Reframing Aging

It’s time to bid ageist terminology like “antiaging” farewell–and embrace the notion of maturing gracefully.

The search for the Fountain of Youth is not a novel obsession. Greek historian Herodotus wrote about this bloom-restoring spring as early as the fifth century B.C., and fable became legend when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León reportedly set out on an expedition to find it in 1513–but instead discovered what is now Florida.

As human beings, we are no doubt preoccupied by time’s passage and its affects on mind and body–and this preoccupation is at the heart of the beauty industry. Culturally, consumers fetishize those dewy of skin and wide of eye, spending ever-increasing sums on every treatment from Botox to Viagra in a quest to stay forever young. It’s also profitable. The lucrative skincare industry is expected to hit global sales of $130 billion by 2019.

Yet something about this model feels inherently backward: Elders possessing knowledge and experience should perhaps instead be emulated by their adolescent counterparts, rather than vice versa. While that reality may still smack as fancifully utopian, we are nevertheless witnessing exciting changes in cultural views on aging. Last August, Allure magazine editor-in-chief Michelle Lee led the charge by issuing a loud ban on the term antiaging.

“Whether we know it or not, [it’s] subtly reinforcing the message that aging is a condition we need to battle–think anti-anxiety meds, antivirus software or anti-fungal spray,” she wrote. “[But] if there’s one inevitability in life, it’s that we’re getting older. Every minute. Every second.”

And there’s mounting evidence that this new view on aging–the pro-aging movement–is here to stay. Yet, so is the demand for beauty products, although the focus and presentation will need to adjust to this cultural change.


The term antiaging was first coined by an advertising executive in the 1980s, as part of an irrefutably ingenious push to sell skincare products to an older demographic of women. It’s catchy and thus caught on, so for decades consumers invested in lotions and potions that vow to accomplish the impossible: turn back the hands of time. Whether knowingly
or unwittingly, women, and to a lesser extent men, have become soldiers in a war that employs militarized rhetoric to fight a losing battle. Regardless of how hard consumers “tackle,” “combat” or attempt to “defy” aging, this natural process has a single, unavoidable outcome. Some critics, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have long warned against using inaccurate, scientific-sounding language for product descriptors. And several brands, including RoC and Nivea, pulled advertisements promising to give “middle-aged women clinically proven younger-looking skin” after they were ruled misleading by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority.

But what if consumers no longer bought into the trope? What if to age didn’t mean to disappear from billboards, magazines and silver screens? What if age-shaming verbiage ceased to exist as part of beauty’s standard lexicon? It’s starting to happen now. “Changing the way we think about aging starts with changing the way we talk about aging,” Lee wrote.

“Generally, we’re living longer, and the way we view age is becoming more progressive and empowering.”

–Lucie Greene, Worldwide Director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson

Though nascent, this revolution has begun, and it’s spearheaded by powerful proponents. Lee herself put 72-year-old Helen Mirren on the cover of Allure’s September 2017 issue. Beautiful, silver-haired and wrinkled, the fierce Dame casually sports the tattooed arm of a younger man around her neck.

“Sixty-nine-year-old Maye Musk, mother of Elon Musk, has been a working model for five decades and now serves as the new- est face of CoverGirl,” says Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the Innovation Group at Manhattan-based advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. Makeup master Francois Nars recently appointed 57-year-old Tilda Swinton as his muse and brand ambas- sador, noting that he prefers her features over those of “boring beauty models.” At 74, Lauren Hutton is posing in her skivvies for a Calvin Klein underwear campaign, 68-year- old Jessica Lange was chosen to promote Marc Jacobs Beauty, and Linda Rodin, 69-year-old stylist-turned-CEO, appears in imagery for Rodin Olio Lusso, the skincare company she founded, which Estée Lauder acquired in 2014.

“These are all impressive, visible, sexy women of agency being portrayed in a way that’s both empowering and accurately reflective of their age,” Greene says.

A quick stroll through the aisles of any local drugstore further drives home the fact that the anti-antiaging movement is well underway. Top brands have rolled out new taglines now boldly displayed on various best-selling items, including L’Oréal’s “Age Perfect,” Vichy’s “Slow Age” and “Pro Age” from Dove.

Fashion’s runways are likewise follow- ing suit. There were four times as many models over age 50 in the fall 2017 shows as appeared in spring 2016, according to the online forum The Fashion Spot. Their October 2017 “Diversity Report” tracked statistics of age, race, size and gender, and found that 21 models in their 50s or older catwalked for designers in New York, Paris, London and Milan. That number may sound small–remember, the rebellion is still embryonic–but it’s an improvement over the five, total, hired one year earlier.

Going one step further are visionaries like 66-year-old entrepreneur Cindy Joseph. In high school, the California native spent hours poring through beauty glossies for tips and techniques to employ in fixing what she perceived as fundamental facial flaws. Extensive experimenting with cosmetics ultimately culminated in a career as a top makeup artist–yet even more significant was her internal awakening. In defiance of society’s infatuation with artificial attraction, the pro came to embrace a more natural approach to maquillage.

