I sat in my neighborhood cafe recently; it happened to be a jazz night.
Life pumped through instruments and glasses of wine. The small younger crowd in the room—admittedly myself included—kept to themselves, hidden behind laptops and books. But the majority of the room bore grey hair, artful caps, and corduroy jackets. Each time the door opened, a new member of this society slipped in and greeted at least a few of the others with a hug and wide smiles. They tapped their feet enthusiastically, clapped and whooped at the conclusion of a song, and I gazed with an admiring smirk at an older woman standing in the middle of the room, a wool skirt twirling as her orthopedic shoes danced and swayed to the music, an animated smile beaming from beneath a bowler hat and short, grey bangs. I was in awe.
I suppose, however, not all of us can carry the life and joy and gratitude of someone who has lived that many years well and found themselves welcomed in a tight-knit community of a local cafe. No, that has to be earned. Received. The warm and gentle smiles, the carefree-ness. It’s not that all older people are this way. But when I see someone like that, I am captivated with admiration and awe. That is what I want to be.
Yet in my day-to-day, I, like the rest of the tech-attached world, enjoy a barrage of anti-aging advertisements—many of which are promoted by influencers or celebrities who have spent significant amounts of money and taken extraordinary measures to fight back on aging, as if it were an avoidable or a vicious disease. According to Euromonitor International (2021), even with the market trending toward customers pursuing more simplicity in their skincare routines, the anti-aging industry is estimated to reach $181 billion in sales by 2025. Most voices in the beauty or aesthetics space insist that Botox and/or retinol (preventative, of course) must start in your twenties.
I’m a year or so shy of 30, but I’m already exhausted by this. To be sure, I won’t be ditching my SPF or quality moisturizers any time soon. Yet I wonder: What do we lose when we resent aging so much?
Well… money, obviously. In a Vox article aptly titled, “How the anti-aging industry turns you into a customer for life,” writer Emily Stewart (2022) points out the marketing shift that impresses upon us the need “to feel empowered to look your best at any age.” Yet, “whatever the tone, the goal remains the same: to remind consumers they’re not comfortable with aging and prompt them to spend money accordingly. Repackaging anti-aging in a wellness frame carries the same old price tag—and the same psychological weight.”
But surely beneath the dollars and creams and injections, there’s something buried that might tell us why we insist on devaluing women in particular as they age.
Further, Stewart (2022) points out that even as we start to praise some aging celebrities, we praise them for not looking their age. In her words, “we celebrate older women but not the un-intervened-upon face.” Still, it isn’t the skincare industry that’s failing us, even if they’re profiting off of it.
In fact, none of this is particularly new phenomena to point out. But surely beneath the dollars and creams and injections, there’s something buried that might tell us why we insist on devaluing women in particular as they age.
As a child, we are consistently asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That question times out around college and then becomes, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or something impossible like that. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, I can’t say for certain, but I imagine that question stops getting asked at some point. We stop dreaming about our futures, or settle into what we have as “it.”
Perhaps that’s not all bad, especially for those of us drowning in American ambition. But how many of us build our adult lives with or around an intention for the gray-haired version that will look back at us however many years later? Are we so busy avoiding, dreading, conspiring against our age, that we’ve forgotten it’s an inevitability, or even a gift?
According to a recent study, “when individuals accept the changes that come with aging, they view themselves more positively as they grow old, are more self-confident with new life challenges, and participate more in social life” (Evangelista et al., 2022).
Are we so busy avoiding, dreading, conspiring against our age, that we’ve forgotten it’s an inevitability, or even a gift?
Interestingly, the study also seemed to illuminate the difference between awareness and acceptance—as we age, we can obviously only be in denial so much, and surely there is a reasonable amount of grief that comes with what we lose as our bodies grow old. But there is a big difference between being aware of our age and fixating on it, or being aware and making self-deprecating remarks or sarcastic jokes. Yet, the study found “a constant awareness of aging was associated with health problems, which… were related to considerable decreases in self-esteem,” which goes on to impair life-giving activities, like relationships and social engagement (Evangelista et al., 2022).
However, it’s important to note that aging, and whatever human consequence comes with it, does not have to equate to inevitable doom. Another study revealed that “the experience of aging as physical decline was not [inherently] related to self-esteem” (Westerhof et al., 2011). Instead, a strong sense of self was much more linked to achievement and personal development.
So while our lifestyle choices may strengthen our bodies and our moisturizers and SPFs may hydrate and protect our skin, aging—and all that comes with it—is an inevitability. But, how we embrace aging, how we develop ourselves, and how we build our communities—those things matter, and make a significant difference. The question then becomes, how do we restore the value of age? Ironically, it seems a lot of what we chase as women only comes with time and some wrinkles.
We read self-help books and listen to podcasts in pursuit of confidence and freedom from others’ opinions, while statistically, our self-esteem only climbs with age (Orth et al., 2018). We chase enlightenment and peace and spiritual depth that often rest most simply in the earned wisdom of perseverance and wholeheartedness and long-lived-in ideologies. We hustle and grind and dream for a day when we can lead and build professionally, but—despite the cultural dominance of 30-under-30—the deep sense of purpose and expertise we crave in our work often reveals itself after years in the mundane—and if not that, in a complete departure from conventional work in pursuit of the beauty of something simpler, more restful.
There is no shortcut, no get-out-of-wrinkles-free card. What we desire most, we find by walking faithfully and investing deeply.
I simply have learned the most about myself and my world from women who walked before me, grew in wisdom, and were generous enough to pass it along. There is no shortcut, no get-out-of-wrinkles-free card. What we desire most, we find by walking faithfully and investing deeply. But when we resent aging, we miss that. And honestly, aren’t there more important things to worry about? Better pursuits to cultivate?
Serendipitously, I’m finishing out this article once again in that neighborhood cafe, once again on a jazz night, once again hiding behind my laptop. There is a coupon for cosmetic filler in my inbox. But I am crowded out by gray-haired individuals in tasteful hats, with much more participatory enthusiasm for the music filling the room. Same “whoop”s, same swaying, same greetings—how do they all know each other? I admire their joyful camaraderie, their life, their ease of confidence. This, I think, is what I’d like to be when I grow up.
Euromonitor International. (2021, June 22). Skincare sales set to reach USD 181 billion by 2025 as consumers are on a quest for ‘skinimalism’.
Evangelista, M., Mota, S., Almeida, I. F., & Pereira, M. G. (2022). Usage patterns and self-esteem of female consumers of antiaging cosmetic products. Cosmetics, 9(3), 49.
Orth, U., Erol, R. Y., & Luciano, E. C. (2018). Development of self-esteem from age 4 to 94 years: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 144(10), 1045–1080.
Westerhof, G. J., Whitbourne, S. K., & Freeman, G. P. (2012). The aging self in a cultural context: The relation of conceptions of aging to identity processes and self-esteem in the United States and the Netherlands. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 67B(1), 52–60