In some ways, insecurity is just as central to modern beauty industry profits as BB creams and matte lips. Making women feel as if they’re not good enough is central to the sale of all those two- and three-figure backlit skin creams, all of which come in tiny opaque bottles and promise to contain at least a touch of Aphrodite’s magic.
Over one-third of women over 60 say they’ve used these anti-aging products in the last three months, and the industry is expected to be worth nearly $11 billion by 2018. For decades, feminists such as Naomi Wolf and Toni Calasanti have fought back, arguing that anti-aging creams create an untenable beauty standard for women to live by and reinforce a patriarchal, heterosexual hierarchy.
Now, one cosmetics magazine is joining the feminist fight. A little over two weeks ago, American make-up title Allure announced that the magazine was banning the term “anti-aging” from its pages because the descriptor reinforces “the message that aging is a condition we need to battle,” editor-in-chief Michelle Lee explained in a statement. Lee said she hoped the magazine’s decision would “change the conversation” on aging and encourage other organizations to ban the term. (The magazine will still cover anti-aging products with different descriptors, and include advertisements that use the term.)
Days after Allure‘s announcement, the magazine got some of what it hoped for: The American Association of Retired Persons, the non-profit devoted to Americans over 50, announced that it too would eradicate anti-aging from its written materials, and a Care2 petition requesting that L’Oréal and Estée Lauder stop using the term gathered over 17,000 supporters. This new movement against anti-aging suggests the future of beauty will include more positive language about growing old—even if it is likely to still cater to, and define, women’s insecurities.
Even before Allure‘s announcement, industry experts found that anti-aging cosmetics were losing popularity with consumers. From 2010 to 2015, the anti-aging sector fell from being worth $2.2 billion to $1.9 billion, according to a report from Mintel; a 2015 report from market research company the NPD Group found that anti-aging skincare sales were falling among prestige brands. NPD has credited Millennials, which account for 47 percent of all heavy buyers, for these shifts: Instead of investing in prevention and treatment creams, they’re shelling out for preparation products (CC creams, make-up primers) and cosmetics.
But should we expect anti-aging products to continue their fall? The history of these cosmetics suggests that critics have improved advertising copy over time—but haven’t significantly changed the consumer demand.
Anti-aging remedies have been around since at least the Indus Valley Civilization (2500-1550 B.C.E.), which developed powders to improve complexion and herbal remedies to prevent hair loss and graying. Later civilizations followed suit: The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, reportedly sent members of his administration on a quest to find immortals and their “herbs of everlasting life,” and Cleopatra is said to have bathed in donkey milk daily in an attempt to maintain everlasting beauty, a feat that required 700 donkeys to accomplish. In ancient times, as today, the elderly weren’t considered hot stuff.
In the 16th century, academics attempted to prove that old age was, if not sexy, at least fulfilling. The influential Italian book The Art of Living Long, released in 1550 (and subsequently translated into English, French, Dutch, and German), promoted moderation as a means of achieving a long life, and argued old age “is the time to be most coveted.” Within the same century, Enlightenment thinkers Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush promoted the notion that old age could bring new wisdom. But these theories evidently didn’t transform Western beauty standards: In the 1600s, Elizabethan women in England placed slices of raw meat on their faces to reduce wrinkles, and, in the 1700s, French upper-class women treated their frown lines with aged wine. (The French, at least, were on to something: The boozy facial is “now recognized as helping in exfoliation, since wine contains certain kinds of acids,” historical beauty encyclopedia author Victoria Sherrow wrote in 2001.)