Martha & Reese & Nicole & Jennifer & Jennifer & Halle & Paulina.
“Martha Stewart Welcomes You To Generation Ageless,” declared a New York Times headline late last month; underneath, a 2,000-word analysis of the 80-year-old’s foray into beauty influencing. The lifestyle entrepreneur is a newly appointed ambassador for luxury skincare brand Clé de Peau Beauté. As for what that entails? Convincing Gen Zers on TikTok to drop $550 on an anti-aging moisturizer, mostly.
Stewart “looks like she did 30 years ago,” the article gushes. It praises the former model for giving “women half her age a run for their money.” It holds up her “smooth, glowing, wrinkle-free face” as “a new vision of vital old age,” as if this is some groundbreaking display of age positivity.
It is not.
Praising old celebrities for looking young is nothing more than an equal-but-opposite glorification of youth. It’s the same anti-aging bullshit women have been force-fed for centuries.
In order to side-step this very obvious truth, the Times sources perform some impressive semantic gymnastics. “Youth is a mind-set that Martha is still really owning,” claims Eve Lee, the founder of a creative agency in London. But if youth is a “mind-set,” why does it demand a $1,125 face-sculpting cream? “She also shows Gen Z the possibilities for maintaining its hot, sexy vibes, making aging less scary and more exciting,” Lee continues. But aging only seems “less scary” because Stewart and Clé de Peau suggest it doesn’t happen. They suggest you need not confront your mortality at all, actually, so long as you use the right products. And that right there — products — is the tell. If a supposed cultural reset ends up putting more money in the pockets of beauty industry executives, it’s probably not the cultural reset you think it is.
The whole thing reeks of the industry’s latest attempt at a “vibe shift,” wherein it acknowledges that beauty standards are bad while continuing to perpetuate said beauty standards, as if mere acknowledgement were action enough.
For example, in order to explain why “achieving a perfected face is a goal” for Gen Z — a demographic that is between 9 (nine!!!) and 24 years old — the Times quotes beauty industry executive and influencer Charlotte Palermino. “With smartphones and the pandemic’s reliance on videoconferencing, it was game over,” she says. “All of us were constantly on view, constantly seeing ourselves. No other generation has seen their faces more than Gen Z is doing right now.” This statement suggests that Palermino understands the psychological harm of digital-age beauty dogma — and yet, it hasn’t stopped her from capitalizing on that harm. In ads for Dr. Loretta skincare, Palermino promotes a serum she says “makes you looked Photoshopped.”
It does not. (No serum does.)
What it does do is reinforce the idea that your skin should look Photoshopped, and that it can look Photoshopped, so long as you use the right products. It additionally implies that attempting to replicate the skin-smoothing effects of Photoshop via skincare is somehow more honest or admirable or healthy than using Photoshop itself — an increasingly popular perspective that the Times applies to Stewart’s beauty routine, as well. The octogenarian icon, it reports, eschews surgical interventions in favor of less-invasive products and procedures that only make her appear to have had surgery.
“I have never had plastic surgery,” says Stewart, who is worth an estimated $400 million. “No knife on my face, neck or back.”
She has had work done, by Dr. Daniel Belkin, one of her two New York dermatologists. “Non- or minimally invasive,” is how he described it, with repeat visits “probably twice a year. She’s doing it thoughtfully and conservatively.” Dr. Belkin uses lasers for redness, gentle resurfacing and brown spots; fillers for volumizing and collagen stimulation; and radio-frequency and micro-focused ultrasound for sprucing up the brow area and for “lifting, tightening and plumping” under the chin. And for her lips: “a soft hyaluronic acid, more for hydration than for plumping.”
Is undergoing approximately 16 procedures per year — never mind an extensive daily skincare routine — really any different than getting a face lift? Does this routine really suggest Stewart is the age-positive influencer the press is making her out to be? No! Ideologically, it doesn’t really matter if an individual opts for an eye job, or injectable fillers, or Clé de Peau’s $450 eye cream. All of the above circulate the same standard throughout society: that old is ugly and youth is beauty and beauty is imperative.
It parallels the recent media coverage of Paulina Porizkova, the 56-year-old former model loudly forgoing Botox and proudly positioning herself as a “pro-aging” icon in the process. And sure, Porizkova isn’t getting injectables — but she is getting plenty of other anti-aging treatments, and regularly posts selfies of her “non-invasive plasma pen sessions, tightening ultrasound therapy, and hydra facials,” reports the Sunday Times in an article titled, “The supermodel who dared to look her age.”
Porizkova does not look her age.
“I get this a lot,” Porizkova admitted to the Times. “[People say,], ‘It’s easy to age when you look like you.’ OK, that’s fair … But age is a great equaliser and we are all on the same trajectory – downhill! Whether you start higher up or not, we all decline.”
Again: Can you really claim to “celebrate aging” when your message is that aging is a “downhill” experience of universal “decline”? No!
