double standards and derision – tracing our attitudes to older women and beauty

Brigitte Macron, wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, is a rare example of an older woman in the public eye who has attracted praise for her appearance. At 64, Macron is 24 years older than her husband, but her healthy figure and youthful style of dress saw her described in Vogue as “rock ‘n’ roll”.

Brigitte Macron.
Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

While Macron is admired for her penchant for leather pants, women regularly face policing of their clothing and cosmetic choices once they reach the age of 30. Ageing only brings about further restrictions, with few older women who cultivate their appearance successfully negotiating the line between looking acceptably young or upsettingly unnatural.

Madonna, who will turn 60 next year, is a case in point; her attempts to retain a sexy image are sometimes described with revulsion. Piers Morgan described her as “50 Shades of Granny” after her 2015 kiss with Drake. Her famous muscles, which keep her skin taut, were called “monstrously sculpted and bloodcurdling veiny corpse arms” by TMZ as the publication had a dig at her “toyboy” Jesus Luz.

In contrast, Cher, at 71, recently wore a replica of a near-nude costume from 1989 at the Billboard Music Awards and was generally praised as “amazing” and “owning it”.

What is Cher doing to invite praise that Madonna isn’t? And where did restrictive ideas about beauty and ageing come from? When did we decide that there was a particular age at which women might incite criticism or disgust for attempting to look beautiful or desirable?

A closer look at women’s magazines from the 19th century — the era in which modern advertising and celebrity culture were born — reveal the origins of many of our hang-ups about older women and beauty.

In the first half of that century, beauty was understood as God-given or natural. Beliefs in physiognomy also suggested that the inner character of a woman might be visible in her face. In 1849, in an article that commented on the process of women’s ageing, the English magazine World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons observed:

Neither rouge, artificial ringlets, nor all the resources of the toilet, can retard the relentless progress of that terrible foe to beauty, Time. But every one must have noticed how lightly his hand rests upon some, how heavily upon others … A good conscience is the greatest preservative of beauty. High and noble thoughts leave behind them noble and beautiful traces, meanness of thought and selfishness of feeling league with Time to unite age and ugliness together.

This dismissal of cosmetics is typical of attitudes that saw beauty as a quality that a woman was either born with or not and its loss inevitable.
In the final decades of the 19th century, however, women’s magazines transformed this belief.

With the growth of advertising and beauty advice columns, there was gradual acceptance that fading looks should be combated by almost any means necessary. For older women, being visibly made up gradually became more tolerable, though the degree to which the cosmetics might be detectable was a point of contention. Women who foolishly attempted to recreate the charms of their youth were still harshly judged.

Cosmetics and ageing

The 30s were understood as a threshold for women entering middle age and no longer being considered at the peak of attractiveness. An advertisement for Madame Dupree’s Berlin Toilet Soap from 1890 promises “a return to youthful beauty” and specifies that the soap can “make […] a lady of 35 appear but 25”.

A 1904 beauty manual by Lady Jean, Beauty as a Fine Art, is generous enough to suggest that a woman of 40 “is just entering upon a long summer of useful and enjoyable existence”. Yet it goes on to suggest that “anything that threatens to rob her of the outward sign of youth” could be “combated and defied by all reasonable means”.

A Pears ad showing a woman who is 50 but supposed to look 17, from June 1 1888.
Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, p. 325.

The rise of advertising and consumer culture in the Victorian period saw the birth of thousands of brand-name beauty products. Many promised readers that they could retain the markers of youth: a full head of luxurious hair with no bald spots or grey, a full set of teeth, a trim waist, and a clear and smooth complexion.

Importantly, an overall distinction was made between products that might “preserve” youth, such as soaps, treatments and baths, and those that attempt to artificially conceal aged skin, such as obvious coloured cosmetics.

There was greater acceptance of certain cosmetics such as powder and rouge in the late 19th century. However, lingering views about natural beauty and the unpleasantness of older woman attempting to present themselves as youthful ensured that cosmetic advertisements denied the artifice involved in their products.

Advertisements for soaps, dyes and related beautifying aids emphasised their capacity to preserve what beauty women already possessed. Advertisements for hair restorers claimed (surely erroneously) they could renew grey hair to its original colour without the use of dye. An ad for Rossetter’s hair restorer from around 1880 also claims to give the hair “the lustre and health of youth”.

In small print at the bottom of an undated advertisement for Blackham’s hair restorer, it is acknowledged that their Electric Hair Stain is a dye – but purchasers are reassured that this “cannot be detected”. In a similar vein to today’s attitudes to cosmetic surgery, this claim signals how women had to ensure improvements to their appearance were seen as natural and, ironically, unnoticeable.

