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'There's no ethical way to sell products that target signs of aging'
An interview on anti-aging, pro-aging, and the "imagined 25-year-old" in beauty industry marketing.
Here’s a beauty industry blind item for you: Which celebrity’s team booked me as a guest on the celebrity’s forthcoming podcast without mentioning said celebrity was set to launch a skincare line soon — thus duping me into sort of endorsing a celebrity beauty brand despite my well-established anti-celebrity-beauty-brand stance?
I’ll never say, and the episode never seems to have materialized. (Perhaps because I threw a bit of a shit fit on the phone after finding out about the star’s future business plans...) What I will do is share the never-aired interview here for Unpublishable readers. Ahead, my thoughts on the origins of anti-aging, the absurdity of “pro-aging,” and the misplaced compassion of beauty marketers.
Anonymous Interviewer: Can you talk about the anti-aging skincare market and how it dominates across all categories?
Jessica DeFino (me): Anti-aging is the beauty industry’s most enduring promise and most lucrative marketing claim. In the United States, anti-aging alone is a nearly $5 billion dollar sector. So there’s a lot of money to be made there.
So first, I want to make it clear that anti-aging is a beauty standard. Plain and simple. Youthfulness is not a health goal. It is not a moral goal, no matter how often brands equate young-looking skin with “good” skin. This is an aesthetic goal only. The history of this standard goes back centuries, it stems from systems of oppression. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism for sure. Anti-aging is the ultimate capitalist goal, because it can never be met, right? It’s physically impossible to anti-age. And to try to anti-age is to be a consumer for life. So this is a very capitalist idea.
The modern marketing concept of “anti-aging” was invented not by a doctor or skin expert but by a marketer. By a brand founder. Helena Rubinstein in the 1930s marketed her moisturizer as product that would “overcome the dreaded signs of facial aging,” as she put it, and specifically pointed to the signs she was targeting — eye lines, wrinkles, sagging skin, dull skin.
And this ideology — that aging is bad, that it is something to dread — has taken completely over the industry. We see it in skincare marketing most prominently. Almost everything you buy targets one or two of all of those signs that Rubinstein pointed out, right? We see it in makeup marketing, even. Concealers that cover age spots and foundations that don’t settle into the wrinkle creases. We obviously see it in the marketing of cosmetic procedures and surgeries — neuromodulators like Botox, fillers, eye lifts, face lifts — these all ultimately target aging. We even see anti-aging rhetoric pop up in healthcare. So very often, SPF will be marketed as a product that prevents both skin cancer and signs of aging. When these things are coupled, by doctors even, it makes aging seem like it’s as deadly and devastating as cancer. Dermatology has absorbed this beauty standard into its idea of healthcare. In my research I’ve come across many, many women who go to the dermatologist for an annual skin cancer screening and their doctor will suggest Botox out of nowhere. A dermatologist I follow on Instagram the other day made a post called “How not to look old” and captioned “tips to prevent or reverse what we all dread!” This is not medical care. This is the medicalization of beauty standards.
So yeah — anti-aging is the cornerstone of the beauty industry, from skincare to surgery to healthcare. It’s a fear-based framework designed to keep us consumed with insecurity and consuming products. Anti-aging is a construct of control.
Can you talk about the anti-aging label backlash a few years ago leading to new terms like pro-aging or successful aging?
In 2017, Allure magazine made the decision to stop using the term “anti-aging.” The editor in chief called it a “celebration of growing into your own skin — wrinkles and all.” This decision has had a ripple effect throughout the industry. Of course, we still do see anti-aging used as a marketing term, all the time. But more and more, beauty brands and the beauty media and influencers have pivoted to using nicer-sounding phrases like “pro-aging,” “aging gracefully,” “preserv-aging,” “preventative aging,” and even “non-aging.” These are becoming the dominant terms in the space.
What do you think of these terms?
They all mean the same thing. They all mean anti-aging. And I think this is very obvious when you look at the material goals of the product these terms are being used to sell. “Pro-aging” products target the same “problems” that anti-aging products target. They seek to fill in fine lines and soften wrinkles and plump your skin and tighten your skin and brighten your skin and reduce age spots. I like to think of this shift as a shift in language without a shift in ideology. The underlying ideology is the same. The point of the products being sold is the same. The only thing that’s different is the language and that doesn’t matter if the material outcome of “pro-aging” matches the material outcome of “anti-aging.”
