Drawing on data gathered over a 10-year period in interviews with older women, cosmetic surgeons and a study of women’s magazines, Hurd Clarke demonstrates that we all have a lot to lose by living in a society that attempts to render its older people invisible.
Dr. Hurd Clarke is an award-winning scholar and associate professor at the school of human kinetics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
AHB reached her in Vancouver.
Ruth Dempsey: So what drew you to this subject?
Laura Hurd Clarke: I began to think critically about the issue while I was doing course work for my PhD degree in 1996.
As a component of one of my courses, I was fortunate to spend four months studying the experiences of members of a seniors’ centre. What I learned from the men and women at the centre was that they did not consider themselves to be old, irrespective of their actual ages. They frequently told me things like "We’re not old!" or "We are young at heart!" I began to realize that "old" was something these adults equated with negative stereotypes of later life (such as senility or poor health), rather than chronological age per se.
However, there was one notable exception to the members’ sense of themselves as not being old – their appearances. The women in particular expressed dismay over how their aging appearances contradicted how they felt on the inside.
I was intrigued by this tension between chronological age and felt age. And when I looked around, I found few studies had explored the relationships between appearance, ageism, chronological age and identity. These questions became the focus of my doctoral work, and they sparked over a decade of research.
RD: Many participants seemed repulsed by the physical realities of later life. One 65-year-old woman said: "Everything kind of sags in spite of all the exercises and all that sort of thing. I must admit I look in the mirror and I really hate that look. I just hate it."
LHC: Yes, this remark points to the fact that women in their later years frequently feel that what they look like on the outside is not how they feel on the inside. Many women are disappointed with how their bodies change over time and some are scathing in their assessments of their aging appearances, preferring how they looked in their younger years.
Certainly, women are taught to be ruthless in their personal evaluations of their bodies and to aspire to look like the feminine ideal, which is young, toned, slim and wrinkle-free.
And of course, if you accept this definition of beauty, then getting older and looking aged can be personally devastating.
RD: Weight gain was a concern for many women . . .
LHC: Yes, this is very true. Indeed, there is a wealth of existing research that identifies body weight as a key source of dissatisfaction for women, whatever their age. Most women want to lose weight, even when they are at a normal and healthy weight.
Most of the women I have spoken to have wanted to lose weight, although some in their 90s have expressed a desire to gain weight so as to not appear "scrawny."
RD: Participants were torn on the use of beauty products. Many rejected the claims of cosmetic companies. They still bought the products.
LHC: You have identified an intriguing tension that all women face. Most of us are skeptical of the claims advertisers make about various products, and yet most of us buy at least some of these products.
Why is that? Some scholars have suggested that women engage in what I call "beauty work" because they find the practice pleasurable and the end result, a source of personal satisfaction.
Other scholars say it’s about socialization – we use beauty products because that is what feminine women do. In other words, beauty work is seen as a social requirement for women, who are perceived to have little or no agency.
Certainly, women are rewarded for looking attractive through the complements of others but also through the greater likelihood of finding partners, being promoted at work (which has been well documented in the research), and so on. The two explanations are not incompatible, in my view.
But I think many of us engage in beauty culture without ever really contemplating what we are doing or considering what the social implications of our actions are for ourselves and for others.
RD: With the onset of health problems personal attractiveness takes a backseat.
LHC: This makes a lot of sense to me. If I am in pain and finding it difficult to walk, for example, I may be less concerned with my appearance and more concerned with the potential loss of my mobility and my independence.
Still, few women ever fully lose their concern about their appearances. For example, I have heard stories of older women in the hospital receiving treatment for serious health issues but still insisting on wearing their lipstick, because it made them feel more like themselves.
And some women have said that they continued to attend to their appearance so that their families would see them as independent, socially engaged persons rather than as individuals needing extensive care, if not institutionalization.
RD: What about physicians involved in the beauty business? What did you learn from them?
LHC: I interviewed four cosmetic surgeons, two reconstructive plastic surgeons and two family doctors, all of whom were providing various non-surgical cosmetic procedures, including Botox. I wanted to know what they thought of the rise of non-surgical cosmetic procedures, as well as their role in the beauty business.
I learned that while the cosmetic surgeons had begun to provide non-surgical cosmetic procedures because of patient demand, they preferred the results they could achieve through surgery. They also liked using their surgical skills.
In contrast, the reconstructive surgeons and the family physicians talked about how their engagement in non-surgical cosmetic procedures gave them a chance to do more light-hearted medical treatments with healthier, less demanding and more pleasant patients.
The physicians were aware of the pressures on women to maintain a youthful appearance. However, they were relatively uncritical of the beauty business or how they themselves were reinforcing ageism.
For these physicians, looking old was a physical defect that warranted medical intervention rather than a natural and inevitable part of living.
RD: You see the approval of Botox Cosmetic for aesthetic purposes as a game changer. How so?
LHC: Well, Botox Cosmetic was the first injectable that was developed and approved for sale and it continues to be, by far, the most profitable. It was quickly followed by a myriad of other injectables and the expansion of these products continues at an incredible pace.
The development of Botox Cosmetic signaled an important change in both pharmaceutical companies, which moved quickly to develop and market non-surgical cosmetic procedures, and aesthetic medicine, which now had an alternative to face-lifts and could, therefore, reach a wider audience.
My research over the past decade reveals that women’s attitudes towards their wrinkles shifted dramatically in response to the development of these products. Sleek advertising campaigns by Botox Cosmetic have changed the way women see their faces and their wrinkles. It is becoming increasingly unacceptable to "look old."
RD: Even dentists are offering Botox injections today.
LHC: That’s right. My own dentist has a certificate hanging on his treatment room wall showing that he has been approved to provide the treatments.
I’ve also interviewed women who have told me that in addition to receiving the injections from cosmetic surgeons or dermatologists, they have been given Botox by family doctors, nurses, chiropractors and estheticians. I’m sure the range of people who sell Botox injections is even greater than that. There is a lot of money to be made in the beauty business!
RD: You also looked at women’s magazines . . .
LHC: I examined the print advertisements in five different women’s magazines over a one-year period. What I found was that most of the beauty products were marketed with anti-aging messages, which suggested that looking old was abhorrent and unnecessary.
Print ads urged women to use various creams, serums and beauty treatments to maintain their cultural worth by being as beautiful as possible.
In other interviews, I asked women to reflect on media messages about appearances and aging. Responses varied. On the one hand, most of the women rejected Hollywood ideals of beauty (particularly the emphasis on being ultra-skinny) and expressed anger at the negative ways older adults were portrayed in the media.
However, other women said they felt pressured to bend to media messages that equated youthfulness with beauty, particularly if they were still in the workforce or looking for a romantic partner.
RD: You see Facing Age as a call to tackle ageism?
LHC: Yes. Ageism affects us all, and we all have a lot to lose if we continue to live in a society that disparages the aged and the natural processes of growing older.