Shedding Society’s Image of What “Good” Skin Care Looks Like for Older Women

Everyone ages. And when this happens, wrinkles, lines, and deep folds can develop on our faces. Skin can become loose, sagging, dry, and discolored. Biological aging is primarily responsible, but lifestyle matters. Too much time in the sun, smoking, lack of exercise, unhealthy eating habits, and stressful lifestyles are well-known culprits.

As much as these physical changes occur for both women and men, women are often the main societal target for judgment and assessment of “how well they are aging.”

Not surprisingly, the multibillion-dollar global skincare industry then targets women as consumers of their products and services. All kinds of solutions are out there, and product awareness and availability are growing.

Today, women can select from a vast array of anti-wrinkle, firming, and skin tone creams and lotions—moisturizers, exfoliators, and depigmenting products. More aggressive solutions include skin procedures such as Botox injections, dermal filler treatments, microdermabrasion, chemical peels, laser therapy treatments, and cosmetic surgeries (e.g., facelifts).

So how do women feel about their aging faces?

  • Do you feel inferior—and even invisible and marginalized—because others may consider you unattractive?

  • Should you guiltlessly use anti-aging products to turn back the clock and feel thankful you have so many skincare options?

  • Or do you only employ these skin care solutions because of social pressures to look younger?

  • Should you even worry about losing your youthful physical appearance? Instead, should you view your aging skin positively—as a measure of maturity and wisdom, and ignore what others think?

There is definitely no shortage of opinions.

Unlike other body changes, our face is always on display. Possibly even more telling—how we feel and behave with our wrinkles and lines can also reveal our views and acceptance of aging.

One thing we have learned from human history is that beauty standards are highly subjective and hotly debated. But I believe the good news is that women can age optimally, irrespective of whether they reject or embrace these skincare solutions. This is unquestionably a case of there being no right or wrong answer.

To attempt an understanding of the differences in how women may view the aging changes to their facial appearance, I have developed three different profiles. I don’t believe that you will necessarily embody only a single profile. Depending on your life situation and changing experiences, you may actually find yourself moving between them.

The Naturalists

Naturalists view their aging faces as a natural outcome of getting old. They reject the notion that younger-looking skin should be the standard to judge beauty or desirability. They bemoan living in an ageist society that celebrates youth and simplistically equates getting old with declines and losses.

Their looks do not prevent them from living a healthy, confident, and active lifestyle.

They proudly display their wrinkles as a badge of honor. Their wrinkles communicate experience, accomplishments, and wisdom. In one woman’s words, “the young should see the lines and aging on someone’s face as a marker of the life they’ve been lucky to live.”

Consequently, they have little motivation to do anything to counter their changed looks. They are the most unlikely consumers of skincare products and procedures. Fueling their decision is recognizing that older men are seldom expected to display a youthful appearance.

The Modifiers

The women in this second group hold a different view. Perceiving their older faces as less attractive, they strive to mask or alter the physical signs of aging.

Most will rely on more moderate measures—creams, lotions, and less-invasive skin procedures. Looking as they did in their 20s is typically not their goal. They don’t seek to reverse the aging process, but, at the same time, they want to look their best.

A smaller share will more vigorously attack their perceived facial imperfections. To regain their once youthful appearance, they will embrace anti-aging solutions, such as cosmetic surgery procedures (e.g., facelifts).

All the women in this group generally feel that “bad” skin makes them appear sad, angry, tired, or depressed. But inside, they feel the opposite—happy, good, energetic, and sure of themselves. “They want things to match.” As expressed by one prominent 80-year-old New Yorker:

“It’s how you feel about yourself, and that’s really what it is. I know I look well and that makes me happy. And I know that I can face the world like I did when I was 30 or 40 or 50.… I don’t try to look young, and I don’t want to look young,” she said. “I want to look terrific.

For people like her, the reasons for using skincare solutions are straightforward:

  • To improve self-confidence and self-esteem

  • To feel more attractive

  • To look and feel healthier

  • To look like you care

  • To make it easier to face the day

These women also embrace these solutions because they strive to maintain self-continuity.

Throughout their adult lives, they have relied on cosmetics to improve their appearance and feel beautiful. How they think about themselves does not suddenly change after reaching a particular chronological age.

They are products of their past behaviors, beliefs, and memories. The older woman lamenting how she now doesn’t feel that different from her earlier self and doesn’t want to feel different in her future exemplifies these sentiments. Now their facial care regimens keep this continuity intact.

There are spillover effects for this approach. People enjoy better physical health and even greater longevity when they feel good about themselves. In contrast, when they hold negative beliefs about their aging selves—as when they don’t like their looks—they confront an increased risk of bad outcomes, such as hopelessness, depression, dementia, frailty, stroke, and heart disease.