For example, a skincare brand recently ran a marketing campaign that used language like “it’s time to love those laugh lines and stop hating on those ‘flaws’.” And the campaign imagery featured models of all ages. 20s, 50s, 80s, models with visible wrinkles, great. But when I clicked through the campaign, and landed on the product page, I saw that this celebratory campaign was promoting a serum that “visibly smooths fine lines” and an eye cream for “tightening the skin” and “a reduction in wrinkles.” This is anti-aging, no matter how much your marketing campaign insists it’s a celebration of aging.
We see the same with Kim Kardashian’s skincare line, SKKN. She announced she will not use the term anti-aging in the New York Times. In that same New York Times article, and later in an Allure article, Kim Kardashian claimed she would eat poop if it made her look younger. That is reinforcing anti-aging ideology more than the words “anti-aging” ever could. So this shift in terminology is a surface-level shift only. It is not really changing anything. It is not dismantling beauty standards at all.
Can you talk about how the rise in inclusive beauty has driven the industry to embrace a wider portrayal of women of all ages?
I think in the past 5 - 10 years there has been an increased cultural demand for inclusivity and diversity, and age diversity is part of that. The beauty industry has definitely responded to this consumer demand. For example, one beauty brand hired Martha Stewart, who is 81, to do a TikTok campaign for them. On its face, this seems age inclusive, right? But ultimately, the campaign is highlighting Martha Stewart as a beauty icon because she doesn’t look her age. In a New York Times article about this, it praised Martha Stewart for looking 30 years younger. This is just an equal-but-opposite glorification of youth. We see the same with highlighting celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Halle Berry. These are women in their 50s, yes, but they’re being praised and held up as idols because they don’t look like they’re in their 50s. So this is just another way to promote the aesthetic of youth as a beauty ideal. It’s the same anti-aging rhetoric underneath.
Or, as I mentioned before, it’s older models being used to sell products that purport to erase the very features that the models are showcasing. It’s just very backwards.
Older women are being represented more in beauty advertising and the industry would like us to believe we are in a new, more progressive era, where beauty is celebrated at any age. Is this really true?
No, I don’t think it is true. All you have to do is look at the statistics. The anti-aging market is growing exponentially. In the United States, anti-aging was worth $3.9 billion in 2016 and by 2021 it was worth $4.9 billion. Globally, the anti-aging market was worth $25 billion in 2016 to almost $37 billion in 2021. Over the past three years, the injectable market has grown as well. We’re in the midst of what experts call “the Botox boom.” People are starting Botox and other neuromodulators that freeze facial muscles and impede expression younger and younger. The scam of “preventative Botox” is bigger than ever. Dermatologists and surgeons are reporting upticks in facial fillers as well, and even anti-aging surgeries like eye lifts and face lifts. So we are not celebrating aging. We are spending a lot of money to attempt to prevent it and erase all signs of aging.
We’ve learned to pretend to celebrate older women, but we haven’t learned to accept what happens naturally to their skin. The new message is: ‘It’s okay to age but not to have a wrinkled face.’
Yes, I think that’s perfectly put. If your celebration of older women doesn’t include a celebration of how most older women look, without extensive product and procedural intervention, it’s not actually a celebration of older women. It’s ageism. I read an article in the Financial Times recently that framed anti-aging behaviors as ageism, and called engaging ageism a form of discrimination against not only others, but your future self. I think that framework is hugely helpful in this anti-aging space that has co-opted nice-sounding language to sell us the same old anti-wrinkle creams. It is ageism.
In 2017 Dior famously tapped 25-year-old Cara Delevingne to be the face of its anti-aging skincare line, Capture Youth. There was backlash of course. How have things changed since then?
