Photo: Helen Mirren on the cover of Allure
Helen Mirren on the cover of Allure

OPINION

Can we change the record on anti-ageing?

Allure magazine has banned the term “anti-ageing” from their print and web pages. Good, says Sali Hughes – to describe ageing as something to be reversed is not OK

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By Sali Hughes on

I was sitting in a beer garden with a friend last week, discussing her inner conflict over getting Botox to do away with the crease between her eyes. She wanted to take the plunge, but struggled to square her desire to retrieve the forehead she lost five years ago with her diehard feminist ideals and a genuine appreciation and love for her forties. It’s a conversation I have over and over with friends and colleagues, and one for which there is no simple and satisfying resolution. Are we contributing to the decidedly problematic messages of the anti-ageing beauty industry by engaging in their products and techniques, and would there be greater honour in surrendering our vanity to the cause and letting nature follow its course? As ever, my conclusion was that anything asking what women “should” do is inherently flawed and objectionable, and that I didn’t choose the world I live in, or the unfair conditions within it. I’m all for defying nature for my own selfish desires, whether that’s by using a posh vitamin C serum on my sunspots, injecting away a frown line or popping the contraceptive pill. I can only write about beauty and ageing with honesty, acceptance, compassionate politeness and a fair sense of realism – and wish the majority would do the same as the few.

Which is why, on Monday, I was delighted to see Allure, the world’s leading and, arguably, most influential beauty magazine, announce that, from this issue onwards, the term “anti aging” (that’s anti-ageing to us, ahem) will be banned from the magazine’s print and web pages. Editor-in-chief Michelle Lee said of the magazine’s prior use of the term: “Whether we know it or not, we’re subtly reinforcing the message that aging is a condition we need to battle – think antianxiety meds, antivirus software, or antifungal spray.” The decision was announced with an extraordinary cover featuring Dame Helen Mirren, minus any retouching of lines and wrinkles, in bright red lipstick, a white quiff and a deep V neckline, and a cover line calling out to the beauty industry to follow the magazine’s lead and dispense with the term for good. Inside, Lee says, “Major props to those who have already taken steps, and, to the rest of the beauty industry, we’re calling on you now: We know it’s not easy to change packaging and marketing overnight. But together we can start to change the conversation and celebrate the beauty in all ages.”

The narrative needs to stop; the Allure initiative needs to spread. What women do when it does should be entirely up to them

Inevitably, Allure has been found lacking by internet commenters, who say the decision was comparatively risk-free in an industry now predominantly chasing millennials who don’t yet give a hoot about lines and wrinkles anyhow (tell that to the countless very young women who ask me about Botox each year). Mainstream skincare sales are already down, make-up sales are soaring – Allure is just chasing dollar and snatching headlines, they say. But this snarky view is simplistic at best, ignorant at worst. Magazines like Allure rely heavily on beauty advertising – much of it from the companies whose entire skincare business model has traditionally relied on delaying signs of skin-ageing. To refuse to play the game or use the vocabulary of those who support you directly is bold and courageous. Meanwhile, magazine sales have plummeted across the board and Allure has responded by featuring what publishers and sales teams have always regarded as circulation kryptonite – a mature cover star looking all her 72 years. All this on top of the fact that the past seven issues have featured a total of six women of colour on the cover (that’s more than a yearly average for most glossies), including Muslim model Halima Aden wearing a hijab. This initiative is not perfect but, from where I’m sitting, new editor Lee’s high-risk badassery looks pretty authentic.

But even if the phasing out of the term “anti-ageing” were mere tokenism, would it be entirely without value? Language matters; words and images affect how we feel. A 2011 scientific study showed that the absence of older women in magazines (on both covers and interior pages) has a significant effect on the self-esteem of mature women, and that messages of negativity towards aged women threatened to cause eating disorders and loss of sexuality in women over 50. The way we frame mature beauty – whether quacking on about the comparative virtues of ageing gracefully, or pointing out age-related flaws that could benefit from a nip or a tuck – affects women negatively and needs to change.

What’s interesting and perhaps a little confusing to some is the policing of language, but not of the ultimate goal. No one on Allure is threatening to stop reviewing products with skin-smoothing retinol, or brightening AHAs, or wrinkle-plumping hyaluronic acid and silicones – only to stop promoting them as “anti-ageing”. Are we, on one hand, refusing to criticise the appearance of age, while at the same time looking to restore the characteristics of young skin? Basically, yes. But declining to promote the idea of a “correct” weight or body shape doesn’t render hypocritical anyone who nevertheless opts to hit the gym or pursue a low-fat diet. The same is arguably true of ageing. One should be allowed to righteously or passively accept one’s wrinkles and loosening skin without constantly being told there’s a war to be fought. Ageing is natural, infinitely better than the alternative and should be wholly acceptable. To be prescriptive about how women should engage with their own process is not OK, and to describe it as something to be reversed even less so. The narrative needs to stop; the Allure initiative needs to spread. What women do when it does should be entirely up to them.

@salihughes

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Helen Mirren on the cover of Allure
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