The Case of the Disappearing Women Over 40: Anti-Aging and Symbolic Annihilation
If you lived on another planet and everything you knew about humans came from mainstream media, you’d be absolutely shocked to find out a couple of facts:
1) Female humans do not die or crawl into caves to disappear at age 40 while male humans live much longer, active lives.
2) As female humans age, they tend to develop lines on their faces where facial movements occur, as well as looser skin, darker spots from the sun, gray or white hair, and other features that distinguish them from teenagers as they progress throughout their lifetimes. This is NOT only true for men.
Thankfully, most people have the ability to see a variety of females face-to-face to disprove those laughable media myths of women disappearing with age or perpetual teenage faces and bodies. Unfortunately, that ability to see reality hasn’t put a dent in the anti-aging industries that sell extreme appearance anxiety for record profits each year. But still, that’s what we want to focus on here: reality. Most notably, we want to emphasize how shockingly different reality looks from the ever-present and powerful media world, and how that impacts real, aging people. Once we recognize the effects of the anti-female-aging phenomenon that what we’re buying into by the billions, we can fight back!
From local or national nightly news to children’s cartoons, people over 40 are drastically underrepresented in all forms of media, despite the fact that they make up the majority of the population. A whopping 62 percent of the female population of the U.S. is over 40. But get this: Older men appear as much as 10 times more frequently than older women in media (1). Even when film depictions of relationships feature older men, their girlfriends and wives are most often decades younger (for more evidence, see this cool piece on how leading men age, but their ladies do not, including graphs documenting age differences). We could probably call this the Liam Neeson/Olivia Wilde phenomenon (see right side of graph). Men in all forms of media are featured well into their 70s while women tend to start becoming invisible in media right around age 40. Academics even have a name for this egregious level of under-representation: symbolic annihilation. Unfortunately, the effects of that annihilation on women’s body image, feelings of self-worth and bank accounts aren’t so symbolic.
With an extremely low number of women over 40 represented in media at all, the WAY they’re represented becomes especially important. And once again, the news isn’t good. Headline #1: Older Women are Portrayed in Negative Ways Much More Often than Men. Think of the wise, funny, intelligent, “sexy” image represented by men in media well into their 50s, 60s and even later – Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood – it isn’t hard to think of a list of examples from past or present. Trying to come up with female equivalents is much more difficult. It’s rare to think of really positive portrayals of women over 40 – NOT the neurotic, crazy, evil, out-of-touch-with-reality characters that are most prominent. Betty White is one notable exception to this rule, as a truly funny, relatable, positive character in her many roles who isn’t simply the butt of jokes or the domineering mother-in-law.
Studies show the vast majority of any older mom, grandma, aunt, boss, teacher, queen or extraneous female character over 40 in any media fits a negative stereotype (2). And that sucks. The largest segment of the population is not seeing themselves represented, and when they do, it’s in negative ways*. What’s more, that information is only about white women. We don’t have any accurate information about how older women from other races are represented. Why? Because there aren’t enough examples to generate any significant findings. One study examined 835 TV characters and found only four African American characters over the age of 60. I’m no math whiz, but 4 out of 835 is a sad statistic. Interestingly, the most popular older woman of color in media happens to be played by a 42-year-old black man, Tyler Perry, as the much-loved “Madea.”
But aside from the monster oversight in under-representing and misrepresenting older women, mainstream media knows exactly what it is doing when it comes to that huge, money-packing demographic. Excellent business decision #1: Convince women their value entirely depends on their appearance, and that aging is the worst thing that could happen to their appearance. And don’t forget, older women are THE WORST – gross cougars, not hot, totally out of touch with the real world, neurotic … OR age-defying wonders! Then, convince them it’s possible to entirely stop aging and look 15 years younger with these products. Since people over age 50 own 70 percent of the total net worth of American households (4), targeting this powerful demographic is a strategic move — especially considering that women over 40 influence 80 percent of the purchasing decisions in the U.S. (5). I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the age-old “fountain of youth,” which has long been fabled to stop the aging process entirely, has been discovered! It’s being marketed and sold to women in the U.S. and raking in billions for several different industries each year. You can see it in countless magazines, billboards, commercials, TV shows or movies – you know, the 55+ year-old women with zero signs of aging. No lines or wrinkles, tight skin all over, no signs of silver hair sparkling through their thick, flowing brunette and blonde heads of hair. We rarely see an older woman in media, but when we do, she generally fits that description. These women have obviously partaken of the fountain of youth, but what did the trick?!