I think the industry has maybe gotten more savvy in terms of surface-level marketing. Like you pointed out, we’re seeing older women more in these campaigns. But again, the ideology hasn’t changed. The goal of the anti-aging products doesn’t change. And even if the 25-year-old isn’t in the campaign, you’ll often see a celebration of the 25-year-old skin in marketing copy. Or in the beauty media. For instance, many anti-aging, or pro-aging, whatever you want to call it, materials will talk about collagen. And how collagen is so important for fighting fine lines and wrinkles. You’ll often read that a woman’s collagen levels start decreasing at age 25 — and now, surprise surprise — that’s why she needs to add anti-wrinkle products into her routine to emulate the collagen stores of a 25-year-old. And so yeah, we might not see the actual 25-year-old model in the campaign pictures anymore. But the imagined 25-year-old is still present across the beauty industry as the ultimate embodiment of beauty.
One thing I want to point out about that statistic, about collagen decreasing naturally after age 25, is that this is what bodies do. This is not any more a health crisis that needs to be solved by products restoring you to your 25-year-old function than menopause is. You know? Just because your body changes as you get older does not mean those changes need to be reversed. And it does not mean those changes are health issues. Changes happen. Aging happens.
...Or has the target group for anti-aging products simply gotten younger and younger? Anti-aging products and treatments are now being pitched to 20- and 30-year-olds. Can you talk about this?
Yes. So a couple months ago an anti-aging brand catering to 20 - 30 year olds. The founder said that they were launching this brand because younger consumers are interested in anti-aging and were not being addressed by any legacy brands.
The fact that younger consumers are interested in anti-aging does not mean they need anti-aging products. It means we need to address the crisis of fear and self-hatred that is Western beauty culture. Beauty standards are associated with increased instances of anxiety, depression, facial dysmorphia, body dysmorphia, disordered eating, obsessive thoughts, self-harm, and even suicide. The fact that younger consumers are interested in preventing the aging process younger and younger is a symptom of the age anxiety that’s conditioned into us by beauty culture. Marketing anti-aging beauty products is part of this. It doesn’t solve the problem. It increases age anxiety. Of course, it also then increases sales. It makes money.
Same with the idea of preventative Botox. Almost 20 percent of cosmetic Botox injections done in 2020 were performed on women under 40. 12,000 of those procedures were done on girls between 13 and 19.
This is a testament to age anxiety. And I think it’s important to note that these products and procedures are often messaged as a health measure, very often as a mental health measure. But the data tells a very different story. One study out of Yale showed that a negative outlook on aging actually took seven and a half years off of people’s lives. So the age anxiety that is preyed upon and perpetuated by anti-aging products and procedures is leading to a lower quality of life and shorter lives.
In this VOX article you said: “Once they sell you on the idea that you need to anti-age, they have a customer for life." You always need another product or syringe or surgery.” What, in your view and findings in the course of your work, do younger women think about the beauty industry rhetoric that aging must be prevented at all costs?
I think in beauty right now, as in politics, as in culture in general, people are very divided. So there are a lot of young women currently who are very focused on appearance. Very focused on preserving their youth and therefore, their beauty. And they frame this as a form of body autonomy, as empowerment, as even feminist — they think they’re taking control of their body, what they want to look like. That framing is very convoluted, and is rooted in at least a century of cultural conditioning that frames youth as beauty and beauty as one of the only forms of power available to women.
Then there’s another side to it, where many young women want to resist. My own younger sister really put me in my place a while back. She’s seven years younger than I am, and we have the same face basically, except she’s younger and thinner. And last year, I was having a particularly rough self-image day and I made a comment to her about feeling ugly. And she said “Jessy, we have the same face” and I said yeah, but you’re young and beautiful. And she told me that hearing things like that makes her scared of getting older and gives her anxiety and she didn’t want hear it because she doesn’t want to feel bad about something that will inevitably happen to her — you know, if all goes well. She’s going to age.
Do you think there’s a general lack of compassion in beauty marketing and messaging that is the bigger problem? The fear factor, the you-are-not-enough factor?
