“There are some people that I’ve actually seen or treated myself personally,” says Shereene Idriss, a New York-based dermatologist who works with celebrity clients and who provides skincare advice on TikTok and Instagram. “More often than not, [the video] is not correct.”
The confluence of celebrity culture and the ability to manipulate every casual selfie has created the sense that we are not meant to look old at all.
These images have “warped the way people think about ageing, and what is considered to be quote-unquote ‘normal,’” Idriss says. “Unfortunately, I do attribute it to all these social media filters. All these people who are getting work done who look just ambivalent. They don’t look like anyone; they just look like everyone.”
“It has taken away from the beauty that comes with ageing,” Idriss adds. “People can age gracefully, but people no longer know what that looks like.”
Linda Wells, who founded Allure in 1991 and now edits Air Mail’s beauty publication, Look, lived through the great debates about magazine retouching in the 1990s and 2000s. Fashion magazines have always used retouchers to create a sense of fantasy beyond what’s possible in real life, but “retouchers existed the minute photography was born”. Editing or manipulating a photograph, or even asking a friend to retake that selfie so you can tilt your head to a slightly more flattering angle, “is a human impulse,” Wells says.
Now, though, “I think the tools are in the hands of individuals who aren’t professionals, so it seems like it has the potential to run amok. And it changes what everyone’s perception is,” she says. “We all look at these pictures and think, ‘OK, well, it’s not true, but then again, what is?’”
Undoubtedly, people do look much younger now than they did in previous decades. The standard-bearers may be unrealistic: 50-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow with her abs, or Stewart in her sultry swimsuit cover.
But a look back at stars from films in the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s – and even into the early 2000s – shows how health and our own standards of physical maintenance have improved. Developments in sunscreen, the introduction of retinol, and the decline in hazardous habits such as smoking cigarettes, mean that people look younger. (Idriss herself is the frequent recipient of such comments; she is 39, but TikTok commenters often say she looks 10 years younger than that, or more.)
When Botox was approved for cosmetic use in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in 2002 it was intended to soften lines on the face. Now, many patients (and doctors and nurse practitioners) see an immobile face as the goal.
Wells says the frozen look was once widely mocked – but now, Instagram and TikTok filters that shrink your nose, widen your eyes and clear your skin (features included even when the filter is as anodyne as putting a cowboy hat on your head) have led young women to “this belief that an un-animated face will never become wrinkled. So expressionless-ness and frozen means you’ll prevent wrinkles forever and ever – which is not possible”.
The Kardashian women are perhaps the epitome of this look. On their eponymous TV show The Kardashians, streaming on Disney+ in Australia, Kim jokes about the amount of Botox she uses, and the sisters speak in a monotone, flat voice that seems as affectless as their expressions.
It may be related that the demand for injectables spiked during the pandemic, when we were forced to stare at our faces on Zoom and see our reactions as our colleagues see them.
“Beauty is always about control,” Wells says. “The world of beauty is always about controlling nature, which is not controllable, although it gives us the myth of control.”
Both Wells and Idriss say the goal for many women remains ageing gracefully – which is to say, ageing in a way where you look like yourself. Some of Idriss’s clients who work in entertainment have even asked her not to address issues that might be seen as flaws. “They’ve all seen their colleagues look weird at a certain point,” she says. “I do think the pendulum is swinging back to a world that is more realistic and not so unattainable.”
Frequently, Idriss says, the answer to patients’ questions about ageing is not Botox or fillers; it’s developing a routine that addresses the quality of your skin tone, more than lines or sagging.
“I think ageing is a beautiful thing,” she says. “I think if you’re not ageing, you’re dead. The goal is to age as beautifully as you want to, for yourself.”
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