When did we become so obsessed with chasing a certain look? From Instagram’s selfie culture to how young women really feel about ageing, in our series Changing Faces we'll take a frank and poignant look at the complex and often strained relationship many of us have with our appearance — and how this has been exacerbated by social media over the years.
"Do not complain about growing old, it is a privilege denied to many," Mark Twain once mused. Amidst the backdrop of a pandemic, his words ring all the more true. Yet our collective obsession with growing older seems to know no bounds — particularly when it comes to our appearance.
For years, youthfulness has been something of a social currency and the beauty industry has been cashing in on our ageing insecurities big time. Countless skincare and makeup brands have been implicit in perpetuating fear and shame around ageing skin, labelling creams and serums "anti-ageing" or "anti-wrinkle", while on Instagram, natural faces peppered with lines have long been sidelined for impossibly smooth foreheads, tight jawlines and pillowy cheeks. Apps like Photoshop and various deceiving filters have a lot to answer for, but thanks to social media, tweakments such as Botox (commonly used to reduce wrinkles) and filler (used to firm up areas of the face) have become popular among those who want to look youthful.
The message? Ageing is something to be resisted.
If you're a Refinery29 regular, you'll know that this is a judgement-free zone. Shopping for anti-ageing skincare or opting for injectables (any kind of beauty procedure, for that matter) is a personal choice. But it's difficult to deny that the 'snatched', smooth and wrinkle-free face has become an exhausting beauty ideal to live up to — and it has cast ageing as a dirty word.
In a poll of Refinery29 UK's Instagram followers, sixty-two percent of respondents said that they had considered Botox or filler, while "looking jowly", "wrinkly" and "old in the face" are real beauty concerns that affect confidence and self-esteem. As social media evolves, we have tackled the stigma of things like facial hair, acne scars and cellulite. But the pressure to look forever young is the final frontier.
In a poll of Refinery29 UK's Instagram followers, sixty-two percent of respondents said that they had considered Botox or filler, while "looking jowly", "wrinkly" and "old in the face" are real beauty concerns.
As we navigate 2022, however, it seems an ageing revolution might be underway. It all starts with language. In 2018, The Royal Society for Public Health, Vision, Voice and Practice called on retailers like Boots and Superdrug to ban outdated phrases like anti-ageing. Though the campaign lost a little steam (and plenty of brands still use these words) there continues to be backlash against beauty giants which label their products so, as we become more aware of the effects of anti-ageing messaging on confidence and mental health.
"Anti-ageing" is embarrassingly out of date
An informal Instagram poll of magazine editor friends proved that anti-ageing language used by beauty brands is embarrassingly out of date. "It makes ageing seem like a problem, and somehow, it feels a little anti-feminist," said one. Another commented: "It's ageist bullshit. Women aren't allowed to show signs of wisdom or maturity." As a beauty editor, I was disappointed to see that Maybelline didn't get the memo, having labelled their new 4-in-1 Matte Makeup "instant anti-age". No makeup is going to turn back the clock. But it isn't the only brand to raise eyebrows recently.
Chanel's new No.1 de Chanel range includes a serum which supposedly has "an anti-ageing effect, that prevents and corrects the the appearance of the 5 signs of ageing". Though harmless on its own, the word "correct" has an indirect impact on the way we perceive skin ageing. It suggests that fine lines and wrinkles (entirely normal and natural) are a bad thing — something to be put right. Brands like Murad and RoC are just a handful which follow suit.
To advertise its new range, Chanel shared an Instagram post of a camellia flower, the star ingredient in the collection. The post was captioned, "How old do I look?" It wasn't long before the picture racked up comments and some took it personally. One wrote: "Age means nothing. Seriously don't ask yourself 'how old' you look. I'm sure we look amazing regardless of age or whatever new insecurity is being sold. We have so many amazing things to look forward to. I don't need Chanel telling me to find problems where there's no problems whatsoever." Another commented: "How old do I look? For real? Lets help people to get over their insecurities and don't give them more things to worry [about]. To all the women on this planet never ask yourself this question! Ask yourself how amazing do I look today."
The traditional and unrealistic beauty ideals of eternal youth are certainly becoming outdated.
