Fifty is the new 40. Forty is the new 30. Thirty is the new 20.
As hashtags, they’re ubiquitous. At face value, they’re feel-good mantras. On a deeper level, though, one thing is clear: Aging is something to deny, to dodge, to outsmart. Why be your age when you can pass for younger? Of course, sociologists and TED Talkers could wax rhapsodic about how females of each generation are bucking norms and conventional wisdom about what it means to be in your 30s, 60s — any decade, really. But...what do real women actually think of being, you know, the age they are? Do they embrace it? Fake it? Hide it? What does age-appropriate even mean when we live in a culture that loves to play fuzzy math with a woman’s social currency? And so it is now — just over a year after Allure launched its anti anti-aging campaign — that we’re featuring a groundbreaking study by AARP to discover what 2,000 women, from 21 to 72, really feel about their age.
No question was off limits.
Women were asked about their skin-care routines, their body image, their biggest fears about growing older. What became immediately clear is that the average woman’s attitudes about her “number” are far more nuanced than what any expert would have you believe. While our culture tends to make sweeping black-and-white pronouncements (Boomer women feel sexually invisible! Millennials are selfie-obsessed and it’s whittling away at their self-esteem!), our relationship with aging is largely gray. And it’s in those gray corridors that many popular notions of aging are being challenged. For one, women of all ages (but especially Gen Xers and Boomers) are less likely to furrow their brows over growing older than over how infrequently they see women who look like them in popular culture. In fact, 61 percent of women claim they don’t feel represented by images of women in media. About three quarters of them relish advertisements that celebrate all ages and wish they saw more realistic images of women in magazines and social media feeds. (Marketers, this is your wake-up call!)
What Women Want
And even when there is representation, women are looking back at images that don’t quite reflect what they see in the mirror. Half of all women admit to being annoyed by airbrushed images on magazine covers. And yet — and yet — so much of their own personal lives are experienced through a filter. Of all groups, millennial women are more likely to get a self-esteem boost from filtered images of themselves — and from scoring “likes” on social media. While today’s women might hide behind a filter or two, they are unapologetically open about revealing their number. Only 17 percent of women hesitate when asked to spill their age. Perhaps that’s because it’s not in the forefront of their minds: Less than one-third of women, from twentysomethings to septuagenarians, consider it a defining factor in their lives. There’s less emotional weight in revealing that number since women, in general, are taking better care of themselves holistically. Across generations, these women regularly work out, eat fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, get annual medical exams. And they're not above using beauty products for a boost. Almost a third of Gen Xers and Boomers admit to turning to them to look younger and help soften the years. But they’re not slathering on wrinkle creams. Less than half of women have purchased them (and just a quarter of millennials). In many ways the promise of reversing wrinkles seems hopelessly out of step with an Insta-feed that celebrates more immediate pick-me-ups, like sheet masks.
Women are also rewriting age-related fashion rules.
Tired tropes (think: “Things No Woman Over 40 Should Wear”) were also overturned. Nearly as many Gen Xers as Millennials rock miniskirts. Boomers, however, own that space most, with 72 percent of them claiming they can “feel free to dress how I want.” But perhaps the biggest takeaway is that while some generation gaps do exist, Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers were more in lockstep than not. As a whole, women believe in the idea of “healthy aging” — 64 percent of Millennials and Gen Xers, and 75 percent of Boomers to be exact. And that mindset is crucial. Harvard researchers have found that people who feel old tend to age faster. And Yale University research echoes that, suggesting that people who think aging means declining tend to develop cardiovascular and memory problems. Perhaps that explains why, instead of being tethered into one generational bucket, some sociologists have coined a new term — Perennials, a more aspirational descriptor that suggests, like the namesake blooms, women can thrive for years to come. A concept we can all get behind.
Data for Mirror/Mirror: AARP Survey of Women’s Reflections on Beauty, Age, and Media™were collected by W5 through AYTM – Ask Your Target Market online research platform from 8/ 31/18 – 9/3/18 among 2,000 women ages 21 to 72. Data were weighted by age, region, income, and race/ethnicity to reflect US women ages 21 to 72.