Beauty and the (Beast) Over-40s

‘I wanna look like I’m made of plastic’. So instructed my beautiful 40-year-old friend to a make-up artist in a well-known department store recently. Another 40-something friend tells me with pride that she spends £220 every month on painful laser facials. Yet another 40-something friend details her Botox and fillers regime to me. For myself, also in my 40s, I spend way too much on overpriced skincare creams and while I’m partial to a facial, I draw the line at needles and scalpels.

The media and academia abound with stories and reports about how susceptible young women are to the lure of beauty treatments and the negative effect social media are having on their self-confidence.  In my own research I have listened to a beautiful young 20-year-old woman share with me her desire for fat transfer using the more ‘holistic’ process of taking fat from the arse to use in the face (cosmetic surgery goes woke?). But by focusing almost exclusively on young women’s participation in beauty are we trivialising the issue at the same time as trivialising them? Are we writing it off as something these women will grow out of when they ‘grow up’?

As my friends and I demonstrate, women over 40 are not immune from the call to be beautiful (read young, smooth skinned, toned, glossy long hair, white or caramel coloured skin). I don’t believe this desire existed in anything like the same way for my mother’s generation.
I am a sociologist, I study social structures. This approach makes me ask what is driving women of all ages to these painful and expensive quests for some elusive vision of beauty? What has led us to prize being beautiful above all else in womankind?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is complex. I think it’s more than the advent of social media, though that has certainly helped spread the word. I think something far more insidious and far more dangerous is happening. Where I would like to direct your attention is the influence of popular ‘feminism’ (what we might also call post-feminism, or, faux-feminism).

This brand of feminism tells us that those ‘ugly’ ‘hairy’ ‘bra-and-men-hating’ (note the correlation) feminists of the '70s and '80s nonetheless did a grand job, and so women today are free from the constraints placed on our mothers and grandmothers. Tools down ladies, the work has been done. It tells us that we’re all equal now, so no need to fight the system, let’s just celebrate the successes of all those amazing women our society values; all those Anglo-American slim, rich, beautiful white women.

This popular feminism positions us as depoliticised individuals and active consumers, offering us a vast range of pink and glittery ‘feminist’ merchandise to prove how much we love women in a bizarrely limited perception of femininity.
Popular feminism offers women the opportunity to celebrate our freedom from patriarchal oppression by spending all that cash we earn at our fabulous jobs we’re now allowed to have on clothes that ‘empower’ us, make-up that makes us look like porn-stars, and cosmetic procedures that allow us to hold on to our youthful sexiness well into middle-age.

I don’t mind admitting I find this paradox incredibly difficult to navigate. I want to look the best I can. I don’t like my body ageing. I love talking cosmetics with my friends. If I had £220 spare each month, I would seriously consider the facial my friend has (her skin is AMAZING). But I also see how my actions feed a negative social ideal of the ‘feminine as beauty’ which limits our choices, empties our purses, and excludes those of us who do not, cannot, will not, conform to the prescriptive dictates of what counts as beautiful here and now. We’re damned if do, and damned if we don’t.

What I want to stress is that it is structural forces and not individual choices that are important in this dynamic. Wanting to look good is normal. Having such a limited version of what counts as ‘looking good’ is what’s wrong. Feeling you need to look 22 for the rest of your life and not even being happy with your looks when you are 22 is the result of a cultural philosophy that tells us we are all imperfect all the time.

I don’t need to tell readers of this blog about the endless images of female beauty women are confronted with in every moment of their lives. I don’t need to tell you about the impact many believe digital media are having on us. What I do think is important to realise is that these phenomena are not limited to the young, and nor are they directly attributable to new technology or Kim Kardashian.

To my mind these are all scapegoats for the insidious and dangerous hegemonic feminine ideal that persists in keeping many women locked in a never-ending commodified and self-monitoring cycle of self-loathing. Pretending this is limited to the under 30s and therefore enabling it to be written off as youth culture, as something the rest of us are too old and too sensible to get involved in, diminishes the very real negative impact it has on lots of women who feel varying degrees of invisible and worthless every time they look in a mirror.

Julie Whiteman is a third year PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality. www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/social-policy/research/doctoral-researchers/profiles/whiteman-julie.aspx

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