It isn't just beauty industry insiders who are questioning anti-ageing messaging. This week, actor Jamie Lee Curtis campaigned that "anti-ageing has to be struck" as she attended the Radically Reframing Aging Summit. "I am an advocate now for natural beauty, because I do feel there has been a genocide on natural beauty," she told an audience. But anti-ageing terminology is also radically falling out of favour on social media among young women, too. As TikTok rivals Instagram, the video app feels more authentic compared to the glossy world of filtered images. In a viral video captioned: "YOU START AGEING AT 25!) follow me for more anti-ageing tips," TikToker @mattrandon cites drinking alcohol and eating sugar as ageing accelerators. The video amassed an enormous 5.8 million views and plenty of worried comments, but countless TikTokers pushed back against the harsh advice. The consensus? Let women age without calling their lifestyle choices into question.
@mattrandon YOU START AGING AT 25!💀(follow me for more anti-aging tips🥰 #skincare #skincareroutine #beauty #beautytips #tiktokpartner #learnontiktok #antiaging ♬ Bad (2012 Remaster) - Michael Jackson
"If you have to stop living to avoid a completely natural process, what's the point? Embrace it," wrote a TikToker in response. Another commented: "Or maybe let women age in peace," while one wrote: "Nah I'm not giving into it. I don't mind growing old appearance wise. It's just another stage of appearance, nothing else changes."
According to Dr Ana, cosmetic doctor and skincare expert, "the traditional and unrealistic beauty ideals of eternal youth are certainly becoming outdated." She continues, "We tend to avoid using negative terminology in clinic such as 'anti-ageing', and I have actually noticed a shift in focus from 'anti-ageing' routines towards healthier beauty standards recently." Dr Ana believes this may be a reaction to the heightened 'Zoom face' period, when patients were noticing new facial concerns during lockdown. "This is finally phasing out," she says. In a positive move, Dr Ana reports that patients are now asking to look and feel their best, rather than look 10 years younger like in previous years. "Instead of anti-ageing, we focus on refreshing, rejuvenating or optimising skin at any age. We shouldn't be fighting the ageing process, rather supporting and enjoying it in the healthiest possible way."
AVON's latest Future of Beauty Report predicts that the end of anti-ageing is nigh. It even throws out seemingly positive alternatives concepts like "pro-ageing" and champions "authentic ageing" instead. "Products that claim to preserve, emulate or recapture youth no longer speak to consumers," the report reads. "We appreciate now more than ever that ageing is a gift, and attitudes to ageing as a beauty concern have changed accordingly." Hannah Roberts, global brand director, notes the "stark realisation" that the pandemic has brought us in regard to getting older. "It's not something to be afraid of or a battle 'to win'. It's something to strive for," she said. In regard to skincare, Hannah anticipated that we'll soon see a shift in the narrative away from messages that we "should turn back time". Rather, the conversation will be about effective products that address specific skincare needs to promote healthy, happy skin at all ages.
Indeed, multiple brands are dropping words like 'wrinkles', 'tired skin' and 'fine lines' from their packaging altogether. Now, the focus is on refreshing skin and maintaining a glow. Take Korean skincare favourite Glow Recipe, for example, which opts for words like "bounce" and "plump". Similarly, breakthrough beauty brands like Byoma and CeraVe focus on keeping the skin barrier healthy with language such as "hydrating" and "protecting". These words hint at skin health and rejuvenation, but don't demonise the natural and inevitable ageing process.
While there is very little that can actually achieve 'anti-ageing' results, it doesn't stop there being a continual influx of products all geared towards anti-ageing, such an anti-wrinkle serums and anti-ageing creams.
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Most "anti-ageing" skincare is a scam
The move away from anti-ageing language makes sense, especially as experts argue that most anti-ageing skincare doesn't actually work. Consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto explains, "If we look at the clinical data, there are very few ingredients that are shown to have true anti-ageing or rejuvenation effects." She pinpoints retinoids as one of the only beneficial skincare ingredients for minimising the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles if that's what you're looking to achieve. "Unfortunately, this small section of ingredients isn't an ideal scenario for beauty industry marketers," says Dr Mahto. "While there is very little that can actually achieve 'anti-ageing' results (think injectables and in clinic treatments like laser, microneedling and a handful of topical ingredients) it doesn't stop there being a continual influx of products all geared towards anti-ageing, such an anti-wrinkle serums and anti-ageing creams."
