These days it seems as though new and exciting beauty launches are dropping each week (such as this brightening concealer from Fenty or this bronzer/highlighter duo from Nars that just scream ‘summertime fine!’). And we’ve also slowly begun seeing more inclusive advertisements that feature dark skin, plus size, disabled and acne-prone models. This is awesome don’t get me wrong and it certainly is a start—because let’s face it, this should’ve been integrated into the norm a long time ago—but I also can’t ignore the fact that the beauty industry still, at large, comes as a disservice to mature consumers. That’s right. I’m talking about ageism in the beauty industry. What is it? Where does it stem from? How has the beauty industry perpetuated the stigma against older consumers? And what’s being done about it? These are the questions I seek to explore and hopefully answer by the end of this article. In doing so, I may call into question some biases that even I have played into (and maybe some biases that you readers may have subconsciously held a stake in). So now that objective is clear, let’s dive into today’s discussion on ageism in the beauty industry (for reference I’m primarily talking about ageism within the respective makeup and skincare communities but this critique also takes ageism within the modeling industry into consideration as well).
When you hear the word ‘ageism’ have you ever wondered exactly what it meant? In my own words, I’d describe the concept as a socialized process of discrimination against a group of people—felt disproportionately by women—on the basis of their age/age grouping. Further, ageism excludes older individuals from certain social institutions, practices, and/or subcultures. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) does a better job at explaining the idea than I do, explaining it simply as, “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.” The WHO resource also goes on to explain how ageism is a form of prejudice that doesn’t just affect the targeted group but actually affects everyone insofar as children develop a sense of awareness/perception early on and essentially learn to internalize such stereotypes and/or prejudices that they end up using as a tool for navigating or guiding their emotions. To put it differently, children absorb what they observe which has a significant impact on how they interact not only with others but how they also feel about themselves. There’s a major social responsibility on our part—on behalf of everyone regardless of age—to step out from our ageist biases because quite frankly it’s disparaging and wholly unnecessary (but isn’t that the case of discrimination in general? Really makes you realize how most aspects of our current social attitudes and behaviors are in dire need of reform and eradication huh?).
So now that we know what the word means, we can start investigating the origins of ageist practice. During my research on this topic, I discovered that the term ‘ageism’ was coined back in 1968 by American physician and psychiatrist Dr. Robert N. Butler. Later in 1975, Butler wrote a Pulitizer-prize-winning publication titled, “Why Survive? Being Old in America” there in which he recognized that age discrimination functions in our society as the “tendency to structure society based on an assumption that everyone is young, thereby failing to respond appropriately to the real needs of older persons” (Butler 1975) . Upon further investigation, it was a bit difficult to pinpoint an exact origin of the practice of ageist behavior but from what I was able to deduce, ageism is a cultural norm that is often systemic and passed off as less insidious or problematic than other ‘isms’ (i.e. classism, sexism, ableism, racism); indeed there does seem to be some degree of a lack of moral opprobrium given towards combating ageism in comparison to the aforementioned discriminatory structures—but as we may already know or will learn from this article, this notion (about the severity or urgency of ageism) is certainly untrue as failing to address ageism can be just as harmful as failing to address any other socio-political, socio-economic issue. In other words, there are multiple ways that ageism is reflected in our everyday lives which include but are not limited to: exclusionary language and most relevant to our discussion today, exclusionary beauty marketing.
The beauty industry and all its encompassing fields are a large proponent for the stigma our society has against older people. For the sake of this article, however, I’ll be referring to ageism against older women as this group faces a unique set of challenges on the basis of sex as well as age that older men don’t have to account for. It also goes without saying that this allusion shouldn’t come as a major surprise given that the majority of the beauty industry is targeted toward the interest of women consumers. There is the unrealistic expectation across many societies that a ‘lady never ages’ or that women are supposed to not only carry themselves a certain way but must also maintain a certain appearance deemed appropriate for their age. For example, our American society largely frowns upon the appearance of wrinkles and graying hair (this is the case for women only of course because conversely these attributes are found attractive on men). Actually, I think it’d be fair to assert that while aging may be a glamorized human process exclusive to men and male-identifying individuals, aging may also function as a social propellant for investment into cosmetic solutions/remedies for those who identify as women. That’s just a pontificate way of me trying to say that *surprise* We live in a society that has a bias against women. So again, we can blame the beauty industry for a lot of the stigma surrounding mature women as we see no shortage of anti-aging products, cosmetic procedures (like Botox), or spa treatments. For example, ageism within the modeling industry is common practice insofar as any model who begins their career at 25+ is considered ‘old’ (granted this is because the career expectancy/expected career longevity of the average model is quite short hence why those interested in modeling are encouraged to start early but, still). Another example of ageism in the beauty industry can be noticed in our lack of mature representation in beauty advertisements despite the fact that older groups hold the majority of the spending power that keeps the fashion industry afloat, according to model Mouchette Bell in this article on the topic. Ultimately it’s in these small but common ways, that we perpetuate the idea that aging is something bad that women ought to avoid.
And now we’re at the end of the investigation, we must ask, ‘well what can we do about it?’ I think the most obvious solution is to have more mainstream mature models; actually we ought to have a plethora of models of varying race, ethnicities, sizes, heights, ages and abilities. One of the best ways to combat a stigma is to face it head-on with positive depictions of the very people being discriminated against in the public eye. It should be normal to see editorial and high-fashion models that are in the 50-60+ range just as often as we see (read: forced to see) youthful, thin blonde models. Beyond that, we can all combat ageist behaviors or attitudes by looking internally within ourselves. Recognize when it’s happening, question it and support our fellow elders by encouraging them to be mentally/physically/technologically independent. Let’s face it. We’ve got enough to worry about as it is, how we look at the age we’re going through life doesn’t need to be another point of concern.