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Free the wrinkle

The pandemic could help Americans finally embrace aging skin.

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Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Consider the wrinkle.

Formed when skin loses elasticity over time, wrinkles are one of the hallmarks of the aging process. Though everyone’s skin ages differently, almost all of us can expect to see at least a few creases as the years go by.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their universality, wrinkles remain one of the most stigmatized aspects of human appearance: there’s a nearly $200 billion industry devoted to smoothing them out, filling them in, and (supposedly) preventing them from cropping up in the first place.

“We live in a patriarchal, heterosexist, capitalist society where if wrinkles and signs of aging are held forth as a problem, we can be persuaded to buy shit,” Ashton Applewhite, author of the book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, told Vox.

The stigma against wrinkles has been remarkably stubborn — for example, while a movement toward body positivity and size diversity has led to more brands highlighting models above a size 6 (though not always making larger clothes for actual customers), it’s still rare to see a wrinkled face in ads, even for brands aimed at older women.

But this might be starting to change, especially since the pandemic has Americans rethinking their relationship to their appearance in all kinds of ways. After letting their roots grow out in lockdown, some are embracing gray hair. Experts are offering advice for accepting changes to our bodies after a traumatic year, including weight gain and aging skin. Celebrities like Katie Couric and Justine Bateman are posing without makeup and making an effort to normalize faces that change with time. And Kate Winslet recently made headlines for insisting that her wrinkles go un-retouched on posters for HBO’s Mare of Easttown.

The bias against aging skin has deep roots in American culture, and in some ways seems as entrenched as ever — see, for instance, the supposed “Zoom boom,” a rise in plastic surgery among people tired of looking at their faces on video calls. But the last year has also been a time of rejecting beauty norms that seemed increasingly onerous or pointless, as well as growing awareness around the problems of ageism, as many advocates pushed back on the idea that the elderly and others who were especially vulnerable to Covid-19 were somehow disposable. And after a period of unprecedented trauma, more people may be interested in embracing what wrinkles mean — that you’ve been lucky enough to make it to old age.

“The culture is absolutely moving in the right direction,” Applewhite said.

Wrinkle stigma has a long history

Anti-aging treatments are far from new. Cosmetic modifications to the face date back to ancient Egypt, if not earlier, Zakia Rahman, a clinical professor of dermatology at Stanford University, told Vox. Many early treatments involved acids applied to the skin to stimulate collagen production and give a more youthful appearance.

Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, European women applied meat or wine to their faces in order to smooth out wrinkles (wine maybe kind of worked, according to Pacific Standard). A more drastic measure, the facelift, debuted in the early 1900s: a surgeon would make cuts around the hairline and pull the skin taut, reducing the appearance of wrinkles. Then, in 2002, came a game-changer: Botox was approved for cosmetic use. A toxin produced by bacteria, Botox paralyzes facial muscles, smoothing out wrinkles or even preventing them from forming in the first place.

“The history of skin care may one day be divided into its own epochs: B.B. (Before Botox) and A.B. (After Botox),” Allure declared in 2007.

During the 2009 recession, laid-off workers were given free Botox injections during an event called the “Botox Bailout” in Arlington, Virginia.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

But another development may have been even more influential in the history of aging and body image: the smartphone. With the rise of mobile devices and social media, the sheer number of images we’re exposed to every day has increased dramatically in recent years. Many of these images are carefully curated, with lighting, filters, and in some cases Photoshop, allowing users to present only idealized versions of themselves. But the photos we see, however edited they may be, “give us ideas of what is normal and what is beautiful,” Rahman said. “And oftentimes, we think that these images represent reality.”

“I’ve certainly seen in my practice that more and more people are coming in wanting to look like an image that they’ve seen on Instagram or a video they bring on TikTok,” Rahman added.

The same distorted reality is evident in Hollywood, where, it seems, only men’s faces wrinkle as they age. The double standard is clear in TV shows like 2020’s The Undoing, in which Hugh Grant displayed the lined face of a 60-year-old man (he is 60), while Nicole Kidman, 53, appeared preternaturally smooth-skinned. And the onslaught of images like this can lead to pressure to look a certain way as we get older — as well as judgment if we don’t. “Visible signs of aging are held against us, especially women,” Applewhite said.

