Aging boom could change what we consider beautiful

“At what age are you most beautiful?”

That was the question posed in a survey sent earlier this year to about 16,000 adults in the United States and seven other countries.

The collective answer was age 30, though respondents, all of whom were 35 or older, offered a few caveats. Men, for example, reach maximum beauty at 32 while women reach it at 28, according to the survey. Also, peak beauty apparently can arrive at different times in different countries, with Canadians and Germans saying men hit it at 35 and Italians saying women are most beautiful at 24.

But, details aside, the basic message was clear: We humans believe we are most attractive sometime after the earliest bloom of adulthood but a solid decade, or more, before anything close to middle age.

As for peak beauty and old age? It’s not even close. For all the lip service paid to the idea that beauty is as much about attitude as any physical attribute or birthday – a concept a lot of people would say is demonstrably true – thousands of anonymous responses suggest that’s not actually how we feel.

Just don’t tell Sports Illustrated.

This month, the magazine chose Martha Stewart, age 81, to be one of four cover models for its annual swimsuit issue. Stewart’s appearance generated a lot of buzz, pro and con, from people who track aging and ageism (and sexism, among other ‘isms).

And it wasn’t a one-off. Days before Stewart’s SI cover was revealed, fitness guru Denise Austin, 66, was making news after self-publishing photos of herself wearing a swimsuit she’d modeled several decades previously. And, in the past year, everybody from model Christie Brinkley (69) to music legend Mary J. Blige (52) to soap operate actress Susan Lucci (76), have used glamor shots of themselves looking great in bathing suits to boost their brands.

Susan Lucci attends The 2023 ADAPT Leadership Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street on March 09, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for ADAPT Community Network)

While the international survey (from NordChem, a UK-based company that makes beauty, health and cleaning products) focused on the “when” of beauty, it ignored the fact much of the world is zooming past that alleged peak and, as that happens, the world might come up with entirely new definitions for it.

If we do, demographics figure to play a part. Between now and 2040, the median age of all the people (beautiful and otherwise) living in the eight countries surveyed is projected to jump from 41.8 to 46, according to the World Health Organization. In the younger-than-average United States, the median age will change from 38.1 to 42.5, and the ratio of Americans who are 65 or older will jump from about 1 in 7, today, to about 1 in 4 by the mid-2040s.

This graying demography – which is hitting every advanced economy and happening at a rate unprecedented in human history – is already raising questions about everything from health care to taxes to immigration.

Soon, it figures to change our collective self-image.

“Research on this talks about something called ‘subjective age.’ People look in the mirror and, even though they know their actual age, what they see and say to themselves is about 20% younger. Our age, at least internally, is subjective,” said Charles Schewe, a professor emeritus of marketing at Amherst University who, in the 1980s and ’90s, helped pioneer the field of studying the consumer behavior of different age cohorts, such as the Baby Boomers and Generation X.

“But subjective age has its limits,” Schewe added. “Once people are in their 60s or 70s, they get more realistic about age.

“I don’t think anybody can say, for sure, how people will define things like beauty or whatever, and what that might mean, when our population has as many older people as it’s going to have.”

One theory goes like this: In historically youth-focused America, a population dominated by people 65 and older might come up with new, less youth-centric definitions of beauty and vitality; how it looks and feels and, critically, whether it is or isn’t important.

Such a shift wouldn’t be trivial. Economists and others note that those particular crowd-sourced ideals are powerful forces when it comes to convincing people to spend money, and new definitions for beauty and vitality could reshape everything from Hollywood movies to fashion to beer commercials.

Some believe that shift has already begun.

“People in the beauty industry don’t even use the term ‘anti-aging’ anymore,” said Jennifer Norman, 52, a former model and founder of Humanist Beauty, a Los Angeles-based lifestyle company that, among other things, makes skin cream for people of all ages.

“Whenever you fight something, it persists. So being ‘anti-aging’ only makes you overly concerned about the aging process,” Norman explained.

“That’s not where we want to be, as an industry or as a society,” she added. “I think we might get past it pretty soon.”

Is old the new black?

“I am tired of the culture of youth.”

So began the first-person copy (in French) used in a series of photo-driven print ads for Tom Ford brand jewelry that ran in a 2010 edition of Vogue Paris magazine. The photo accompanying designer Ford’s words featured a male and a female model, both apparently in their 60s, embracing in a passionate, intimate kiss.

Older models were rare in 2010, and older models portrayed as sexual beings were rarer still.

No more. Jane Fonda, 85, Helen Mirren, 77, Andie MacDowell, 65, and the late writer Joan Didion (87 when she died, in 2021) are just a few of the famous women who in recent years have appeared on the covers of fashion magazines or in fashion advertising campaigns. Actor Jeff Goldblum, 70, musician/actor Lenny Kravitz, 58, day-laborer-turned-model Mammikka, 60, are among the famous (or, in Mammikka’s case, decidedly un-famous) men who’ve recently popped up in similar settings.

Jeff Goldblum attends the Los Angeles premiere of Universal Pictures’ “Jurassic World Dominion” on June 06, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

None of those ads and magazine covers suggest age is a barrier to being fashionable. And few, if any, feature anything approaching frumpy.

Age, at least in the current moment of high fashion, is chic.

Most of the biggest fashion houses (L’Oréal, Prada and Chanel, among others) offer products and related ad campaigns aimed at older customers. And virtually all fashion companies offer public messaging that at least suggests older people and beauty aren’t separate concepts.

