Buying gunk

Smiling on the BBC lunchtime news on Friday 4 May, Sophie Raworth told us about the sell-out popularity of an amazing anti-age skin cream sold by Boots. The BBC reported:

Shoppers waited outside Boots in Royal Avenue from 0800 BST on Friday to secure a bottle of No. 7 Protect & Perfect Serum before stocks sold out.

The reputation of the anti-wrinkle cream, priced at £17 for a 30ml container, received a boost when its beneficial effects were featured on a BBC Two Horizon programme in March.

Raworth’s wrinkle-free smile indicated the light-hearted nature of the story, and reports in the papers mimicked this. “Women have jostled with one another to reach the few restocked shelves”, said The Times. “Another must-have product goes on sale: a lotion to beat old age”, said The Guardian. Women tested the product for the Mail on Sunday:

“As a business woman approaching middle age, I take great care over my appearance. I sell myself to my clients as much as the product”

“The one thing that’s been missing from my life is a good moisturiser”

“I also thought at my age [25] that it would be sensible to start looking for a cream that would prevent my skin from aging badly.”

What do we get from these quotes? That women don’t want to appear to be aging; that women believe appearance is important to their career; ultimately, that normal women do whatever they can to look young, in order to be attractive. These assumptions are so deeply held that putting them into words actually might require us to think in ways we haven’t before. In these stories there’s not even the merest whisper of the screamingly obvious question why do women have to look young to be attractive? Asking that would lead to the embarrassing realisation that there is no good reason.

Some people have used evolutionary theory to suggest that young women are bound to be perceived as more attractive because they are more fertile. This is an excellent case of trying to use a good theory to prove a bad point. Is it possible that youth, as an indicator of fertility, highly-prized in earlier times when mortality rates were much higher, has unnecessarily continued to be seen as attractive, even as mortality rates and society in general have changed?

We live longer than men and we are at greater risk of poverty in old age. Yet planning for the future means buying gunk

Besides which, human beings do not just have sex to procreate. People – male or female – do not want and enjoy sex only during the part of their lives when they are the most fertile. And there’s more: men are perfectly capable of being attracted to women the same age as them, no matter how old or young they are. Happy couples of all ages prove this. Even within the mainstream, there is “Mrs Robinson”, the female stereotype who is older and attractive.

But she is the exception. It’s pretty easy to see that the mass media constantly bombards us with images of beautiful women who are young, and younger than men. As an example, take The OC, a popular teen soap which finished here recently. The actors playing Kirsten and Julie, the main adult female characters, were on average 14 years younger than the actors playing their husbands – and 15.5 years older than those playing their children. The actor playing teen hero Ryan was 8 years older than the actor playing his girlfriend Marissa. How about a more serious programme? The three male presenters of the Channel 4 News average 48 years old; the only female presenter is 39. Not an enormous gap, but still a gap.

And shoppers – who are mostly female – queue first thing in the morning to buy youth. In the process, they give £17 of their hard-earned money to “Britain’s £6.2 billion cosmetics industry” (statistic from The Telegraph, point from Naomi Wolf).

Women still get paid 13% less than men in full-time work and 40% less in part-time work. We live longer than men: we are at greater risk of poverty in old age, yet planning for the future means buying gunk.

Of course, confronted with the images and the assumptions around us, it’s hard not to fret about getting older. We feel as if we’re at risk of losing something. Because we are all trained to look at younger women as more attractive than older women, we are at risk of losing something – the desire of our lovers, our own self esteem. It’s hard for any woman to figure out what to do about this, but awareness is the first step. We need to remember, when seeing photos of young beautiful models and reading about anti-age gunk, that we are being offered a pitifully narrow version of what it is to be attractive and what it is to be a woman.

Gemma is an activist and budding writer with a particular interest in feminism, disabled people’s rights and global trade. She is based in Kent