Beauty Redefined Blog

Get Injections or Get Lost: Media’s Options for Women of a Certain Age



If you lived in a high-tech cave and everything you knew about humans came from mainstream media, you’d be shocked to find out a couple facts:

1) Female humans do not die or crawl into their own caves to disappear at age 40.

2) As female humans (and all 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.

Thankfully, most people have the ability to see a variety of females face-to-face to disprove those laughable media myths of women disappearing as they age or maintaining their teenage faces and bodies throughout their entire lives. 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. From 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).

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, 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.”

Tyler Perry as Madea

But aside from the monster oversight in underrepresenting 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” this week (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.

Nora Ephron wasn’t the only one who felt bad about her neck!

Back in 2006, Nora Ephron, a successful screenwriter who passed away in June, 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.

Faith Hill on the July 2007 Redbook cover. Right arm? Suddenly appeared on the cover. Left arm? Cut down by at least 1/3 of its original size. Wrinkles, normal complexion or any other signs of life on her face? Erased. Back? Sliced out almost entirely. Enough said.

A 2009 Oil of Olay eye cream ad featuring Twiggy — one of the world’s biggest modeling/fashion icons for more than a decade, now she’s relegated to the unglamorous realm of photoshopping disasters for beauty industries lies. Straight-up lies. Amazingly, this ad was banned by the UK’s advertising watchdog after more than 700 complaints were gathered for a campaign against airbrushing in ads by the Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson. The ad was deemed to be misleading. Um … yep!

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.

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. 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. But when I look at my own mom, who I’ve never doubted is incredibly beautiful, and I see her very real face with very natural smile lines, it helps me feel OK about the newly appearing creases around my own eyes. My first thought isn’t how unnatural and unacceptable those lines are and how quick I can start my first round of Botox. It’s that they’re OK. They’re normal. They don’t detract from me. They make me ME. My mom doesn’t need injections in her face to fix anything or make her more beautiful, and I don’t either. But if she ever decides to, I would understand. The pressure to Photoshop ourselves into hopeful conformity with beauty ideals is intense, and backlash against female aging is unbelievable. At 26, 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.

But if my mom doesn’t succumb to the pressure to change her physical reality and, in turn, my own reality of what women’s faces and bodies can look like and should look like, I will be forever grateful. My own smile lines will show it.

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: 

*There’s a wonderful organization called Invisible Women that is working to fight agains the underrepresentation 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.

  1. Marci

    I absolutely DETEST how women are made to feel ashamed of themselves for showing signs of age! As someone who lost my mother way before her time, I know that growing old is a Privilege not a curse. Of course our bodies will show signs of use after several years and that’s perfectly OK! I like to think that whatever wrinkles I have are signs of EXPERIENCE.

    Screw the media and society for telling me that I should be spending my time, energy and money on trying to recapture my youth! Been there, done that. WHY go backwards?? I am so much smarter than I used to be and won’t waste a second trying to smooth out the lines I’ve EARNED through living!

  2. Kate

    Want to be wrinkle free? Never laugh, smile, cry, frown, scowl or speak. Simple enough! ;)

  3. Kristie

    My mom is an aesthetician and is completely obsessed with having young looking skin. She’s in her late 50s, but looks like she’s in her 40s. That’s fine and all, but my whole life, she has spent a half hour in the morning and again at night applying serums, chemical peels, moisturizers and anything else you can think of. I wish that time had been spent with me or my sister. I don’t think it’s worth it. I have already decided to age gracefully and naturally. Besides, silver and white hair is gorgeous in my opinion. Laugh lines are amazing. Aging is a natural, wonderful part of life. I wish society would stop portraying it as something so horrifying.

  4. AitchCS

    So then the long gray haired model in the new American Apparel ads progress?

  5. Leia

    The only older women I can think of in Disney movies who are not the bad guys are the three fairies from Sleeping Beauty. They are amazing, but too bad it’s not more common.

    • Tori

      Cinderella’s fairy godmother too, yes? I remember her looking fairly similar to the Sleeping Beauty fairies. But I agree — these representations are: 1) not at all the norm; 2) not actually human, for that matter.

  6. Lauren

    I read the advice collumn in the paper a few weeks ago, and I was dismayed to read that this “expert” had advised someone to “stop making faces” to avoid getting wrinkles. She used the exaggerated expressions people use when talking to babies as an example of what NOT to do. I really hope it was young in cheek, but I think she was serious. I guess she has already accepted that expressive faces are a thing of the past. Not me! I’ll make faces all day long if it makes my baby laugh.

  7. Daffodil11

    Spot on observations.

    Although I don’t normally watch network news, I recently saw Diane Sawyer. The soft focus was the first thing I saw when I looked at the screen. No wrinkles there!

    It’s a process that Barbara Walters perfected. The soft focus on her interview shows was overdone.
    Anyway, I can give “beauty” stuff a bit of a pass, but the message to us from the supposed serious women is that wrinkles are to be avoided at all cost. I don’t remember seeing Tom Brokow being soft focused.

    I wonder if Barbara and Diane requested it, or if it was “suggested” to them. I guessing the former…

  8. Richard

    Sadly ageism for women isn’t limited to the commercial media. Here in the UK, there’s been a big controversy lately about female newsreaders over a certain age being less than welcome on screen- *on the BBC*. As any Brit will know the BBC carries no advertising on domestic channels (though it does for services abroad) and therefore no impetus to push anti-ageing treatments (which like most adverts for hair and ‘beauty’ products I am fed up with seeing*). Yet this still happens. And worse, there are vague indications this assumption seems to be carrying over to the radio too! Which just goes to show how deeply, if true, this assumption has infected society.

    *Well, then again I’m fed up with seeing advertising full stop. The whole lot is fake and utterly ridiculous in at least 90% of its content, at a guess.

  9. Kama

    I became aware of how much of this is really going on when at age 44 I had an allergic reaction to hair dye. For two years I had health issues, including a failing liver. It took two years for me to realise that it was the hair dye. I finally made the connection when hair dye burnt my scalp. I made the healthy decision to stop dyeing my hair and to let it go grey. I was not prepared for the fear and panic that those around me would feel. Women began to tell me I would be old and unlovable if I stopped colouring my hair. I was shocked by the response. Were people so blinded by the impact of beauty messages in society that they didn’t even consider health? Seems they were.

    At first upset, over time I learnt to ignore the comments. Then something amazing happened. I found back to my true inner confidence. I began to feel more feminine and confident than I have ever done before. This experience was life changing. I released myself from the bonds of society expectations and it was such a wonderful, freeing, feeling.

    My business changed direction slightly as I now support women to feel confident being who they truly are. Confidence comes from within. Somehow society has lost track of that, we have become obsessed with the external. I have taken videos of my journey to grey which you can find on youtube “Gracefully Natural”

    Maybe we have started taking it too seriously. Is it time to relax and be comfortable in our own skin and to start playing through life.

    • Janine Watson
      Janine Watson10-18-2012

      Good Morning Kama, I never take things around them to serious,if I ever did that I would be a stress head.Life only comes around once,so therefore you enjoy it as much as you can, life isn`t about worrying about what your hair looks like or your arm is shorter than the other,its about loving herself for who you are,making people smile,being kind and compassionate to whoever you meet.I always say Beauty is only skin deep,its what`s on the inside that counts.You are a beautiful person and always believe in yourself.

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