In the space of a week, two younger women I had entered into conversation with looked shocked when I told them that I'm 37 after they had asked my age. Each time it was followed by the remark: "Oh? But you really don't look it." For me, this is nothing new. Even at 28, I remember being reassured that I looked younger than my years; others I've spoken to in their 30s and 40s have experienced similar comments. These observations almost always come from much younger colleagues and industry peers.
The comments don't really bother me. I'm grateful to be out of what are often referred to as the 'tumultuous twenties'. What strikes me as concerning is that while many young women demand inclusivity and reject unrealistic beauty ideals, others see 30 as over the hill. Thanks to the introduction of buzzy beauty brands such as Skin Proud, we're encouraged not to be hung up on terminology like 'anti-ageing'. So why are the young women I've come across so quick to associate age with looks? And why do they assume that I want to appear younger?
This mindset is reflective of a wider problem: a heightened anxiety and fear that 'prime years' are a real thing — and that they are running out. "I asked my mum when she was her prettiest and she told me she was her prettiest when she was 30," said one 20-year-old in a viral TikTok video, "so then I'm thinking I have, like, at least 10 good more years where I get prettier." Other TikTokers observe that age is a contentious topic. "The way people go absolutely feral when a woman mentions her age on this app," wrote Fifi Martínez. "Men run from the confines of their mothers basements to tell you that you're used goods and they don't want you. Mean Gen Z kids will say you look older than you are. Kind hearted elder Gen Z girlies lie and say you look 19 [...] y'all are so obsessed as if ageing is not inevitable."
Why are we scared of ageing?
Our fear of ageing is nothing new but perhaps influencer culture has something to do with the eagerness to stay looking young. Love Island bombards us with fresh faces, for example, and the likes of Molly-Mae Hague (23 years old) are hitting lots of life's big milestones sooner than you might expect.
Currently pregnant with her first child, Molly-Mae also holds the impressive job title of creative director for PrettyLittleThing. Add in initiatives like Forbes' "30 Under 30" list and the pressure to be at your peak in your 20s is more prevalent than ever before. Success and youth are increasingly portrayed as going hand in hand. For 24-year-old Lizzie, this is all too true. "Frustratingly, it's a common feeling among me and my friends that time is slipping away from us. There's still so much we want to achieve," she says.
Aside from these cultural expectations, our obsession with injectables may also contribute to the unease we feel about ageing. Botox (injections that paralyse the facial muscles, subsequently minimising the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles) is reportedly booming. If social media is anything to go by, people are getting the procedure even younger nowadays. Take this TikTok video posted by @radiantaestheticsnewport, which recently went viral for all the wrong reasons when it suggested that those who don't go under the needle in their 20s are sitting around and not "making moves".
Though experts suggest it's ineffective, the hashtag #preventativebotox (injecting Botox into the skin when there aren't any lines or wrinkles in the hope of preventing them later) has amassed 56.5 million views and counting on TikTok. The thread lift (used to temporarily elevate the cheeks and brows) sits at an enormous 217.8 million views. It's clear that the smooth, taut faces we see every time we scroll have made us lose touch with ageing. You don't suddenly droop when the clock strikes midnight on your 30th birthday. But perhaps procedures are skewing our idea of what it really looks like to be in your 30s, 40s and beyond. It certainly could explain the surprised expressions and awkward comments I've received.
What does being in your 30s really look like?
TikToker @timorousme recently went viral for starting a discussion about age and looks: "The reason that 30 year olds look 'so good for their age' is bc 30 is young [...] stop obsessing. It's fine to look your age. Getting older is a privilege." It wasn't long before the comments came flooding in: "I'm 37 and people I work with are 23-30ish and they're constantly shocked I'm my age. Idk why, but people genuinely expect 37 to look like 87." Another said: "Thank you! Society sells being young so hard, the fear of growing old is now wayyy out of wack. This is very comforting."