It’s all a bit of a countertrend, for now, with data on the fashion industry suggesting older models remain an exception. A 2019 study by FashionSpot, which tracks the industry, found 5% of the models that appeared on the covers of the 51 biggest fashion magazines during the previous year were 50 or older, a rate that had been stable for about five years. FashionSpot also found that less than 2% of runway models were 50 or older.

But hiring models older than 40 has become common only in the past 15 years. And at least some insiders believe the beauty sector’s push for older customers is only just getting started.

“The idea right now is that aging is something to be embraced,” said Humanist Beauty founder Norman. “It’s a privilege to get older.”

And if getting older is a privilege, selling older is potential profit.

In 2020, Americans age 50 and up spent about $152 billion on clothes and shoes, according to a study released late last year by AARP. By 2040, that group’s annual clothing bill is projected to jump 75%, to about $265 billion. Fashion sales to other age groups aren’t expected to grow at anything close to that rate.

Norman, among others, suggests an aging population is starting to leverage its growing purchasing power with social media to usher in what she termed “the democratization of beauty.”

“I think there’s a dignity and respect that we all demand as we get older,” Norman said.

“But, today, with TikTok and Insta(gram) and YouTube, the clout is no longer with large companies and brands and designers saying ‘This is how you should look.’

“The clout is with customers,” she said. “And a lot of them are older.”

The other beauty industry

Sadly, the coming demographic revolution probably won’t be televised; or streamed, or released in theaters. At least not anytime soon.

Though there are anecdotal signs of change (see below), a barrage of studies from researchers as diverse as the USC Annenberg School for Communication, to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, to Time magazine have explored mountains of data to reach a common conclusion:

Hollywood is blatantly ageist.

The allegation has two parts.

First, research shows older people are chronically underrepresented in movies and TV. For example, the recent San Diego State study of Hollywood-produced movies found that in 2020 men over 60 made up 10% of all characters depicted, while women of the same age accounted for just 6%. While neither number comports with the general population, the lack of older women in film is particularly egregious.

Second, when older people do pop up on screen, they’re often depicted in ways more likely to reinforce stereotypes about age and gender than they are to portray how people actually live.

Older men, for example, have a lot more hobbies on screen than they do in real life. And, in movies and TV, older women are far more frequently depicted primarily as mothers than they are for their independence or intellect or physical courage.

Some have suggested the complaint is only semi-fair. Drama, by definition, isn’t about reality. And characters of all ages are written poorly more often than they’re written well.

But Hollywood’s ageism – which research suggests also extends to discrimination against older directors and older screenwriters – is felt by at least some of the industry’s biggest customers.

“You know what role I saw recently that I could relate to? Moneypenny! She’s older and she gets to boss James Bond around,” said a laughing Tanya Facinelli, 74, a retired librarian and self-described “big movie buff” who lives in Eagle Rock.

“Other than that, I think of a lot of characters that are roughly my age are in a film just to support somebody else,” she added.

“Moneypenny is like that, too, now that I think about it.”

But a few recent events might be seen as signs that Hollywood’s ageism is cracking.

In February, longtime Hollywood data company National Research Group found that 87 of the top 100 actors and actresses most likely to prompt a movie fan to buy a ticket were 40 or older. Topping the list was Tom Cruise, then age 60, and the average age of the top 10 was a tick over 56 years old.

Tom Cruise attends the Korea Red Carpet for “Top Gun: Maverick” at Lotte World on June 19, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

And it’s not just surveys.

Michele Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis were 60 and 64, respectively, when they won Oscars this year for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Neither was the oldest to win those awards in the past two years. Frances McDormand was 64 in 2021 when she picked up an Oscar for Best Actress for “Nomadland,” and that year’s Best Supporting Actress, Youn Yuh-jung of “Minari,” was 74.

Based on recent trends, none of those winners were age outliers. In fact, the average age of Best Actress winners over the past five years was 52.2, which is considerably older than Best Actress winners of earlier periods. From 1999 through 2003, for example, the Best Actress average age was 31.8. From 1979 through 1983 it was 44, and from 1959 through 1963 it was 33.2.

A less dramatic version of this age wave is happening with men, too. The average Best Actor winner over the past five years was 54, while the winners from 1999 through 2003 were, on average, 40.4 years old, an age that roughly matches Best Actor winners from previous eras.

Older actors aren’t just winning Oscars, either.

In 2021, Kate Winslet was 46 when she picked up an Emmy for Best Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series. Hanna Waddingham was 47 when she won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, and Jean Smart was 70 when she won that year’s Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series.

It should be noted that none of those roles is dismissive of either women or older people.

Winslet’s character, in “Mare of Easttown,” was a smart, relentless detective and a former star athlete. Waddington plays the conniving but ultimately vulnerable team owner in “Ted Lasso.” And Smart, in “Hacks,” is an aging comic hoping to remain relevant.

Still, experts who track all of Hollywood – which most years includes as many as 200 movies featuring thousands of characters – aren’t swayed that a few, high-profile awards signify broader change. Instead, they say progress is coming slowly, when it comes at all.

“Unfortunately, mature individuals are considered a niche market in Hollywood. These attitudes are unlikely to change unless great pressure is brought to bear on decision-makers. Hollywood only changes when it has no choice,” Martha Lauzen, a film and television professor and executive director of the school’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, said via email.

Lauzen noted that the data shows most female characters in movies are in their 20s and 30s and most male characters are in their 30s and 40s. And while there’s a particular drop-off for female characters after age 40, she said portrayals of people age 60 or older, of both genders, “remain underrepresented.

“While changing demographics may be destiny in certain areas, I don’t think that will apply to age,” she wrote.

“It seems to be one of the last acceptable ‘-isms.’”

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