlon’s Age Defying makeup told the consumer, of her advancing age: “Don’t deny it. Defy it.” In this model, age is a war waged on a woman’s face, and it can never be won, only “slowed” or prevented from “advancing,” like an occupying force.

All along, there are periodic warnings about clinical-sounding language on anti-ageing products, which habitually play with the aura of science while eschewing its requirements for actual evidence and tests. If old ads worked to construct social shame, this emphasis on science works to move beauty standards into the realm of the objective, presenting the ideal look — the ideal existence — as scientifically, and not culturally, determined.

The women buying these products, the ads suggested, weren’t ashamed: They were savvy.

All of this dovetailed with a whole cultural celebration of “ageing well,” in which not displaying the signs of age on one’s face is seen as a professional accomplishment, even a virtue. We elevate a select few celebrity ambassadors of “good” ageing — Mirren, Sandra Bullock, Halle Berry, Andie MacDowell — and turn them into not just avatars of covetable good looks, but fierce, audacious heroines who are celebrated for pulling off the near-impossible.

Television-series reboots and family reunions are opportunities to assess how people’s faces have stood the test of time and congratulate those who appear most similar to their past selves.

There’s a dark, Picture of Dorian Gray undercurrent to it all: Each sign of wear on your face might be taken as evidence of your failure as a person. As the business of fighting age has consumed the culture, it has produced a secondary aversion — not just to the signs of ageing but to the signs that we’re trying to stop the signs of ageing.

This is why the unnatural signs of face-lifts and Botox can be so unnerving: They remind us not only that we are all getting older but also that we’re trying so desperately not to be, and mostly failing.

Marketers are adapting accordingly. Allure’s anti-anti-ageing campaign is just one part of a bigger cultural wave, advancing past the combative mode and toward the assuaging language of personal acceptance.

In 2007, Dove — always ahead of the curve in “empowering” marketing trends — introduced a product line called Pro-Age with a campaign featuring models in their 50s and 60s. (The double entendre in “Pro-Age” is masterful: It sounds as if it’s about embracing the advancing years, while also hinting that you wouldn’t want to age like some amateur.)

These days, the beauty industry is preparing to transcend the wrinkle entirely: The new scheme is obsessed with coding products as all-natural, eco-friendly and wellness-promoting elements of ‘self-care’.

This year, as Kiehl’s rolled out a new product called Pure Vitality Skin Renewing Cream, a rep told The Los Angeles Times that “we don’t talk about lines and wrinkles”; instead they speak of “healthy” and “radiant” skin.

They’ve also swapped out the scientific jargon, instead pitching “natural” ingredients with global back stories, like manuka honey from New Zealand and red ginseng root from South Korea. As ever, beauty expectations for women haven’t been revised so much as they’ve been rebranded, with words like “renewing” and “vitality” and “radiant” serving as cutting-edge euphemisms for “youthful”. The implication hiding beneath is an unsettling one.

You may think the stigma against older people is social, a construction of our culture and what it chooses to value.

The ads suggest otherwise: Youth, they seem to say, is simply natural.

Natural and, of course, easy.

The new and healthy-sounding imperative is to age breezily — to not make too big a fuss about either getting old or trying not to.

We’re loath to confront the undignified lengths we will go to in our fight against ageing and mortality, whether it’s in the “feminine” pursuit of looking younger or the wealthy man’s pursuit of life extension, which comes complete with its own ghastly para-scientific fads: intermittent fasting, blood transfusions from teenagers, human-growth-hormone injections, cryonics. We nod and agree that we should embrace our wrinkles while quietly understanding that none of us, individually, want to be the one who actually looks old.

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