And it’s not just about critical comments. Older women can face ageism in workplaces and in hiring, with one 2017 study showing that the older a woman was, the less likely she was to hear back from prospective employers about job applications. Given this, it’s not a shock that many women would fear the tell-tale signs that age leaves on their faces. “The discrimination is real,” Applewhite said.

The body positivity movement has moved the needle — but only a little

In recent years, movements around body positivity have sought to expand definitions of beauty beyond the thin, white, young ideal that so often dominates mainstream fashion and media. Beginning around 2008, for example, body positivity advocates began posting photos, essays, and poetry on Tumblr and Facebook in an effort to “normalize being bigger and being happy, or being bigger and just being comfortable in your skin,” Stephanie Yeboah, a blogger and author of the book Fattily Ever After: A Black Fat Girl’s Guide to Living Life Unapologetically. Predominantly led by “larger fat Black women,” the movement was “a safe space for marginalized bodies to come together and celebrate and normalize ourselves,” Yeboah said.

Over time, body positivity entered the mainstream, with brands featuring more plus-size models and offering clothes in larger sizes. And that also translated to a more inclusive definition of beauty beyond just size, Yeboah said, as more campaigns began to feature disabled or older models as well. UK retailer Marks & Spencer, for example, has used older women in ads, as have fashion houses Lanvin and Céline (the latter famously featured 80-year-old Joan Didion in a 2015 campaign that quickly went viral).

However, the mainstream embrace of body positivity has its limits. Even when brands use plus-size models, they often choose white or white-passing women with hourglass figures and small stomachs — people who are seen as “good fat,” Yeboah said. Meanwhile, older models used in ad campaigns also tend to be white.

In general, the public conversation around aging and anti-aging has tended to center white people and white skin, as well. In part, that’s because of a perception that “Black women age less quickly than everybody else,” Yeboah said.

It’s true that melanin, a pigment present at higher levels in darker skin, provides some protection from sun damage and therefore from winkles. “Think of it as an umbrella,” Rahman said. It’s also true that Black communities and other communities of color have conversations and beliefs around aging and bodies that diverge from the negative messages handed down by mainstream media.

“There’s a certain status that is given to older people of color” within their communities, Afiya Mbilishaka, a clinical psychologist who studies the psychology of beauty, told Vox. “They were able to thrive in this society that often is focused on their demise.”

Magazines like Essence and Ebony have often celebrated the beauty of older Black celebrities, Mbilishaka said. Actors Cicely Tyson and Angela Bassett have been especially held up as icons of beautiful aging. And “grandmothers have a very particular power status in Black families,” she added. “We really honor the aging process. We celebrate it. We want people to live a long time.”

Still, the exclusion of Black people and other people of color from mainstream conversations around aging remains problematic, Yeboah said. While the idea that Black women don’t age or don’t worry about aging might sound nice, “it’s still kind of marginalizing and cutting off a demographic of women,” she explained.

And even if older women of color are celebrated within their communities, they can face intertwined ageism and racism in mainstream media, which also shows up in society as a whole. In movies and TV, older Black women often show up either in “matronly subservient roles” as maids or nurses, or harsh disciplinarian roles like police commissioners, Yeboah said. “They’re never really given their moment to really show up for themselves and to live their best lives.”

The pandemic could push society to rethink wrinkles

While the body positivity movement provided one opportunity to challenge the stigma around wrinkles, the pandemic may offer another. After all, when lockdowns forced hair salons to close, many women missed their dye appointments and started letting their hair go gray. And while some went back as soon as they could, others decided to stick with their new silver hue. The New Yorker chronicled some of these transformations in a recent photo feature. “When I see friends whom I have known since I was thirteen, and they are gray, I think, ‘Wow, we are older,’” one woman, Sabrina Spencer, told the magazine. “But I don’t see it as negative.”

The trend could be a broader sign of changing attitudes toward visible signs of aging, including wrinkles, Applewhite said: “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be so tyrannized by them.”

Recent months have also seen a number of celebrities and other public figures speak out about embracing older skin. For example, in Face: One Square Foot of Skin, published this April, author and filmmaker (and a star of the 1980s sitcom Family Ties) Justine Bateman explores women’s relationships to their wrinkles. Bateman was inspired to write the book after she tried Googling herself and found the search autocompleted to “Justine Bateman looks old.”

“It messed with my head far more than I thought it would,” she told Vox. But the experience led her to think about larger social attitudes toward aging: “What fears do we have as a group that are acting as anchors for this idea that women’s faces are broken and need to be fixed?”

