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Beauty Duty: Aging and Braving
Why Pam Anderson's bare face shouldn't be news
I was thirteen when I got my first cosmetic enhancement—a perm. I suffered a burning scalp, a rash on my forehead, and the lingering smell of rotten eggs and ammonia in return for Farah Fawcett-like waves.
I was twenty-three when I paid a beautician to tape a plastic cap to my head, stab at it repeatedly with a crochet hook, and bleach stands of dirty blonde hair so I could have Princess- Diana-like golden highlights.
I was thirty-five when I splurged on eyebrow waxing, manicures, pedicures, and facials—luxuries I could rarely afford as a single mother of two, but magazines like Cosmo and Glamour made the rules for "catching a man" and "finding perfect happiness."
I used a Macy's credit card to buy Estee Lauder foundation; the rest of my beauty routine came from the drugstore—and the list was long.
The phrase "beauty duty" was popularized by Chinese social media influencers. It refers to "the costly and sometimes painful devotion to mainstream notions of attractiveness.
I once counted how many bottles and tubes I opened and closed each morning: 22. When I had a husband, his product count was four.
It's a comparison men love to joke about while women seethe. Do we do "beauty duty" for them or ourselves?
Advertising programmed me, especially for perfumes. I smelled like Love's Baby Soft when I met my first husband, and within a few years, I was bringing home the bacon, frying it, and dabbing Enjoli behind my ears because I bought into the tagline: "Never ever let him forget he's a man." Yeesh.
How dare we
Pam Anderson made news by showing up sans makeup at Paris Fashion Week. It's a bit scandalous when older women intentionally break the rules and decide to show up as themselves.
Jamie Lee Curtis called Pam’s appearance an “act of courage.” Which I get, but I prefer the satire of Kimberly Harrington, who nailed the ridiculous beauty standards with her tongue-in-cheek post in.
…shouting out these ancient witches and all they've achieved, like daring to be seen in public with their actual faces which I will now characterize as brave.
…I will forever be grateful to my elderly elders, these ex-young women who have so bravely and unwittingly led the charge for greater crone visibility through their amazing efforts at not dying while also not being ashamed to still be alive.
No one called me brave that time I forgot to wear makeup at work.
Then again, I'm no Pam Anderson. I can't fathom the pressure she surely feels being almost constantly compared to the 30-years-ago bombshell version of herself.
Pam Anderson is beautiful—full-stop. However, I want to point out the following:
February's Elle Magazine revealed Pam's "skincare secret," listing a dozen or more skincare products in her no-makeup beauty routine in February: humidifier, rose water spray, prebiotic toothpaste, organic lip balm, weekly facial, collagen eye mask, and an LED Anti-Wrinkle and Aging Facial Device. Also, crystals and various "potions and beauty oils of ancient goddesses" —because, of course.
I'm not mad at Jamie Lee Curtis
I applaud Curtis's anti-ageism activism and the vulnerability she brings to her work (see The Bear, Episode 6 / Season 2 —my GOD!). But with this quote, she missed an opportunity to change the beauty standards conversation.
I am so impressed and floored by this act of courage.
—Jamie Lee Curtis on Pam Anderson's bare face at Paris Fashion Week.
I just wish she had rejected the premise that Pam's looks required comment.
What if she had said something like, "Pamela Anderson is a beautiful person. Her activism on behalf of animals is helping to make the world a better place. She was delightful as Casey on Baywatch and is resilient in her personal life."
If she tagged on thoughts and prayers for David Hasselhoff's latest plastic surgery, Jamie Lee could have dropped the mic.
I get it, though. An anti-hero sometimes says the wrong thing to advance a goal. And yes, by calling Pam courageous, Jamie scored a point in the fight against Madison Avenue's patriarchal bullshit beauty standards.
It's marketing's fault
I have a love/hate relationship with the skincare category called anti-aging, meaning I will rail against it here but still buy a crap-ton of serums and lotions.
I hate that I contradict myself, but aspoints out, "There is no ethical way to sell [these] products. So maybe there’s no ethical way to buy them either?
Just because your body changes as you get older does not mean those changes need to be reversed.
The size of the rapidly growing global anti-aging market could hit $93 Billion by 2027—equivalent to every woman over the age of 45 spending about $1,250 per year to look younger. (calculated using 2022 demographic info from Statista).
Celebrities like Helen Mirren, Andie MacDowell, and Halle Berry pointed out the ridiculousness of ANTI-aging. Who could be against getting older? So, the beauty industry changed the messaging to PRO-aging.
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My face is doing its own thing
I was 47 when an acupuncturist, trying to ease a migraine, poked at the wrinkles between my brows. She called them "lines of social concern." Yes, I'd earned those deep valleys.
I was 54 when the reality of ageism struck me like a slap in the face—right between my glabellar lines. I was one of three women amongst three dozen men at a company management leadership training. I paired with a senior sales manager to role-play tough conversations. I listened intently as he, my pretend employee, aired his grievances.
We swapped roles, and then we shared feedback. I told my colleague I thought he'd listened well and provided specific actions. About my performance, he said, "That was hard. I just couldn't get past your face."
“Don't believe what my face is telling you,” writes Jan M. Flynn.
My face is doing its own thing. And with every passing year, it seems that thing appears more disapproving, more offended, and madder than a wet cat.
Sticking the Landing with Jan M. Flynn
I was fifty-six when my med-spa esthetician pulled at the skin between my eyebrows, sucking the air from the room with her pursed lips. "Your elevens are so deep. You're going to need fillers, too." Five minutes later, with a bit of Poly-L-lactic Acid and botulinum toxin, the fjords between my eyes disappeared.
The erasure of my deep worry lines didn't make me look or feel younger; it made me look less worried.
But I am worried. I am deeply worried about the world and my role in it. I'm deeply concerned about those less fortunate and deeply in love—with my family, my partner, my children and their future children, my pets, the woods, and the mountains. I am deeply passionate about words and writing and living my life to the fullest.
What brave looks like
This weekend, I read an article about the popular Chinese concept of "beauty duty." A recent college graduate, Legend Zhu is a young lifestyle influencer in China with a large social media following. She recently attracted attention for her appearance in a far different way. Over the summer, she posted "a selfie with buzz-cut hair and a cosmetic-free face," as the New York Times reported. "This is so brave," one comment said.
Being a feminist with a following in China is brave.
I want my face to show you I am, not who you think I should be
I am 61 and debating whether to schedule my bi-annual trip to the aesthetician.
Maybe I'll call to book an appointment. Maybe I won't. The choice won't be courageous, but it will be mine.
Help Yourself Reading Recommendations
In Our Prime, Susan J. Douglas
“The time is ripe for us to flip the dominant narratives surrounding older women. We are, like men of this age, IN OUR PRIME, finding a new, more aware, more empowered voice.”
Find it here.
A Gift From the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh
“But in middle age, because of the false assumption that it is a period of decline, one interprets these life-signs, paradoxically, as signs of approaching death. … One tries to cure the signs of growth, to exorcise them, as if they were devils, when really they might be angels of annunciation. ” Find it here.
I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron
“…the amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming. Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.” Find it here.