It has been reported that selfie dysmorphia has caused people to seek surgery, while in a recent survey of 2,000 people, three-quarters of participants aged 18 to 24 admitted to having had cosmetic surgery on their faces or considering it. Millie Kendall, CEO of the British Beauty Council, is on a mission to stop aesthetics being offered to younger people. Firstly, there is a problem with regulation here in the UK. As it stands, anyone (even those who are not qualified) can administer things like filler and Botox, which is incredibly unsafe. Secondly, social media exacerbates underlying psychological challenges in regard to body image, reports the British Beauty Council.
It's no wonder, then, that some feel the need to comment on the appearance of others. "I'm 5ft in height so I'm often told I don't look 30 years old," said Refinery29's deputy beauty director, Jacqueline Kilikita. "I've also tried baby Botox. Sometimes it feels as though younger people I've spoken to (in the beauty industry especially) have used me to alleviate their internalised fears of getting older. Like, If she doesn't look old at 30, maybe I won't. But it's not a bad thing to look 30." Just when we thought we had come a long way in regard to embracing ageing and the totally normal and natural effect it has on our skin and hair, comments like these prove that the fear is baked into lots of people.
Are injectables to blame for our fear of ageing?
Happily, the British Beauty Council has managed to get Botox and fillers outlawed for under 18s if they are for aesthetic purposes and not approved by a doctor. This is a win for safety but also a positive start in dismantling the dread that young women may feel about ageing and appearance. Of course, there is a fine line between societal pressure to look young and personal choice. Twenty-three-year-old Tara Jenkins opted for injectable filler at RosMedics clinic when she was 20 to smooth a bump in her nose. But she is conscious of not striving towards the image of youthful perfection we're fed on social media. "I try to limit my daily use of things like TikTok," Tara told me, "so it doesn't feel like I'm succumbing to any pressure."
It isn't just influencers posting about their cosmetic procedures or content creators lamenting the physical signs of growing older that could impact our perception of ageing. Apps like TikTok apply an automatic smoothing filter, which you'll spot if you go to film a video organically. As a result, it's easy to lose sight of what real skin — with fine lines, texture and all — actually looks like. No wonder some people are pleasantly surprised when a person in their mid to late 30s looks younger than they might expect. But it's not the compliment it is intended to be. So how can we shake the mentality that ageing is something to be scared of?
How do you embrace ageing?
Though social media may be contributing to our warped idea of ageing, it might also be something of a saviour. Twenty-four-year-old TikToker @madzwarley went viral for highlighting the complex internalised issue we have with looks and age. "The biggest fucking lie women are told is that they lose their beauty as they get older," they said. "Have you seen older women? They've lived this life and they are still here and they have all the marks and grey hairs to prove it." Madz adds that we should start romanticising getting older. "It is so beautiful and no woman loses her beauty at any point in her life. She is always just gorgeous."
Esther is 28 and considers herself a zillennial (between millennial and Gen Z). She has had an up-and-down relationship with ageing in the past. "I used to pick apart the fine lines around my eyes and on my forehead," she says, "but I've been trying to make the conscious decision to a) stop looking so hard at my face and scrutinising others for the absence of the so-called 'flaws' I feel I have, and b) trying to only follow creators on social media who make me feel good about myself."
Twenty-five-year-old Charlie thinks the generational fear that many women have about getting older is a result of patriarchy. "The idea that women 'peak' in our 20s is 100% a patriarchal machination!" Charlie wrote on TikTok. "The world is scared of women that are 30+ because they are smarter and wiser."
Older female role models have also stepped up to show us that life doesn't stop at 30. One of my favourites is 62-year-old Cindy Gallop, an entrepreneur and founder of MakeLoveNotPorn. Since going viral on TikTok, she has amassed a large young following. "I'm 62 and date younger men," Cindy tells me. "None have had any issues with the way I looked. Trust me, what makes you hot, desirable and attractive is you," she says.
Though I receive raised eyebrows from younger women whenever I mention my age (and often feel like an object of pity as a result), I have never felt more confident than I do at 37. I'd love to reassure my 20-year-old self that 30 isn't the end of the road. And what of your appearance? Trying to stave off ageing is impossible and anyway, a wrinkle here and some fine lines there are indications of a life lived to the fullest. That's something to celebrate, not fret about.