The Ever-Changing Business of ‘Anti-Aging’

Early on, the need for facial treatments was typically located in the desires of men. In the 1930s and ’40s, Palmolive ran a series of bluntly shaming ads in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Farmer’s Wife. The soap company invented the problem of “ ‘middle-age’ skin,” a condition it claimed could afflict women as young as 22, then blamed it for all kinds of romantic disappointments, from “girls with empty date books” to the wife who “loses love.” (One ad featured an illustration of Cupid, sitting with his head in his hands, crying, “I give up!”) The judgmental gaze of other women also played a role. A 1926 ad for an in-store facial treatment blares, “Poor Lois — see how old she’s growing!” Female self-loathing was acknowledged openly. One ad asks, “Is it the greatest crisis of a woman’s emotional life?” Meaning: “that sudden, merciless message from a mirror’s crystal depths … ‘you are fading, just a bit.’ ”

These campaigns framed women as desperate, waiting helplessly for a product to save them from the humiliation of age. The past few decades, though, plunged us into a very different way of thinking — the Golden Age of “anti-aging.” The ads shifted from cautionary tales to stories of inspiration, in which plucky women successfully race against time to take charge of their own looks. Social shaming was sublimated into an aggressive personal narrative. Militarized language became chic: Advertisements started instructing women to “tackle,” “combat” and “fight against” aging, to stage an “intervention” on their skin. Revlon’s Age Defying makeup told the consumer, of her advancing age: “Don’t deny it. Defy it.” In this model, age is a war waged on a woman’s face, and it can never be won — only “slowed” or prevented from “advancing,” like an occupying force.

All along, the Food and Drug Administration has periodically issued warnings about clinical-sounding…

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