I actually think there is a lot of compassion in beauty brands and in much of this marketing. We have to acknowledge that the beauty industry isn’t actually the nexus of this problem. It’s not the instigator. The beauty industry is a response to beauty culture — and beauty culture, similar to diet culture, is formed by these really oppressive forces that inhibit women’s ability to thrive in society, especially as they grow older. Women are treated as “the second sex.” Older women are made to feel that they are invisible in so many ways. That they’re no longer worthy, because they’re no longer beautiful — with “beautiful” again largely being defined by the culture as proximity to youth. And I do think there are so many women in the beauty industry, starting beauty brands, writing these marketing messages, formulating these products, who are full of compassion for just how hard it is to be a woman in this world, to be an older woman in this world, and who truly believe that the solution to that problem is to help women look younger and maybe gain back some of that visibility, that respect, that sense of self-worth. Unfortunately, that very compassionate instinct is misguided. It is very important to point out that selling anti-aging products, and buying anti-aging products, and participating in anti-aging beauty culture by getting Botox and face lifts, compounds the problem of ageism. These things may temporarily ease age anxiety for the individual, but ultimately they increase the prevalence of anti-aging ideology and perpetuate the beauty standard of youth, and increase the pressure to anti-age — for ourselves, and for everyone else.
Perpetuating the idea that women can and should appear younger than they are in order to be seen by society and feel good about themselves only strengthens the very beauty standards that hold us back in the first place.
Surveys overwhelmingly show that most women are more focused on “aging well” rather than trying to stop the clock, so why is there a disconnect in product marketing and messaging and the customer?
I’d be curious to hear how women in these surveys define “aging well.” Because I think “aging well” is probably another example of language over ideology. If your version of aging well is about the feeling of aging, and making peace with aging, and getting more comfortable in your body stepping into your wisdom and experience and appreciating the fact that you are growing older without attempting to erase the aesthetic evidence that you’re growing older, that’s a reasonable definition of aging well. If aging well is code for “looking youthful as I grow older,” that’s anti-aging ideology. That’s really no different. So I don’t necessarily think there’s a disconnect between the products and the customer. I actually think the product marketing — along the lines of aging gracefully, aging well, pro-aging — is influencing the customer to feel better about holding onto their culturally conditioned, ageist, sexist ideas of what it means to “age well.” Especially because, as we see, people are buying these products to the tune of billions and billions of dollars. They want the products. There’s not much of a disconnect. That’s why so much of my work does focus on changing the consumer mindset and interrupting the consumption.
Is there a new crop of brands that recognizes this and is acting accordingly?
This may be an extreme point of view, but I don’t believe that this is an issue that can be solved by brands. I don’t think this is a problem that we can consume our way out of with quote-unquote “better” products. I don’t know that there is any way to ethically sell products that target signs of aging. I don’t know that there is any way to ethically promote aesthetic changes without buying into beauty standards and therefore, perpetuating those standards. So I’m hesitant to even weigh in and name a brand here.
What do you think the future looks like in this category?
Unfortunately I think the immediate future looks like more of the same. I think we will see the industry co-opting the language of inclusivity and diversity and social justice and progressive politics to ultimately sell people the same sexist, ageist products and convince them that this is somehow a form of empowerment. Meanwhile, the industry will siphon women’s actual sources of power in the process: their time, their money, their effort, their energy, their thoughts. These are finite resources that we have. And the preoccupation with aging and appearance steals them all. I do think the industry will continue to steal our power and call it empowerment.
Do you think we can flip the script? If so, how?
I think in order to flip the script on looking older, we need to flip the script on growing older. Ultimately, this is a cultural problem that points to many intersecting systems of oppression that desperately need to be addressed. Because to be clear, it’s systemic ageism — not your face — that makes aging an agonizing and emotionally draining experience for so many.
Changing this 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.
Changing this would mean 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. In order to fully divest from “anti-aging,” we also have to divest from capitalism and hustle culture and productivity-as-worth. 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.
I think a lot of age anxiety could be addressed by a deeper connection to our spiritual selves — and I don’t mean that in terms of religion, but spiritual in the sense of the human spirit. And finding meaning and purpose in our lives. And facing our mortality. I know it sounds heavy, but that’s a huge part of ageism and internalized ageism.
Flipping the script here would also have to address skin health as opposed to skin aesthetic. Healthy skin ages. Also, studies show that about 85% of what we’ve been taught are signs of aging — like fine lines, like wrinkles, like age spots — are actually signs of exposure. Exposure to the environment, pollution, excess sun exposure. Exposure to stress is another big one, and exposure to too many beauty products.
The biggest thing that we can do to combat anti-aging ideology, I think, is remember that aging is another word for living. Anti-aging is anti-living. Living is the goal. Aging is the goal.