My mother and I have had many long and cyclical conversations about the unfortunate circumstances of her being a human and having to age. She dabs the new RevitaLift Anti-Ageing Cream under her beautiful green eyes and bemoans the wrinkles that show where she has smiled, the spots that hint at where the sun has kissed her face.
I do not fault her for wishing that she didn’t have to see the lines of age drawn out along her face. She has been handed the baton of insecurity from years and years of multimillion dollar industries capitalizing on her self-hate. A lot of advertisements, money, and insecurity have gone into the thirty dollar dollop of cream she has just spread beneath her eyes, and she sighs as she explains to me she has no other choice. At the time, I did not understand.
Kathy Peiss, in her novel “Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture,” meticulously outlines the steps it took to get the dollop of cream on my mother’s gentle finger. By the turn of the 20th century, choice language was beginning to be utilized to strip women of their ability to age while remaining sexual, hireable, even or even respectable human beings. The lack of the “charm of youthful allure”, as a 1926 ad for Palmolive proclaims, left the middle aged woman “conspicuously absent” from the modern social scene. This language outlines the emerging prevailing notion of youth as a mark of modernity, implying that the woman that ages was inherently falling behind her contemporaries.
And as the century progressed and this language grew more virulent, it became a matter of “dignity”, according to the wife of a powerful Washington socialite, to care for the “smoothness” and “firmness” of the skin. A woman’s virtue was now dependent on her ability to appear ageless, and personal assumptions could me made regarding her character based on the natural lines that appeared on her face. From these preliminary ideals of modernity emerged cosmetics that proclaimed the impossible: Anti-Ageing Cream, Triple Age Repair, Advanced Anti-Ageing Therapy, Meta Cell Renewal, the list goes on.
However, it is important to note that while advertisements like the Palmolive example may have focused their efforts on harnessing the perceived anxieties of women surrounding “falling behind” their times, the women themselves wrestled with a much more complex decision process. They were aware of the pressures being placed on their appearance, “and their desire for youthful beauty had as much to do with… the requirements of employers, and physical demands of housework and child rearing” as it may have had with the opinions of their husbands. It was understood that “appropriate appearance” was an “unspoken requirement” of any jobs. Women with visible signs of ageing utilized cosmetics “to compete in a job market where office work required women to present an ‘illusion of the necessary vigor and youth.’” Women of the early 20th Century were masters of economics, weighing the costs and benefits of losing their ability to age with their careers and power, and choosing to invest in cosmetics that offered hope.
My mother is the vice president of real estate at a company that oversees brands stretching from Tommy Hilfiger to Calvin Klein. She walks into an office that every day becomes younger relative to her seasoned experience. When she dabs the RevitaLift cream under her eyes, she is making the conscious decision to place her hope in cosmetics to help her keep her job, stay relevant, and help her appear worthy of respect in the eyes of her coworkers. While years of advertising and misogyny have placed her in this impossible predicament, she is aware of these unreasonable expectations and chooses to instead use products such as the RevitaLift Cream, another in a long line of products claiming to perform miracles, because in reality, what other choice does she have?
Duke University Libraries Digital Repository. “Beauty is Youth at All Ages.” Palmolive Company, 1926. Ladies’ Home Journal.
Peiss, Kathy. “Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture.”University of Pennsylvania Press. 1998.