In February, the FDA expressed concern in regard to cosmetics such as skincare products which boast anti-wrinkle and or anti-ageing claims. While popular skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid and polyglutamic acid may minimise fine lines, for example, they do so temporarily. Even collagen-enhancing ingredients like vitamin C and retinol can't prevent the predestined ageing process entirely. Anti-ageing skincare is no doubt misleading. Unsurprisingly, Dr Mahto says the many anti-ageing products that flood the industry are unlikely to have any tangible effect on the skin.
Botox is falling out of favour, say experts
Once only associated with high-earning celebrities and influencers, injectables like Botox to reduce wrinkles are now easy to come by. Not long ago, Superdrug announced it would be offering wrinkle injections and filler on the high street for as little as £99, and despite various lockdowns, it was reported that over 14 million nonsurgical procedures like Botox and filler took place globally in 2020. But according to industry professionals, the demand for anti-ageing treatments like these seems to be slowing down.
"I have noticed that fewer patients are asking specifically for injectables or invasive surgery," confirms Dr Ana. While she isn't afraid to turn away people who have unrealistic expectations of how they want their face to look, Dr Ana says this is becoming less frequent, as patients are realising the value of looking natural. Instead of injectables, Dr Ana says that a handful of patients are taking a more light-handed and gentle approach when it comes to skin rejuvenation. She identifies radiofrequency, lasers and microneedling as popular options.
Natasha Clancy is a celebrity facialist and founder of Kichi Studio in Mayfair. She hints that Botox's time might be up. "We're entering a new era that doesn't want — or have to — accept the frozen face look as we may have done previously," Natasha told R29. Her clients are increasingly avoiding the unnatural, expressionless look and simply want to appear refreshed. Respected facialists such as Lisa Harris and Joanna Czech have also recently spoken about their aversion to Botox injections. Lisa, who doesn't offer the procedure in her clinic, reports having to reverse the effects of bad injectables often, while Natasha explains that we don't actually know much about the long term impact of relaxing muscles regularly via anti-wrinkle injections.
When carried out by a qualified medical practitioner, Natasha says that Botox can be safe. But she continues, "Who's to say that the impact of freezing muscles won't have a negative impact with regards to speeding up the ageing process in later life?" Facialist Joanna Czech seconds this school of thought and recently told R29, "If you keep paralysing your muscles — especially the frontalis (the muscle which lifts the eyebrows) — it won't work the same over time."
Instead, Natasha says that her patients are focused on prioritising healthy skin instead of stalling the effects of ageing. Natasha avoids Botox and treats her patients with glow-enhancing lasers, like the LaseMD, alongside ingredients like retinol. "While Botox injections can reduce fine lines and wrinkles, they don't contribute to skin health. It's almost like putting on a plaster," says Natasha.
Skin texture is entirely normal
Thanks to real and refreshing influencers like Joanna Kenny, Rikki Sandhu and Alicia Lartey to name a few, we're beginning to see that skin texture — including fine lines and wrinkles — isn't anything to be ashamed of. The impossibly taut look is exhaustingly unattainable. It's now admirable to show off and embrace skin in all its natural, textured glory — and that goes for ageing skin, too. "Social media and filters are a significant detriment to the perception of normal and healthy skin," agrees Dr Ana, "but it is incredibly important to keep reminding ourselves to be kind when we look at our skin."
Dr Ana says that healthy skin is not perfect. "Normal skin has pores. Real skin has texture, and it has lines, too. These are all essential anatomical structures and are even present in a babies' and children's skin." She advises her patients, who may be self-conscious about ageing skin, to look at themselves in the mirror no closer than an arm's length distance. "There is really no positive outcome of closely inspecting your skin texture," says Dr Ana, "especially when other people won't be looking closer than this, anyway."
Skincare brands have exploited our ageing insecurities for years, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that growing older is something to be celebrated, rather than resisted. Whether you dabble in anti-ageing skincare or not is entirely your own prerogative, but there's no denying the entire concept is outmoded, not to mention unrealistic. Ultimately, there's satisfaction in knowing that every smile line and eye wrinkle is evidence of a life enjoyed.