Double Standards and Derision – Tracing Our Attitudes to Older Women and Beauty

Madonna’s attempts to maintain a sexy appearance are often described with revulsion. Piers Morgan referred to her as ’50 Shades Of Granny’ following her kiss with Drake in 2015. Her muscles that keep her skin taut were described as “monstrously sculptured and bloodcurdling, veiny corpse arm”, by TMZ in a dig against her “toyboy”, Jesus Luz.

At the Billboard Music Awards, Cher, aged 71, wore a replica costume of a nearly nude outfit from 1989 and was praised for “amazing”.

What does Cher do to attract praise that Madonna doesn’t? Where did the idea of beauty and aging become so restrictive? When did we decide there was an age when women would be criticized or disgusted for trying to look attractive or desirable?

Looking at the women’s magazines of the 19th century, the era when modern advertising and celebrity cultures were born, reveals the origins of some of our preconceived notions about older women.

In the first half, beauty was regarded as a gift from God or a natural phenomenon. According to physiognomy, the face of a woman could reveal her inner character. In an 1849 article on women’s aging, the English magazine World of Fashion & Continental Feuilletons noted:

Time is the greatest enemy of beauty. No amount of rouge, artificial ringlets, or toilet resources can stop it. Everyone must have seen how his hand is lightly placed on some and heavily placed on others. A good conscience will preserve beauty the best. High and noble thoughts will leave beautiful and noble traces behind, but selfishness and meanness in thought will combine with time to create ugly and age.

This attitude is typical of those who believed that beauty was a natural quality that women were born with and that its loss was inevitable. Women’s magazines changed this belief in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

The growth of beauty advice columns and advertising led to a gradual acceptance that fading appearances should be combated with almost any means possible. Visibly being made up became tolerable for older women. However, the extent to which cosmetics could be detected was still a matter of debate. Women who tried to recreate their youthful charms were harshly judged.

Ageing and cosmetics

Women were no longer considered attractive in their 30s. They were entering middle age. A 1890 advertisement for Madame Dupree’s Berlin Toilet Soap promises “a return of youthful beauty.” It specifies that it can “make […] an older woman appear younger”.

Beauty as a fine art, a 1904 beauty guide by Lady Jean suggests that a woman at 40 is “just entering into a long summer useful and enjoyable existence”. It goes on to say that “anything” that could rob a woman of her “outward sign of youthfulness” can be “combatted and defied with all reasonable means”.

From June 1, 1888, a Pears advertisement showing a woman aged 50 who looks like she is 17. Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion p.325

In the Victorian era, advertising and consumer culture led to the creation of thousands of beauty products with brand names. Many advertised that readers could maintain the hallmarks of youth, including a full head with no grey or bald patches, a set of white teeth, a trim figure, and a smooth and clear complexion.

It is important to distinguish between products that “preserve youth,” such as soaps and treatments, and those that attempt to conceal aging skin artificially, such a obvious colored cosmetics.

In the late nineteenth century, certain cosmetics like powder and rouge were more widely accepted. Cosmetic advertisements have always denied their use due to lingering views on natural beauty, and the unattractiveness of older women trying to appear youthful.

Advertisements for beauty aids such as soaps, dyes, and other beautifying products highlighted their ability to maintain the natural beauty of women. Advertisements for hair dyes made the (certainly incorrect) claim that they could restore grey hair to its natural color without using dye. Rossetter’s hair restoration ad from 1880 claims that it will give hair the “lustre and health” of youth.

A small print advertisement from an undated Blackham’s Hair Restorer acknowledges that the Electric Hair Stain they sell is actually a dye. However, purchasers are assured that it “cannot even be detected”. This claim is similar to the current attitudes towards cosmetic surgery. It signals that women must ensure their improvements in appearance are seen as natural, and ironically, unnoticeable.

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