Full disclosure, I’m over 30. Most of my friends are in the same age bracket as me and there's one phrase we're all very used to hearing: "You don't look your age." What often follows is that there’s "no way" anyone would ever think we’d passed that three-decade milestone. It’s always said as a compliment — and that’s how we'll take it — though most of us can't help but wonder, is it true? And is it really a bad thing if we happen to look our age?
In 2021, the general expectation seems to be that 30 is over the hill. When the clock strikes midnight on day 365 of being 29, you turn into an old crone from a Disney film. Of course, this isn’t the case in reality. So what’s with this school of thought? Do we really look younger these days or has everyone simply forgotten what it actually looks like to be 30?
The rise of the 'tweakment'
Advances in the beauty industry and social media (in particular filters and editing apps) may have something to do with it. Dr Ana Mansouri, aesthetic doctor at Kat & Co, says that it is becoming more difficult to assess a patient’s age. Why? Rejuvenating 'tweakments' are more common than ever. Take the brand-new thread lift, which mimics the results of a face lift, nose job and lip plumping injections without the downtime, or TikTok's obsession with forehead filler. All of these procedures (plus many more) have followed the so-called 'Zoom boom', whereby video calls during various lockdowns have magnified many people's insecurities, including lines, wrinkles and pigmentation.
"Some patients look a decade or so younger than their actual age thanks to injectables and medical skincare," says Dr Ana, who performs anti-wrinkle injections, injectable skin boosters and dermal fillers among other skin treatments. Dr Jonquille Chantrey, anti-ageing expert and founder of One Aesthetic Studio, adds: "It’s nothing new that women are judged on their looks and how they age, which can lead to insecurities. Aesthetic medicine can have a profound positive impact on self-esteem and self-confidence but the accessibility and normalisation of anti-ageing aesthetic treatments (particularly through social media) has had a significant impact on the benchmark of what a woman in her 30s 'should' look like."
Zara, 32, agrees that anti-ageing treatments and injectables play a part in the confusion around her age. She says she is regularly mistaken for being five years younger than she really is. "I’ve been getting Botox and filler ever since I turned 30," she told me. "I’d noticed fine lines, sun damage and dark circles. My lips looked thinner, too, which I felt bad about. People do tend to think I’m younger than I am, so it’s not a waste of money." Zara says her sister, who is 24, already gets filler and preventative Botox. "I think it’s definitely blurring the lines between ages, as our skin looks similar." It goes both ways, though. Zara admits that many younger girls appear older as a result of some aesthetic treatments, for example lip and cheek filler. "I think it adds to the confusion," she says.
The Instagram effect
Dr Ana believes that video and picture sharing apps may have an impact on how we perceive ageing. "Extreme editing culture on social media has caused both patients and some practitioners to feel pressured into achieving unrealistic and dramatic anti-ageing results," she says. Editing apps and filters quite literally blur the lines between digital life and in-person reality. As we increasingly spend our lives online, this has to play a role in how age is viewed.
TikTok has been found to automatically filter and change face shapes (whether you want it to or not) while Instagram and Zoom can smooth out skin and tweak your features. It has also been reported that certain mobile phone cameras automatically airbrush skin. We recognise that filtered photos can affect mental health and self-esteem; tech giants have even incorporated this into their device design guidelines.
It's easier than ever now to see how we could look if the perfectly normal signs of ageing were erased from our faces. In some ways, these 'advances' in technology make it feel as though we’ve lost touch with our real appearance. Or perhaps the issue is that it sets an unrealistic standard for ageing. If every photo is filtered, blurred or tweaked without us even realising, it's no wonder many of us are disconnected and confused about what growing older really looks like. Add to that the various lockdowns, where we've existed mainly on Zoom and Face Time. Do we really know what anyone our age truly looks like unless we see them in person?
Advances in skincare
When it comes to beauty shopping, the global anti-ageing market is predicted to be worth an enormous £306 billion by 2030. Looking youthful is big business. Though there have been attempts to eliminate the phrase 'anti-ageing' for painting a perfectly natural experience in a negative light, this kind of skincare is more popular than ever before. No7's 'age-defying' retinol flew off the shelves recently, while brands are formulating skincare products with smart ingredients that mimic Botox, like epidermal growth factors (EGF).
It has even been reported that young adults are thinking about premature ageing and how they can prevent lines, wrinkles and pigmentation. On TikTok, teens are starting skincare routines that focus on using anti-ageing ingredients like acids and antioxidants such as vitamin C well before they notice any signs of ageing. Thanks to brands like The Inkey List and The Ordinary, great skincare is more accessible than ever. Coupled with the rise in preventative aesthetic treatments, it's obvious that many of us are stalling the telltale signs of ageing. Perhaps, then, we do look a little younger.
