Is beauty folded into wrinkles and strands of white hair? If so, can both genders tap into it? Let me be honest here. I’m not talking about an abstract beauty that is to be found lurking wherever we care to look closely. I’m talking about the almost involuntary gut attraction exerted by people with the vaunted characteristics curated by mainstream western culture. Some of these features, evolutionary psychology will tell you, might be somewhat universally attractive: symmetry, averageness (yes: faces closer to the population average are consistently rated as more attractive than idiosyncratic faces), and distinctive male/female characteristics. But for some things, we can’t just wave the wand of genetic explain-away. As men and women meander through life, picking up a slowing metabolism here and laughter lines there, one gender forges on in their beauty path while the other gets suddenly shoved into the bushes.
The intersection of requirements for being beautiful past around age 40 are such that your odds are higher if you happen to be a man toting a good chunk of change, brains, or at the very least, a gun. James Bond, for example, has had a fun time in his empire of 23+ movies. He has been suave, desirable…beautiful even. One thing he has certainly not been is a spring chicken. The average age of the actor playing the spy is 42.8. The vixens courting 007’s short attention span, on the other hand, average in at 28.6. That’s a 14.2-year gap. If I were to play my age-equivalent 27-year-old Bond girl from Licence to Kill, I could consider myself the lucky romancer of a 43-year-old man. In reality, this does not tickle my fancy. But such glamorized media representations are not without effect. Seeing the repetition of vibrant young women of exaggerated beauty being eagerly pursued and pursuing these significantly older men sends a clear message about what is attractive. Men are told: age and you will receive; women are told: age and you can hang up your boots. This is anything but a Bond-specific anomaly. Instead, across the spectrum, older men of varying industries and facial geometries continue to be paired up with the most radiant, symmetric-faced, and feminine of young females. I’m finding this on-screen, on-page, and real-life manifestation of the powerful male’s wet dream really boring. The young women involved are often props, and even when given the opportunity to reflect unique views and complexities, they are not done justice as foils to their near-father-aged beaus. More than anything though, I want to know what the women of Bond’s age are up to. I want to know what movies, commercials, magazines and worldviews we’d be chomping on if women weren’t mostly stuck taking direction from the outdated fantasies of tradition-loving men. For one, surely we would not cut ourselves out of beauty so early in an increasingly long and active lifespan.
It isn’t easy to leap out of the matrix when the alternative to mainstream female beauty is uncharted territory. Walking through public places – malls, airports, busy sidewalks – is a quick and inescapable crash course in what’s beautiful. Advertisements feature young women bounding towards you playfully, carelessly, flashing bright teeth and taught skin. They bend and twirl, blow kisses and wink. Some pout from behind shadowy, narrowed eyes. Yet I give them too much choice in the matter. Shouting instructions from behind the cameras taking their pictures are predominantly male photographers. The female-obsessed beauty shoved down our throats at every turn originates in the eye of male beholders. Of course this isn’t what we think about when we see what we have been conditioned to find beautiful. We grow up in a flood of images and integrate them into our own desires and habits. Only later do some of us begin to feel a little absurd and a little trapped.
I remember when I started shaving my legs as a teenager. It was against the objection of my mom, who thought I was too young to adopt a practice that signifies the ending of childhood. Kids should be kids for as long as possible! Yet with a mixture of fearfulness (there’s no turning back!), embarrassment (so vain!), and excitement (I’m on the path to becoming a hot grownup!) I picked up the razor and braced myself for what looked like a painful procedure. It was easier than anticipated – these products have been honed over years of mass manufacturing. I now find it confounding that shaving the hair which accompanies a girl’s maturing body signals her entrance into adulthood all while serving to preserve the image of her child-like legs. That is the paradox that haunts female beauty all the way through: look child-like and be feminine, forever. Little advents like shaving legs and armpits while pushing up boobs and accentuating waists occur side by side in a body that is both changing too much and not changing enough. An overwhelming choice of clothing, make-up, hairstyles and treatments float an enormous industry bent on helping you to achieve the look that is always out of reach and gets increasingly distant as you age.
Men have it easier. Their bodies are not continually scrutinized and publicly called out for being beautiful (or not). They need not make significant adjustments to fit into a tiny, unbudging beauty box. Their clothes are consistent and almost uniform-like, cutting down on time spent deliberating on what to wear and how it will be perceived. They pay no makeup tax (if this is something you are unfamiliar with, I recommend watching Amy Schumer’s hilarious boy band explanation). And not least importantly, male beauty is given a chance to exist with age. It is a socio-economically constricted chance, one of a stoically graying man in a fine suit, but it’s a chance that cracks the door for wider acceptance. I’m not saying any of this is the best-case scenario for men. They’re suffering and missing out, too. If a man even thinks of experimenting with beauty, he risks being branded as feminine – which of course, is an insult.
One reason that these beauty norms are difficult to escape is that they are intimately connected to power structures. Older men can be seen as attractive in part because of the power and money they wield. Young women, often socialized to be gentle, submissive and keenly aware of the worth attached to their beauty, are practically groomed for finding older men attractive. Giving older women a chance to redefine beauty standards in turn risks disrupting this order of power. As long as female beauty defines the value of a woman and continues to be centered on youth and amplified feminine traits, it can be wielded as an effective control mechanism. Just look at Donald Trump’s high profile comments towards women in positions of power. About fellow republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina he was quoted saying, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president. I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really folks, come on. Are we serious?” About 42-year-old model Heidi Klum, he lamented, “Sadly, she’s no longer a 10.” Remarks like these may sound jarring and juvenile, but they are not far from the widely perceived mainstream. When Caitlyn Jenner made her debut, Jon Stewart was quick to point out that amid all the support, media outlets “wasted no time in treating her like a woman”. Following clips of talking heads commenting exclusively on Jenner’s physical appearance, Stewart notes “Caitlyn, when you were a man, we could talk about your business acumen, your athleticism, but now you’re a woman and your looks are really the only thing we care about.” And after a commentator points out Jenner’s age, Stewart quips “remind her she has an expiration date now! You came out at 65, you have another two years before you become invisible to society, better make the most of it!”
Every day that we decline to question beauty standards, we take part in a tradition that constrains nearly half the population, trivializing young women and erasing old women. I don’t particularly look forward to the prospect of being erased, of having my lifespan in popular society cut almost in half. For that reason, I get a little nervous when I see a new white hair or wrinkle cropping up. This must change. Beauty is in dire need of a mainstream makeover.