Is our youth-obsessed society putting the pressure on older women to halt the hands of time? – photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 12 | Dec. 7, 2006
By Lorraine Chan
There was a time when a grandmother could look like a grandmother. No longer.
Not when Sophia Loren, at 72, still holds her voluptuous allure, and fellow actress Susan Sarandon demonstrates that 60 is indeed the new 50.
“It’s becoming socially unacceptable to look old,” says School of Human Kinetics’ Laura Hurd Clarke. “We live in a culture that denigrates old bodies and equates the physical signs of aging with moral decay and the loss of social and sexual desirability.”
Since 1996, Asst. Prof. Hurd Clarke has been studying women aged 50-70 and their complex relationship with body image and aging. She says while much has been written about body image, cosmetic procedures and younger women, her research is among the first to delve into the experiences of boomers and pre-boomers.
Her current study investigates older women and non-surgical cosmetic procedures (NSCP) such as chemical peels, Botox injections, injectable fillers, laser hair removal, laser skin treatments, and sclerotherapy (a treatment to remove varicose veins).
Hurd Clarke says there has been astronomic growth in cosmetic procedures over the past nine years. While there are no reliable data for Canada, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery registered 11.5 million cosmetic procedures in 2005, of which 81 per cent were non-surgical procedures. Ninety per cent of surgical and non-surgical procedures were performed on women. About a quarter of these procedures were performed on 55- to 64-year-olds.
“There’s more pressure on people to have beauty interventions, such that it has become normalized and socially sanctioned,” says Hurd Clarke. “I want women to sit and think about why we’ve decided that beautiful looks a certain way. What is that we value and why? Why do we place so much emphasis on women’s appearances? Why do we fear looking older, let alone getting older?”
For her study, Hurd Clarke conducted in-depth interviews with 44 women, volunteers aged 50-70. Half of them had purchased some form of cosmetic procedures, while the other half hadn’t.
Her research data didn’t yield a definitive trend or linear findings, but pointed to what Hurd Clarke calls the “beauty work continuum,” a term she coined for how women tend to rank their choices — as necessary, too dangerous or a possible future option — each according to their upbringing and ideals of feminine beauty.
“If anything, the data confirmed the contradictions and tensions women feel toward self enhancement,” she explains. “Women who never work out and don’t even dye their hair were okay about getting injectable fillers. Other women who wax everything that can be waxed, were really opposed to anything like Botox or Restylane.”
One constant did emerge. “There’s a distinction between surface treatments and injecting foreign substances under the skin. For example, most of the women were leery of Botox and other injections, but were open to microdermabrasion or chemical peels, for example.”
Women who had work done felt the need to keep it secret. “Women talked about feeling how it should look natural, and not as if they had to work really hard at it or spend a lot of money.”
She says two women even kept their beauty work hidden from their partners. “They were afraid of being seen as vain and shallow, but they were also afraid if they didn’t do it, their partners would leave them.”
These kinds of insecurities, along with the desire to remain competitive on the job market or dating scene were among the main reasons women gave for beauty interventions. In some cases, it was simply having the means, says Hurd Clarke. “Their children have left home. They have the cash and they want to invest in themselves. They want to look more youthful because they feel youthful on the inside.”
She adds that women who have been valued for their appearance their whole lives would certainly view beauty work as a worthwhile investment. “This is their social currency. In some cases it becomes a priority. For example, one woman was cleaning houses and using that money to pay for procedures.”
Hurd Clarke says one in three of the study participants disclosed heart-rending stories.
“I was really surprised by the amount of trauma I heard,” recalls Hurd Clark. “Many of the women talked about growing up in poverty, experiencing rape, being assaulted by husbands, being verbally abused by parents. One woman said, ‘I have to do something because I see my mother’s face every time I look in the mirror. I hated her, she was so mean to me.”
Hurd Clarke says that she’s not suggesting that women undergo NSCP solely because of trauma. “But these brutal experiences have shaped how they perceive their bodies, their appearances and growing older. Especially for 50- to 70-year-olds who carried this around with them since it was socially unacceptable to talk about these traumas and they often had no one to turn to for help or affirmation when they were young children.”
Hurd Clarke says those who expressed no interest in halting the hands of time were usually women who enjoy supportive, loving relationships. “They were often women who were happy with life, who viewed their bodies as instruments for action rather than objects for people to look at. They derived their sense of identity from something other than their appearances and had supportive social networks.”
For more information about Asst. Prof. Hurd Clarke, visit: www.hkin.educ.ubc.ca/faculty/clarkel/clarkel.htm.