As well as this, our beauty habits have changed for the better. Laura, 35, has experienced people going out of their way to reassure her that she "doesn’t look 35", an intended compliment which makes her feel odd. She doesn’t see her age — or looking it — as a negative thing. "Sometimes, the way people react when I say that I’m 35 is funny. There seems to be this perception that after 30 you’re going to look ancient." That said, Laura has a stellar skincare routine inspired by the beauty industry's focus on 'slow ageing' (take Vichy's Slow Age skincare range and Avon's Anew) rather than anti-ageing. "I’ve been into SPF for years because I’m so pale, which I think is a big part of why people think I’m younger than I am now," says Laura.
Dr Ana cites our obsession with a daily dose of SPF (not just in the summer months) to fend off premature ageing caused by UV light, pollution and other environmental factors. "We also tend to look after our skin condition with safe tanning habits and other lifestyle measures," says Dr Ana. There is more awareness of the effects of spending time in the sun and using sunbeds, not to mention smoking and drinking alcohol. "Patients are becoming more proactive and realising that prevention is better than cure," she says. "A healthy lifestyle and active skincare combined with gentle tweakments like Profhilo and 'baby Botox' are the most popular for slowing down the ageing journey in people of this age group," she adds.
There are multiple factors which may impact how your skin looks, including lifestyle and access to treatments but especially hormones and genetics — things we're mostly unable to control. Laura raises an important question: "What does any age look like? Everyone's different. Why is looking under 30 the goal?" The pressure to appear a certain way is stressful to say the least. London dermatology registrar Dr Zena Willsmore recently took to Instagram to share her frustration at women feeling like they have to hide their age. "Recently, my little girl innocently asked my friend how old she was. There were giggles in the room of ‘Oh, you should never ask a lady her age'," Dr Willsmore wrote in the Instagram caption. "The notion of women hiding our ages feeds into the idea that once we reach a certain age, we become aesthetically and functionally redundant. It suggests that our value to society has an expiry date."
There is a disparity between men and women. Amara, 31, has noticed a difference between how people talk about her age versus her male partner’s age. She says she isn't sure if it’s down to relationship stereotypes (typically an older man with a younger woman) or her skin colour as a Black woman. "Everyone always thinks my partner is older than me," Amara says. "He’s actually a couple of years younger. I hated looking young as a teenager but I’m happy with my appearance now. I got asked for ID when buying alcohol a few months ago and I think I’ve got my melanin to thank for that." Amara hasn't had any work done but she wouldn't be against the idea, especially, she says, if she felt as though she looked older than 31 and began to feel unhappy about her appearance.
Like Laura mentioned, if we’re constantly told that appearing 29 and under is the goal, it's going to have an impact on our self-esteem. This is already happening on TikTok where a worrying trend is emerging that sees women harassed about their appearance. Interestingly, many of these comments are dished out by other women. With 'looking old' being perceived as a negative, ageing has become another way to put women down online.
Rather frustratingly, women are judged regardless of whether they embrace the ageing process or smooth, syringe and skincare their way to a more youthful appearance. The many comments under Madonna's Instagram posts prove this. "You don’t look the way you used to: why are you afraid of aging?" commented one Instagram user, while another said: "You would be much much prettier if you accepted your wrinkles and your age. You don't look good with this plastic face..." There is pressure from all sides, whether it’s reinforcing that looking younger than 30 is better, or negative comments that you need work done.
That said, Dr Willsmore believes social media can be a force for good when it comes to embracing ageing. "Maybe I am an optimist but I do see the tides changing," she continued on Instagram. "This is partly due to social media that enables representation from people that perhaps would be rejected by conventional media outlets. This representation and visibility of women of every age group is so important for future generations."
I want to know what's so scary about looking 30, anyway. Dr Chantrey says it's ageism. "Unfortunately this is rife in society. The reality is that by preventing wrinkles, facial sagging and loss of facial definition through easily accessible aesthetic treatments, there’s a visual paradigm shift in what a woman is expected to look like at a certain age." It is important to remember that anti-ageing treatments are a personal choice. Dr Chantrey would love to see a change, though. "I want women to feel less pressure in their 30s and be able to feel more able to embrace their wellbeing. Like beauty standards, ageing benchmarks are completely subjective."
If there's one thing I've learned researching this article, it's that we're always likely to have an opinion on ageing, and that's down to multiple factors: social media, the rise of skincare and even being faced with our own mortality during the pandemic. Perhaps we have lost touch with ageing, though that isn't an entirely bad thing. After all, when it comes to buzzy skincare ingredients and new procedures, the beauty industry is just getting started. The main priority is feeling comfortable in your skin. Whether you're embracing slow ageing, celebrating your smile lines or looking into lasering them away, that's entirely your prerogative.