Erasing Your Wrinkles Isn’t Empowerment
Can we have everlasting youth *and* empowerment? How anti-aging ideology disempowers the collective.
Introducing “non-aging:” the disguise du jour for anti-aging ideology.
The groundbreaking term recently replaced “slow aging,” “preserv-aging,” “aging gracefully,” and “addressing mature skin” as the way to capitalize on women’s fear of living long-but-wrinkly lives while avoiding the ire of anti-anti-agers.
Well, almost avoiding.
When I read the words “Non-Aging Skincare Tips’’ in a headline earlier this week, coupled with a lovely photo of 54-year-old Halle Berry looking more like a 24-year-old, it made me ARGHHH and ugh and also :weary face emoji: cry.
Not because I’m opposed to “non-aging.” (Although, of course, I am. Synonyms include “dead,” “cryogenically frozen,” and “Dorian Gray’d,” none of which really appeal to me, personally.) But because I’m opposed to the industry patting itself on the back as it pretends that “non-aging” and “preserv-aging” don’t send the exact same message as “anti-aging.” Because I’m opposed to the industry celebrating biologically “old” but aesthetically young stars like Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani as if it isn’t an equal-but-opposite glorification of youth. They do!! It is!! Stop with the semantic gymnastics and just say you fear death/hate old people/will do anything to avoid confronting your own mortality already!
Listen, I get it. If solutionism is to be believed (it’s not), all problems can be solved by product technology.
The problem: Society stops valuing women after a certain age.
The beauty industry’s solution: Products, practices, and procedures that make it possible to appear younger as you get older.
And sure, maybe that anti-aging product does take the burden off of the individual buying it. Maybe it makes that one individual feel better about how they look. But it only compounds the original problem for the collective. Looking more youthful might “empower” the person who gets Botox/filler/face lifts — “empower” as in, grants them the literal power to prevail in a society where “beautiful” women statistically see more professional, personal, and financial success and beauty is defined, in part, as youth — but it does not empower people as a whole. It disempowers the collective by continuing to perpetuate unrealistic and unachievable standards.
So… what if we solved the original problem by upending the system instead of making it easier to live within the confines of the system?
That sounds like it’s hard. Time-consuming. Impossible.
But, uh, so is the Sisyphean task of “anti-aging.”
Consider all the time, money, and effort we invest into the “anti-aging” grift. Into innovating products and pioneering procedures and marketing them to people. Into buying the products and applying them daily and fitting filler appointments into our schedules.
We could use that same time, money, and effort to divest from anti-aging.
As for how… I’m just throwing out some guesses here, but it seems like it might start with examining your own attitude toward aging, your own consumer habits, and the standards you buy into and, in turn, project back into the world.
It would need to include community care: advocating for human rights, health equity, and economic security for the elderly; encouraging age diversity in the workplace; addressing ageism in the media; asking beauty brands to abandon “anti-aging” language, imagery, and ideology.
Facing our collective fear of aging-slash-dying probably means reevaluating the way we’re living, too. One of the reasons society rejects its aging members is because we’ve linked our self-worth and economic worth, and as Shai Held recently wrote in The Atlantic, “When people are measured and valued by their economic productivity, it is easy to treat people whose most economically productive days have passed as, well, worthless.” In order to fully divest from “anti-aging,” then, we also have to divest from capitalism. From colonialism. (The productivity-as-worth thing we’ve got going on is rooted in slavery.) We have to start valuing rest and introspection and hobbies that don’t end up as income streams. We have to find worth outside of our appearance and output! We have to get to know ourselves, our shadows, our spirits, our souls! We have to value those things in others! Without that, life is all surface, and no matter how smooth and shiny that surface might be, it’s still just surface. Flat, unfeeling, expensive surface.
(Speaking of surface, abolishing anti-aging would also have to address skin health as opposed to skin aesthetic, emphasizing that yes, healthy skin ages and no, you do not need the collagen stores of a 20-year-old as a 60-year-old and actually, what we think of as signs of premature “aging” are most often signs of environmental exposure so really, protecting the skin barrier is a more effective way of preserving your so-called “youth” than slathering it harsh anti-aging products, anyway. But that’s a whole different article.)
I understand that this is not the path everyone wants to pursue.
Like I wrote in this piece, there are two ways to address the stranglehold of Western beauty standards: One, by helping women better perform beauty — to perform it with less effort, with safer ingredients, with an expanded perception of what is beautiful. Or two, by pushing for a future where beauty has no bearing on how women are treated, on how women feel about themselves. Both are valid! But I’m only interested in Option Number Two.
Still, I understand that there are distinct social and economic advantages to better performing beauty standards instead of abolishing beauty standards. I understand that existing within a culture that pressures us to change everything about our appearance from the moment we are born is exhausting and traumatizing and paralyzing and it is not always possible to push back against these systems. I understand that it’s easier to inject a little Botulinum toxin between the brows than to reject the idea that we need a little Botulinum toxin between the brows. That’s all fine and good.
What I don’t understand is why we have to pretend that better performing beauty is an act of empowerment. Again, it might be empowering for you, personally, if you deem it so — but it is not empowering for women as a whole.
This distinction between individual empowerment and female empowerment is what’s missing from mainstream beauty media, and it is essential to understanding the industry and ourselves. Acknowledging this distinction isn’t shaming. It’s honesty. And honesty is the first step toward maybe, someday, somehow, actually abolishing these systems.
So get that Botox! Fill that tretinoin prescription! Champion turn-back-the-clock cosmetic surgery! But let’s at least be honest about what we’re doing when we do these things and why: We’ve been made to believe our worth is tied to our beauty and our beauty is tied to our youth. That belief is so deeply ingrained in us and in the world around us that it feels impossible, even pointless, to fight it. We’re buying into anti-aging ideology because it makes us feel better about ourselves and allows for better treatment, better pay, and better opportunities.
And in doing so, we’re ensuring that future generations will continue to deal with the same bullshit beauty standards we do.
Great piece. This kind of clear thinking is the antidote to scrolling through an Instagram feed and feeling like I'm not enough! I agree completely on the point that procedures might be individually empowering but they are collectively disempowering, and that dismantling the system is a daunting and generations-long fight. I wonder what can be done to that end around reclaiming a healthier sense of desire. So much of what we chase with youth is to be sexually/romantically desired. How can we fight the beauty industry by creating a more humanist sense of sexuality? Would that help? Something I think about a lot lately, anyway.