Not that Porizkova’s message is consistent. In a recent Instagram post, she responded to a commenter who suggested she was “getting old and ugly” by saying, in part, “There is no such thing” as “old.” Her words were widely praised in the press, but what do they even mean? There’s no such thing as old. Generation Ageless. These are just empowerment-lite lies that ultimately position old as bad, and therefore, banished. Age is over! Old doesn’t exist! But aging does happen! And old does exist! Insisting they don’t glosses over the very real structural and social issues that people face as they age, and reinforces the false idea that addressing your fine lines (whether through Botox or tightening ultrasound therapy) addresses the effects of systemic ageism. And to be clear, it’s systemic ageism — not your face — that makes aging an agonizing and emotionally draining experience for so many.
Recently, I was a guest on a podcast called Preconceived. Each episode challenges a different “preconceived notion” and my episode, naturally, was about beauty standards. At one point, host Zale Mednick asked me about the apparent abundance of middle-aged actresses in Hollywood today, and if their cosmetic procedures are responsible for their success. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
Zale: A lot of actresses have gotten work done. Jennifer Aniston — she’s always had [acting] work, is that because she subscribes to the beauty industry? Nicole Kidman is still getting roles. Is that because she had [cosmetic] work done? Would they still be getting roles if they didn’t have work done? I often feel bad when I look at some of these actresses … if they didn’t have the work done, they might not get the roles.
Me: One important thing to note there is that these older women are taking control on the business side of things; a lot of them have their own production companies, they’re directing, they’re creating these roles. Is [their success] because they look young — or is it because they’re creating business opportunities and thus materially changing the circumstances of the culture that they’re working within?
I went back and fact-checked myself after this conversation, and I was right. Nicole Kidman’s (54) production company created many of her recent leading roles: Big Little Lies, Nine Perfect Strangers, The Undoing. Jennifer Lopez (52) cast herself in Hustlers and Marry Me via her own production company. Reese Witherspoon’s (46) made Wild, Little Fires Everywhere, and The Morning Show. Jennifer Aniston’s (53) produced Dumplin’. Halle Berry (55) just launched a production company, too, and is acting in her own directorial debut for Netflix.
It’s tempting to credit the successes of these 40- and 50-something women — a demographic that barely existed in pre-aughts Hollywood — to surgery, injectables, and/or all manner of in-office procedures. But really, the credit belongs to the ways in which the aforementioned women are structurally challenging the ageist, sexist hierarchy behind-the-scenes in Hollywood. There’s a lot to be said about how they’ve used beauty to catapult themselves into positions of power, of course, and that exploration deserves its own article. But for the purposes of this article, focusing on how “young” they look is a distraction. It obscures the deeper work of upending systemic ageism and sexism, and ascribes an outsize significance to aesthetics alone.
As I put it in the podcast:
Engaging in these [anti-aging] behaviors is not changing society in any material way. It’s not that an actress hits 40, doesn’t get a role, then she gets a facelift, and all of a sudden she’s getting these roles. I think we really have to check ourselves and challenge the idea that participating individually in these beauty systems is doing anything at all. It’s not creating the kind of change that we think it’s creating to see a 55 year old woman to say, “Wow, she still looks so young and sexy!” That’s actually compounding the problem. Most women are not hitting 55 and looking like J.Lo. That’s great for J.Lo as an individual accomplishment, I guess. She’s gamed the system. But what is there for other women to take away from that — what is there for the collective to take away from that? Pretty much nothing.
To rephrase: The reason we clamor for age diversity in the beauty media is not because we want these models and actresses to have individually fulfilling careers (although, sure, that’s lovely for them). It’s because we want realistic representation for the rest of us! Do Martha and Paulina and Reese and Nicole and Jennifer and J.Lo and Halle offer that? Does their public existence as aging women make it easier for average aging women to exist in the world? Not really. The stories they tell through their movies and TV shows might — but seeing aging women succeed doesn’t do much to specifically challenge beauty standards if those aging women don’t actually appear to be aging. It only perpetuates the problem of ageist beauty standards for the collective.
I think this framework — evaluating the collective impact of a supposed beauty culture shift — can help us better evaluate what constitutes a radical shift and what’s just a reimagining of existing ideals.
Like: Is Kidman’s visibility as an in-demand, middle-aged actress challenging existing appearance expectations in a way that benefits the collective? No. It’s setting unrealistic expectations for how tight and shiny a 54-year-old forehead should look. It makes things harder for the collective; it helps the industry (and her as an individual).
Or: Is selling a Photoshop-inspired serum challenging existing appearance expectations in a way that benefits the collective? No. It perpetuates an unattainable — and, crucially, entirely inhuman — ideal. It makes things harder for the collective; it helps the industry (and the individual selling it).
And: Is Stewart’s stint as a skincare influencer challenging existing appearance expectations in a way that benefits the collective? No. It’s expanding existing expectations by pushing anti-aging messaging onto a formerly untapped market of 9- to 24-year-olds; a generation that will likely sacrifice more of their time, money, energy, effort, emotion, and brain space — i.e., more of their life force — to the pursuit of physically and psychologically damaging beauty standards than any other generation in history. It makes things harder for the collective; it helps the industry (and her as an individual).
“Welcome to Generation Ageless” might sound nice in a headline. But as I’ve said many times before, aging is just another word for living. Swap one for the other, and you get the real message: Welcome to Generation Lifeless.