Of course, these women are not immune from the powerful marketing influences of the skincare industry. But they are not unthinking and easily persuaded consumers.

Over their lifetimes, they have seen and heard it all.” They are the most educated, proactive, self-reliant, health-conscious, work-savvy, and entrepreneurial generation of older women in history.

Unlike their mothers, they are more “fashion and appearance conscious.” Consequently, their purchasing decisions reflect their personal choices about changing their appearance.

Higher educational attainment is especially crucial because it positively correlates with older women’s beliefs that they have more control over their bodies. Possessing this sense of agency, they feel capable of tackling adversity and influencing the quality of their lives.

Consequently, they don’t view the cosmetic industry as a capitalistic enemy profiting from their fears of becoming old. Why should they? Their solutions help them to compensate for and deal with age-related changes.

The Conformists

Like the Naturalists, women in the Conformists group believe that their aging faces are a natural outcome of a successful past life. They are fine with their looks. But they are also acutely aware of their society’s ageist attitudes and behaviors—that portray older people as undesirable because they believe they are less physically attractive than the young.

They resent these views and could do without the self-serving messaging of the skincare industry. But to be dismissive like the Naturalists is not in their best interests.

They need and want to function in this youth-oriented world. They are still in the workforce or seeking employment. They seek to enjoy active, healthy, and visible lifestyles. They may be interested in new romantic relationships. Others strive to remain physically attractive to their partners.

In all these pursuits, appearance matters—especially to those who can influence their welfare.

Consequently, the skincare solutions adopted by the Conformists mimic those of the Modifiers. However, there is a difference. Their actions are less of their own volition.

Even as they feel in control over most aspects of their lives, social pressures compel them to “fix” their aging faces. This is true for even the most powerful women. Witness well-known older female celebrities who have cosmetic surgeries to maintain popularity.

The reasoning behind their decision-making is not remarkable. The women in this Conformists group are not muckrakers. They cannot single-handedly effect change and must selectively pick their battles. Taking a stand against societal expectations that dictate how they should look in their older years is low on their bucket list.

All Three Groups of Women Are Aging Optimally

It might seem surprising to argue that all the women in these three groups are success stories. But, in fact, they are all aging optimally. To understand this conclusion, we must clarify the meaning of this term.

Aging individuals often cannot avoid unfortunate assaults on their bodies. These make it difficult to perform everyday physical, social, or intellectual activities, saddle us with difficult-to-manage chronic health problems, or make us feel less attractive. Those who age optimally, however, do not passively accept these changes—they do not let them define who they are.

Instead, they may de-emphasize how these changes influence the conduct of their lives.

Alternatively, they try to alleviate their effects. They select new pursuits or goals that are both desirable and attainable despite their limitations. They then change their behaviors and lifestyles to optimize their physical and mental capabilities, social relationships, and productivity. They strive for positive emotional experiences that are meaningful and fulfilling.

This is what aging optimally is all about.

Each of the three groups of women chooses different roads to this end. There is no one correct pathway to aging optimally.

The Naturalists appraise their aging faces as unimportant and unlikely to disrupt their goals, lifestyles, and healthy aging. They are happy with who they are and do not need cosmetic fixes.

The Modifiers interpret their facial changes as antagonistic to feeling and performing at their peak selves. They embrace skincare solutions to feel their best as they have done throughout their lives.

And the Conformists, like the Naturalists, also do not feel troubled by their aging skin. But they cannot ignore those social pressures demanding they look younger. To age optimally—achieve their goals and pursuits—they must take advantage of skincare solutions.

The fact that all these women are aging optimally should give us pause. It warns against singling out a particular group for criticism.

Unfortunately, this condemnation is happening now.

The Modifiers and the Conformists are targeted because they camouflage the aging of their faces by using skin care products and procedures. Yet, those making these unfair and discriminatory judgments are exhibiting ageist behaviors themselves. They are shaming a subgroup of older persons because of how they choose to manage their lives.

Closing Thoughts

How women choose to age and the societal judgments that are often associated with this will not be going away anytime soon. Over the next 20 years, aging boomers—dominated by women who live longer—will become more visible worldwide.

How we perceive our faces will be a telling barometer of how we feel about getting old. And how we respond to our changing appearance will influence our ability to age optimally.

Cosmetic companies and dermatologists take note. Women are actively making choices about how they choose to age, so how you represent and market your skincare solutions will be much more highly scrutinized and not so easily sold.

Stephen M. Golant, PhD, is a leading national speaker, author, and researcher on the housing, mobility, transportation, and long-term care needs of older adult populations. He is a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, a Fulbright Senior Scholar award recipient, and a Professor at the University of Florida. Golant’s latest book is Aging in The Right Place, published by Health Professions Press. You can contact him at 

This article was originally published on Booming Encore and has been republished with permission.

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