“I always had the smallest kit and fewest products of any of my colleagues,” Joseph recalls. That minimalistic style caught fire, as it allowed women’s personalities to shine from faces unmasked by layers of powder and paint, and her career flourished. After working for the Esprit de Corps ad campaigns with Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, she spent three years in Paris before moving to New York.

That’s when her third act took a surprising turn, which Joseph maintains wouldn’t have been possible had she not only accepted, but more so cherished, her advancing years. “At age 49, I fell in love with myself all over again,” she reveals. Caring for her body–indulging regular bubble baths, consuming wholesome food–led to a total transformation of per- sona, and she realized she was no longer interested in coloring her hair.

“I don’t use the word ‘gray’ as a descriptor because it carries negative connotations: we think of gray skies and gloomy moods. Now my hair is silver, pewter, alabaster, with as many nuanced shades as can be used to depict blondes, brunettes and redheads,” Joseph says.

The same morning she cut off her last dyed lock, Joseph was standing on a Manhattan street corner when a scout for famed fashion shutterbug Steven Meisel approached Joseph and asked her if she’d consider being featured in a worldwide Dolce & Gabbana campaign. Thus sparked the start of her late-life career as a Ford Models-signed supermodel–crow’s feet and all–followed by the launch of Boom by Cindy Joseph, her pared-down, pro-age skincare and cosmetics line.

“Boom is the sound of a revolution, and while this movement is not about going to war, we are experiencing an upheaval,” Joseph says.

It’s also a nod to the baby boomer set, of which Joseph is a proud member. She defines this demographic as one that’s never idly accepted the established status quo. “We’ve reimagined every decade of our lives, but the reinvention we’re now doing in our 50s, 60s, 70s and later is unprecedented,” Joseph says.

Greene believes that’s partly driven by a natural evolution. “Generally, we’re living longer, and the way we view age is becoming more progressive and empowering,” she relates. “Consumers north of 50 aren’t behaving like previous, ‘older’ generations, but rather living as millennials.” These cultural stakeholders maintain money and influence, and refuse to be patronized with empty promises of juvenescence.

“Boom is the sound of a revolution, and while this movement is not about going to war, we are experiencing an upheaval.”

–Cindy Joseph, founder, Boom by Cindy Joseph

Greene adds, “Marketers have little choice but to respond in kind, as massive retail opportunities are missed when targeting ads relevant only to shoppers’ youths, which is now a narrow part of their full existence.”

The concept of losing value as women age is arguably a male-driven narrative– but women are taking back their story. They’re reclaiming power by asserting that growing older should be appreciated, rather than resisted as a vitality-draining condition. “Let us not go quietly into the night, but rather march and stomp into our female twilight years” would be a good mantra for today’s over-50 women. “Representing women of all ages, with real, non-airbrushed imagery, is becoming a pillar of the fourth wave of feminism,” Greene says.

Of course, while we’ve certainly made progress, some women feel we still have a long way to go. Seventy-year-old Tricia Cusden, CEO of Look Fabulous Forever (LFF), a pro-age makeup line formulated specifically for older faces, eyes and lips, was not impressed by Allure’s Helen Mirren move. “Their cover shot of the ubiquitously featured poster girl for older women simply reinforces the message that to age acceptably you must look hot with a well-defined waist and be attractive to younger guys,” she says. “I sometimes feel that the involvement of Daphne Selfe, Maye Musk and Carmen Dell’Orefice–all stunningly beautiful, tall, thin models–is done more for shock value and publicity, rather than any genuine desire for inclusivity.”

Cusden launched LFF because at 65, she couldn’t find efficacious cosmetics. Fed up with the industry’s antiaging rhetoric, she determined to do better. “We only feature real older women over 55 in our videos and website images, and look for faces that haven’t had work–no Botox, fillers or lifts,” she says.

Even Lee concedes that additional efforts must be made if we are to engineer real change in what remains an ageist society. “Major props to those who have already taken steps, and, to the rest of the beauty industry, we’re calling you out 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,” she writes.

The rather mind-blowing point worth noting is that none of this might actually be real. Like any cultural phenomenon– Twiggy versus the Kardashians’ curves, pencil-thin eyebrows against bushy Solange stunners–the laws of beauty exist only because we invented them. “And if it’s something we got to make up, it’s also something we get to change,” Joseph says.

Say goodbye to antiquated phrases like “antiaging” and hello to “pro-aging” with these marketing tips for your business.

  • THINK POSITIVELY: “Get rid of all copy that says antiaging. Do not carry products that use that term,” says Cindy Joseph, founder of Boom by Cindy Joseph. Eliminate phrases like “prime of life,” call gray hair “silver,” and embrace products with descriptions touting healthier, nurtured and revitalized skin, she says.
  • OPEN THE DISCUSSION: “Host events with the idea of creating a place for women to share their points of view on age and aging, like an open forum. Creating community and support around aging is key,” Joseph says.
  • CHANGE YOUR PERCEPTIONS “Do what it takes to change your own perspective about aging,” Joseph says. “Check to see if you actually have a pro-age point of view. ... Don’t use ageless as a compliment. Really pay attention to how ageism is built into our language and point [examples] out.”

[Image by PeopleImages]