Media’s totally normal-appearing ageless older women are the product of two tricks: cosmetic procedures and digital alteration. Whether we like it or not, we start to look different as we age. For men, those changes are most often** depicted as looking “distinguished” and aren’t something for men to be ashamed of. For women, those changes are to be immediately stopped, reversed and hidden at all costs. Seriously, ALL costs – financially, time-wise and health-wise. Because you’re worth it.
Let’s talk about Botox, baby. Plastic surgery is the most profitable industry in the U.S., and Botox is the No. 1 cosmetic treatment. That means, last year about 5.7 million people had Botulinum Toxin injected into their facial muscles in order to paralyze them and conceal the appearance of wrinkles, which must be repeated every 3-6 months. About 92 percent of those who got Botox were women. The next most popular procedures were all also for “anti-aging,” including soft tissue fillers, hyaluronic acid and chemical peels. All of those procedures were up between 5 and 9 percent from 2011 to 2010 (6) for women young and old, making those frozen faces a universal pressure for females of all ages.
While watching “The Bachelorette” last year (I know, I know, not the greatest choice), my beautiful, 27-year-old friend proclaimed that she had “the forehead of a 90-year-old woman.” What prompted that (extremely untrue) declaration? Emily, the beautiful bachelorette, who is our same age, has a perfectly smooth, line-less face. So does every other woman on TV, in movies or in magazines. Lineless and expression-free starts to look normal and ideal, while real-life, expression-ful(?) faces look abnormal and sub-par. Yikes.
That’s why, in just the last decade, there has been a 446 percent increase in cosmetic procedures in the U.S., which raked in $12 billion in 2010 alone. The American Academy of Plastic Surgeons called laser de-wrinkling procedures “recession proof.” It’s a little startling that in the toughest economic times in decades, women are still sacrificing thousands of dollars for painful and temporary procedures to prevent the appearance of aging.
Back in 2006, Nora Ephron, a successful screenwriter who passed away in June 2012, taught my naïve 20-something self a sad fact about body anxiety when I saw her on Oprah. I had no idea older women felt bad about their necks. She was discussing her smash hit book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman,” which quickly became a New York Times bestseller. What I’ve learned since then is that Nora’s humorous acknowledgment that she was embarrassed about the way her neck looked struck a major chord with women all over the world because it’s a hugely common feeling. The skin in our necks (and everywhere) loses elasticity as we age, but despite the painful plethora of procedures available for concealing age on faces, hands and everywhere else, there aren’t any quick fixes for making necks look younger than they are.
But that brings us to the other fountain of youth trick: Digital Alteration. If a woman isn’t outrageously gorgeous, thin and young-looking for her age, she’s almost always either Photoshopped to look that way or is completely invisible in mainstream media. This DOES have an effect. These pervasive, nearly inescapably and strikingly consistent images of young-looking older women create not just a new ideal for female beauty, but a new normal for us.
Our Photoshop Phoniness Hall of Shame sheds some light on the extreme abnormality of those images by pairing before-and-after alteration shots. A couple of epic age-defying examples are Faith Hill on the cover of Redbook and Twiggy in Olay’s eye cream ads.
These aren’t two freak accidents — these are daily deliberate decisions by media powerholders who profit from female anxiety about our faces and bodies. They claim to sell the keys to the fountain of youth at every drug store in the nation, but the only real solution to aging lies in the hands of their photo editors. Ever noticed the stark difference in the way men’s faces are portrayed compared to women’s faces in mass media — whether it’s the cover of GQ or a Chanel ad? Here’s an extremely telling example we pieced together, featuring about as comparable of a pairing as you could ever find: similar age, both major celebrities, both in ads for the same company from the same year. Just one major difference: one is a human face and one is a cartoon.