Blackhams tonic ad, circa 1895.

Soap was the most acceptable of commercial products for preserving youthful skin. Actresses and famous figures often provided written testimonials or directly featured in Victorian advertising. Sarah Bernhardt, a French actress, regularly appeared in beauty advertisements, including for Pears soap and her own rice-based face powder.

Ageing disgracefully

In contrast to frequent advocacy for soaps and home remedies in women’s magazines, the services and treatments of the infamous cosmetician Madame Rachel, Sarah Rachel Levison, provided well-publicised examples of older women who were imagined as foolish and vain for seeking to improve their appearances.

Products provided at her London salon included Circassian Beauty Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew Water of Sahara for removing wrinkles, and Youth and Beauty Cream. In 1863, Rachel published a 24-page pamphlet, entitled “Beautiful For Ever!” It told how she now had the sole right to sell

the Magnetic Rock Dew Water of Sahara, which possesses the extraordinary property of increasing the vital energies – restores the colour of grey hair – gives the appearance of youth to persons far advanced in years, and removes wrinkle, defect, and blemishes, from whatever cause they may arise.

Madame Rachel.
Wikimedia images

The treatment for which Madame Rachel was most famous was known as “enamelling”. This involved the removal of facial hair, cleansing of the skin with alkaline washes, then filling of any wrinkles or uneven facial features with a thick white paste, which sometimes contained lead. This was followed by the application of powder and rouge.

The gullibility of older women in chasing the fountain of youth through cosmetics was amply illustrated in Madame Rachel’s trial for fraud in 1868. Her victim, 50-year-old Mary Tucker Borradaile, was described as an object of pity in the trial.

One of the prosecutors, Montagu Williams, found it hard to believe that Borradaile could have believed she could be made beautiful forever. He later recalled her to be a pathetic figure in her attempts to look attractive despite her years:

She was a spare, thin, scraggy-looking woman, wholly devoid of figure; her hair was dyed a bright yellow; her face was ruddled with paint; and the darkness of her eyebrows was strongly suggestive of meretricious art.

It was recorded that Borradaile had been beautiful in her youth and was particularly noted for her long, golden hair. But, in court, her hair was observed to be unnaturally dyed or artificial. Fellow prosecutor William Ballantine described Borradaile as:

a skeleton encased apparently in plaster of Paris, painted pink and white, and surmounted with a juvenile wig.

According to Helen Rappaport, when Borradaile entered the courtroom to give evidence, there were audible gasps at her made-up face.

‘The absolute loss of empire’

Horror at the cosmetically enhanced older woman continued to be expressed into the early 20th century. In The Art of Being Beautiful from 1902, the supposedly 50-year-old interviewee, the Baroness, advises:

For a woman to try and knock more than ten years off her age is an arrogance for which she is punished by every glance of the passers-by. When she tries as a brunette to make herself into a blonde by the use of unlimited white chalk, she also makes herself grotesque – as unpleasing as a fly that had dropped into a honey-pot. When, as a blonde, she adorns herself with black eyebrows like croquet hoops, frankly she becomes alarming, if not detestable.

The Baroness also remarks that dyed hair does not complement “wrinkled cheeks”, especially when the dye chosen is of an “infantine yellow tint”. Apparently, there were certain signs of youth that older women should not attempt to recapture.

While the Baroness critiqued the older woman who attempted to turn back the hands of time through excessive use of cosmetics, she did advocate for beauty regimens to slow the process of ageing. She described the loss of beauty as “the absolute loss of empire”. “Active preparations” for ageing were encouraged – in the same manner as the fire brigade, army and medical profession might ready for fires, war and disease.

So as women aged, they were confronted with the choice of either accepting the gradual fading of their looks, or being criticised for trying to visibly ameliorate signs of age, attempting the impossible task of trying to stave off wrinkles and grey hair.

Meg Ryan pictured in Los Angeles in June.
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

These double standards are exceedingly familiar. Older women in the public eye are caught in a bind between being seen as excessive users of cosmetic surgery who have made themselves look unnatural, or of having aged or “let themselves go” to the point of no longer being seen as desirable and bankable.

Actresses in their 50s, such as Meg Ryan and Daryl Hannah, regularly appear in photo galleries taking delight in “botched” plastic surgery or marvelling at “trout pouts”. Conversely, magazines and gossip sites pounced on unflattering photographs of Kirstie Ally, now 66, when she gained a significant amount of weight in 2008, and proclaimed her “washed up”.

While a small number of women in the public eye, like Brigitte Macron, are seen to deftly negotiate these expectations of beauty and ageing, most are set up to fail.

This article was amended July 7 to correct that Kirstie Alley was being referred to, not Ally Sheedy.

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