How we can all learn to embrace ageing in a positive way
Is “anti-ageing” an offensive term? I’ll be honest, I never took it to mean anything but shorthand for “anti the visible signs of ageing”: wrinkles, sagginess, blotches. I’m definitely anti those and would like to try and improve the situation – my face, my choice.
Yet, in a time when disregarded groups are asserting their right to be heard, the message that one ought to be “anti” ageing is beginning to stick in the throat. Having been shelved and substituted for younger models for as long as memory serves in Western culture, women over 40 have realised that words can hurt if you use them often enough. A lifetime of encouragement to “age gracefully” and “stop the clock” will chip away at anyone’s confidence and distort one’s concept of beauty. In my opinion, the term anti-ageing ought to be replaced with positive terminology and discourse based around health and radiance – although the right catch-all term proves as yet elusive.
As a 50-something who isn’t much bothered by what society dictates or what others think, my immediate reaction is to bristle at having to entertain yet more politically correct semantics. “But you’re successful and confident – and probably in the minority,” says Nicola Bonn, broadcaster and host of the Outspoken Beauty podcast*. “I hear from women every day who feel marginalised and robbed of their self-esteem, because the constant messaging is they’re past their sell-by date. The idea that youth is everything is so much the status quo that we don’t even question the nonsense of it, and quietly conform to the apparent expectation that we should become invisible.” It means, Bonn feels, that the beauty industry – very much an industry for women, by women – has a responsibility to help females reclaim their power. “Semantics matter, as does visual representation. Anti-ageing perpetuates the myth that age makes you redundant. It should be replaced with ‘healthy ageing’ and we should be shown what that looks like at every age: 70-year-old healthy skin looks different to 20-something healthy skin, but no less beautiful. That’s the message we need and deserve,” she says.
Did you know?
Women over 50 are the most lucrative demographic for brands to target, accounting for over 60% of the UK beauty market
Beauty is a state of mind
Jodie Cariss, psychotherapist and founder of Self Space, a contemporary mental health support service, agrees the cosmetics world has a key role to play in showcasing all women, but cautions against scapegoating the beauty industry. “We all have a subliminal fear of dying, which feeds our aversion to ageing,” says Jodie. “I find that people approach maturity and ageing dependent on how satisfied they feel with themselves. Those who are unhappy with their achievements and lives can overly focus on, and despair over, the external, to avoid facing their internal demons. Things such as brand messaging and social media can be triggers here, but they’re not the cause.”
The place to aim for, she says, in beauty as well as in life, is contentedness, as you’ll be far less prone to self-criticism. Unlike the elusive “happiness” or “perfection”, contentment is tied up with proper self-care: looking after yourself in ways that make you feel great and bring value to our life. “That is what true pro-ageing is about, and it can encompass skincare and treatments; yes, even ones marked anti-ageing. No one should judge anyone for wanting to look their best in whatever way they like. But do it for you, not anyone else. Don’t compare yourself to others and show yourself some compassion,” says Jodie.
Celebrate the benefits of age
Dr Vicky Dondos, author of The Positive Ageing Plan, and a cosmetic doctor who has her patients assess their diet, lifestyle and skincare before she’ll consider treatments, agrees that real pro-ageing starts with a positive mental attitude followed by self-care. “It’s totally normal to feel a sense of loss at the passing of youth, and healthy to acknowledge it,” she says. “But we should also learn to celebrate the benefits of age – confidence, courage, wisdom – and shut down the hypercritical bully in our head who causes stress and literally ages you.”
Consequently, stress management is her top healthy ageing tip. “Chronic stress causes low-level inflammation that definitely affects your appearance, which affects your self-worth. It can be a vicious cycle,” says Dr Dondos. Plenty of sleep, breathing techniques, time with loved ones and regular exercise (as simple as a brisk walk, but at least 30 minutes, three times a week) are essential age-busting self-care strategies, she says. Beyond that, diet – as in a health-giving, not a restrictive one – can transform your skin and looks. Sugar, alcohol, refined carbs and trans fats are worth cutting down or avoiding, Dr Dondos says. A rainbow of fruit and veg, protein, wholegrains, spices, fermented foods and good fats (oily fish, nuts, olives) give life to your gut, your face and your psyche.
These are the things that will make us feel and look our natural best at any age. From there, we can boost and refine with skincare and treatments, celebrating what we are as opposed to trying to erase what we’ve become. The key here, says Dr Dondos, is to be gentle and do no harm by keeping things simple. Thorough but gentle cleansing, hydration, sunscreen, antioxidants (the fruit and veg of the skincare world), and proven collagen boosters and skin-barrier builders (retinoids, vitamin C, niacinamide, ceramides) are what you should rely on.
You can boost and refine self-care with skincare and treatments to celebrate what we are as opposed to erasing what we’ve become
Ultimately, women over 50 want to “look healthy, energised and radiant”, says Dr Dondos. “They have no interest in turning back the clock.” What we really want and need from our skincare, this implies, is truthful, realistic wording as to what it will actually achieve. “Plumping, smoothing, brightening, pore-clearing, barrier-repairing – these are practical, helpful terms that speak of skin support, not ones that play on our fears and insecurities,” says Nicola. Plenty of young brands have already started down this path, but the same language needs to be introduced by all brands and in all age categories. In that respect, the recent wave of menopausal skincare is a breath of fresh air. “It addresses a biochemical stage in life that requires targeted skincare support, so menopause is a term we should be using,” says Nicola.
And it directly addresses, with plain language, a huge contingent of women who have long felt distinctly ignored – research by L’Oréal Paris found that only 15% of women over 50 feel spoken to by beauty brands.
The fact is, the shift away from anti-ageing is happening as we speak, and it’s a case of sisters doing it for themselves. The generation hitting middle age right now (Gen X) simply doesn’t identify with the old tropes, as evidenced by the Grey Hair Movement that’s seeing women embrace what society deems as a marker of age, and looking all the more radiant for it. In ads, we already see far more older women than before, spearheaded by the no-BS Helen Mirren (76) and powerhouse Viola Davis (56), both employed by L’Oréal to represent the mature woman we want to be. They were preceded by the real women Dove has used in its Real Beauty Pledge campaigns, comprising its Pro Age body range. But the trend is noticeably accelerating. “Our physical and mental health came into sharp focus during the pandemic, and we’ve learnt to value them. Many of us no longer want to invest in products that don’t support them,” says Nicola. And because women over 50 are the most lucrative demographic for brands to target (accounting for over 60% of the UK beauty market and predicted to represent a £430 billion business opportunity worldwide by 2025), what we want for ourselves is what brands will scramble to provide. Healthy, radiant ageing is the future – you just need to insist on it.
Inge is author of Great Skin: Secrets The Beauty Industry Doesn’t Tell You