Today, her message to readers is that they can interrogate these fears rather than feeling they have to alter their appearance to please someone else. “You don’t have to go along with this idea that your face is hideous,” she said. “You have a choice.”

Others, too, have recently used their platforms to normalize wrinkles. Katie Couric, for example, posed without makeup for a March spread in People magazine, saying, “When we start seeing women as they age and appreciate the beauty that comes with that, women will stop trying to look young all the time.” Earlier this month, actress Shannen Doherty posted a makeup-free selfie on Instagram, writing, “Watching movies tonight and noticed there were few female characters I could relate to. You know, women without fillers, without Botox, without a facelift.”

“I have lived,” she added. “I love that I’ve lived and that my face reflects my life.”

Kate Winslet sent a similar message in promoting Mare of Easttown, in which she plays an unglamorous middle-aged detective. The actress initially sent a promo poster for the show back because her skin was too retouched, she told the New York Times: “I’m like ‘Guys, I know how many lines I have by the side of my eye, please put them all back.’”

Her character, Mare Sheehan, is “a fully functioning, flawed woman with a body and a face that moves in a way that is synonymous with her age and her life and where she comes from,” Winslet added. “I think we’re starved of that a bit.”

Meanwhile, makeup brand Ilia Beauty has been getting attention for featuring older women with visible wrinkles on its Instagram, either on their own or paired with their daughters.

Such moments of wrinkle visibility could be heightened by the current historical moment. Indeed, the pandemic might be changing cultural attitudes around aging and life experiences, encouraging people to celebrate the bodies that have taken them through hard times and shining a bright light on ageism across society. When Covid-19 first began spreading in America, many dismissed it as only afflicting the old and sick, a dismissal that may even have led to worse health care for elderly patients. But now, there’s a growing awareness of the role of age discrimination in the pandemic and beyond.

In March, for example, the World Health Organization launched the new Global Campaign to Combat Ageism, which “aims to change the narrative around age and ageing and help create a world for all ages.”

The pandemic “exposed the prejudice that has been all around us all along,” Applewhite said. “It brought age and aging out of the corner, out of the shadows.”

The last year has also been a time when many people reconsidered their priorities, including the time and effort they spend on their appearance. “As the stressors and anxieties of the past year mounted, many people became comfortable with long, gray hair, bushy beards, makeup- or Botox-free faces, and extra pounds,” clinical psychologist Jelena Kecmanovic wrote in the Washington Post. “For some, this went hand-in-hand with a more natural, mindful way of living.”

Some people just became less self-conscious about their looks over the last 18 months, Mbilishaka said — “because it’s a pandemic, and who cares?”

To normalize wrinkles, we have to embrace aging in general

Of course, the pandemic also forced many people to spend their workdays on Zoom, which may have encouraged them to focus on their wrinkles. “There was this constant looking at the face,” Bateman said. “When’s the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror for an hour?”

And while getting Botox or forgoing it may be a decision for some people, not everyone has the luxury of choice when it comes to taking care of their skin. Someone who does manual labor outdoors may not be able to avoid the sun, for example, Mbilishaka said. And it’s important to recognize both the “extra income involved in beauty” (Botox can cost around $300-$600 per treatment, while fillers can start at more than $650) and the free time needed for anything from getting fillers to applying under-eye cream. Going without such treatments may be empowering for some people — for others, it’s just life.

More than just eschewing certain products, a true shift in the way we see older faces may require a change in how we see older people and their roles. American society needs “to really disrupt the concept of aging,” Mbilishaka said. “Just because someone is retired or not having more children doesn’t mean that they can’t make such a meaningful contribution.”

Beauty publications should not only feature older models (including those with actual wrinkles), but also hire older writers to make sure their experiences with skin care and products are being represented, Yeboah said. “Beauty doesn’t stop when you are 40.”

And while older people aren’t responsible for ending the stigma against them, they could still have a role to play. “If older women continue to, as a group, despise their own faces, all the women that are younger than them are going to be terrified of the second half of their life,” Bateman said. But if older women are able to love themselves and their skin, “then these younger women are going to look at the older women the same way an 8-year-old looks at a tween,” she explained: “like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t wait to be 12.’”

“Wouldn’t it be more fun if we were always looking forward, going like, ‘I can’t wait to be 50. I can’t wait to be 60, 70, 80,’” Bateman said. “‘I’m going to be rad like that.’”


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