Why do women feel more pressure than men to look younger as we age? Sarah Lang takes a look.
In August, Nicole Kidman appeared on the cover of Perfect magazine, showing off her very unattainable-looking, very skinny body as she flexed her very muscular biceps. Also on the cover were the words “we celebrate Nicole Kidman, the perfect icon” (‘perfect icon’ being a competition she’d just won in that magazine). One article commenting on this photo says, approvingly, that Kidman “looks decades younger” than 55.
“the time I feel the best about myself is also a time when I’m, as the saying goes, ‘losing my looks’”
On one hand, I get the play on the magazine’s name, and if Kidman feels great about her appearance, all power to her….? On the other hand, it made me feel shit about my body. The subtext of these types of celebrity images seems to be that, if we did all the ‘right things’ (even if we can’t afford a personal chef and trainer), we could and should look younger and better than we currently do.
There’s Gwyneth Paltrow who, on turning 50, posted on Instagram a photo of her leaping in the air wearing a bikini. It reads: “I accept the marks and the loosening skin, the wrinkles. I accept my body and let go of the need to be perfect, look perfect, defy gravity [well, she is literally leaping], defy logic, defy humanity. I accept my body.” Er, if yours is a flawed body that takes work to accept, Gwyneth, I’m sure as heck not the only one feeling bad about my body after seeing your post. Someone commented saying, “This makes me absolutely crazy. Everything you promote and sell on your website [goop.com] tells me you DON’T accept it.”
Also, we love us some Amy Schumer and her subversive humour, but one sketch in her TV show Inside Amy Schumer felt a little, well, off. Schumer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and Patricia Arquette played themselves, celebrating Louis-Dreyfus’ ‘last fuckable day’. Sure, it was meant to spark a conversation about sexism and ageism, but you could argue it reinforced stereotypes about who is and isn’t desirable.
Here are executive producer Dan Powell’s comments on the sketch: “It was originally formulated for actresses who had passed that [fuckable] point, and they were celebrating someone who’s going to join them.” (They couldn’t find actresses who wanted to do it because, duh.) “Then we refashioned it, so it was now actresses who preceded that point, with one of them ‘crossing over’.” Er, crossing to the unfuckable side of the river where we should no longer be desired? Gotcha, thanks Dan.
Why Try To Look Younger?
Why do many women (including feminists such as myself, unless that makes me a bad feminist) feel the urge to try to look younger than we are? Well, the male gaze, centuries of social conditioning, our appearances being linked to our worth, etc.
Kate*, a 39-year-old speech therapist, thought she’d be comfortable with visibly ageing. “Turns out that’s not the case! I find it weird that when I look in the mirror I think about potentially getting fillers and Botox; this is new. Part of me feels I’m not ready to have the face I have. I’ve dealt with toxic comments from men including comparisons with women who are 10 to 15 years younger.”
“I’d consider myself fairly fluent in sexist standards, so it’s like, ‘WTF, I know this stuff, why am I not immune to it?’.”
Tracey*, a 38-year-old advertising executive from Auckland, says: “I surprise myself by occasionally experiencing feelings of reduced worth and value as I notice my appearance getting less youthful and find that those feelings are attached to beliefs of [why I’m] not finding a partner. Feeling this way was a surprise because (A) I don’t see older women in that way, so how did my self-perception get caught on that hook? B) I’d consider myself fairly fluent in the ways that sexist standards and assumptions undermine women, men, all genders – so, it’s like, ‘WTF, I know this stuff, so why am I not immune to it?’.”
U.K.-based freelance writer Nicki Kinickie wrote a story called ‘Why Are Women Made to Feel They Should Look Younger?’. Nicki had read a tweet by actress Kate Ford defending being and looking 41. Shocking, right? “As someone,” Nicki writes, “who has spent most of her life sucked into the idea that women are only worth something if they are beautiful and look good (and young), it got me thinking; why is it such a bad thing to look your own age? So many middle-aged women look their age but are also beautiful.”
“It’s like we’ve been programmed for years to aspire to look younger than we are. Most anti-ageing products and gadgets out there are aimed at women… continuing to pedal the idea that youth is what makes us attractive and worthwhile. It’s almost like it’s still a taboo for women to show the effects of ageing.”
Are Men Feeling This Pressure?
After decades of feeling “fairly pretty with makeup on”, Auckland lawyer Jenny* turned 40 and suddenly switched into a (borderline frantic) preserving-her-looks mode. Botox, cheek fillers, anti-ageing serums, pre-packaged diet meals, a personal trainer, etc. And her husband? “Oh, he’s all for me trying to look younger.” I mean, is he making an effort to do the same? “No! I guess his cheeks are a bit saggy, and he has deep frown lines, and is a bit unfit. But I’ve never expected him to do anything about all that. Is it weird that this all feels normal to me?”
Anecdotally, not weird at all when it comes to women’s and men’s efforts. But Ella*, an academic from Auckland, reckons “some men are maybe more conscious of their looks than we realise. Maybe it’s just socially discouraged for men to seem to be concerned with their appearance because it’s [considered] effeminate or they’re supposed to be above that, whereas women are encouraged to value their appearance so much.”
Heather, an administrator from Christchurch, agrees. “My husband is objectively handsome, and still young-looking, but he also worries about his looks a bit. We’re both 42, and work stress, child-bearing etc have taken a toll on my already less-conventionally good-looking appearance. When I look in the mirror it’s a bit of a shock, and sometimes people say I look tired. My husband still thinks I’m sexy and beautiful which is lovely.” But she also doesn’t objectively agree with his assessment.
“There are women for whom it’s very important for their identity and self-esteem to cling onto their youth.”
Christina Baird, a psychologist who works in the area of self, says there can be more self-acceptance as we age. “I’m wondering if there’s a dip during peri-menopause, then a new-found freedom. I’m observing a lot of women past that point letting go of societal pressures and feeling freer to just be themselves, to not follow fashion trends for example. Myself, I have days of self-assured freedom and days where I long to fit in with the younger crowd. There are women for whom it’s very important for their identity and self-esteem to cling onto their youth. Our friends, social groups and the part of society in which we find ourselves – the ‘big eight’ being race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion, nationality and socioeconomic status – have a huge influence on our approach to ageing.”
Cherie*, a Christchurch architect aged 43, says: “It’s a funny old thing that the time I feel the best about myself [internally] is also a time when I’m, as the saying goes, ‘losing my looks’. I’m a bit startled sometimes when I look in the mirror. How did those lines suddenly appear? When did that skin start to sag? I acknowledge the pressure put on women to ‘make an effort’ but try not to go down that rabbit hole. My hair is slowly greying; my clothes definitely aren’t ‘fashionable’. But I don’t care as much anymore and after so many years trying to look better and younger, that’s wonderful.”