Wonder why you never see women with gray hair featured positively in any sort of mainstream media? Because gray hair doesn’t make anyone any money. A very telling example from the must-read “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf is of a fashion magazine in the ’90s that featured a spread of beautiful gray-haired older women in all the latest fashions. Despite positive feedback from readers, one of the magazine’s main advertisers, Clairol, threatened to pull all its advertising support if gray-haired women were ever featured positively again. Thus, no gray-haired women are ever featured positively in any magazine that depends on beauty advertising dollars (hint: all of them).
One scary fact is that those great lengths women are going to in order to achieve a youthful ideal are not limited to surgical procedures and magic creams — they also include disordered eating of all types. Our friend Michelle Konstantinovsky at HelloGiggles reported on a study from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, which found that in their sample of 1,900 women 50 and older, more than 60 percent of women said their body weight or shape negatively affected their lives and 13 percent admitted to having an eating disorder. We agree with Michelle in saying “duh” to the “surprising” new finding that older women also suffer from disordered eating.
But enough with the depressing stuff already. Let’s get to some solutions!
What can be done to break these body image issues? Importantly but not surprisingly, the researcher agrees with everything we preach at Beauty Redefined: The lead researcher’s main solution is to help women get themselves out of this “appearance focus.” She recommends instead of looking for flaws, women work on focusing on something positive about themselves — a characteristic that will endure long after their looks fade. Easier said than done, right? We can help you start with this list of totally doable strategies, including going on a media fast, complimenting others on more than their looks, shutting down negative thoughts, and many more. Please choose even just one, and start right now to change the way you perceive your own face and body. This isn’t an individual fight with individual effects. The way we feel about ourselves and treat our bodies has real influence on those around us, even if we aren’t aware of it.
Please consider your influence on the reality of the girls, women, boys and men in your life.
What would happen if confident, happy, beautiful women decided to forego painful and expensive anti-aging procedures, breast lifts and enhancements, liposuction, all-over hair removal or tanning regimens? How could that change the way their daughters, students, friends, nieces and coworkers perceived themselves and their own “flawed,” lined, real faces? How could simply owning (and treating kindly and speaking nicely about) our so-called “imperfect” bodies affect not only our own lives, but those over whom we have influence? Is it possible to slowly but deliberately change the perception of these “flaws” as something to shame, hide and fix at any cost to something acceptable and embraceable in all their human, womanly real-ness? We say yes.
Yes, maybe every 50-year-old woman on TV or movies has a wrinkle-free, perfectly injected and lifted face that appears ageless. The pressure to Photoshop ourselves into hopeful conformity with beauty ideals is intense, and backlash against female aging is unbelievable. At 27, I frankly don’t yet grasp the real pain and anxiety that accompanies aging and its effects on female faces and bodies that become invisible and worthless in some ways to a society that prizes youthful beauty above all else. Embracing your own beautiful reality and owning it for the others in your life is the epitome of redefining beauty. Media will continue to symbolically annihilate women who don’t fit money-making beauty ideals, but WE do not have to annihilate our own faces and bodies to fit those unreal standards. What we COULD annihilate is our allegiance to the idea that women have to look young forever, and that women who don’t look young forever aren’t worthwhile or beautiful. I promise that will be much more empowering and less painful. Let the anti-anti-aging annihilation begin!Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media. Sources: 1) Peterson, 1973; Harwood, 2007; T. Robinson & Anderson, 2006; Raman, Harwood, Weis, Anderson, & Miller, 2006; Stern and Mastro, 2004; Miller et al., 2007 2) Signorielli, 2004 3) Harwood and Anderson, 2002 4) L. Davis, 2002, cited in Harwood, 2007 5) Invisible Women, 2010 6) U.S. Plastic Surgery Statistics, April 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/jul/22/plastic-surgery-medicine#zoomed-picture
*There’s a wonderful organization called Invisible Women that is working to fight against the under-representation and misrepresentation of older women in media through a documentary and education outreach.
**This may start to change as media capitalize on sparking men’s insecurities as well as women’s – but it’s rare. Key example: Those men’s hair color commercials with the little girls convincing Dad to dye his hair and beard in order to get back in the dating game. Ugh. We don’t endorse this tactic. Evening the playing field by bringing down both men and women with body shame and appearance focus helps no one.
Note: This is an updated version of a previous post, written in July 2012. Just in case it looks familiar.