Commoditised Promises of Ageless Perfection: Cosmetic Wellness and the Culture of the Ideal Face [Guest Blog by Anoushka Benbow-Buitenhuis]

Introduction: The Face and Contemporary Visions of Ageing

Since the mid-1990s, the notion that ageing is a treatable disease has underpinned a burgeoning market of anti-ageing treatments (ATTs). Now an $US290b global industry (Berkowitz 2017, p.7), cosmetics that claim to mask or stop ageing have captured the imaginations of consumers. “People [now] assume health is self-evident, appearing on the surface of a body” and equate symbols of age, such as grey hair and wrinkles with a “lack of control” and disease (Calasanti 2007, p.338). This conceptualisation has seen pharmaceutical corporations such as Allergan enter this lucrative terrain with the anti-wrinkle formula Botox (Berkowitz 2017, p.3), and subsequently generate a new sub-industry of non-invasive cosmetic injectables. This paper argues that these commodities represent an emergent sociocultural focus on a perfected face and that a medicalised discourse of ‘cosmetic wellness’, with powerful economic interests, drives these changes. It will discuss the socio-political consequences and individual costs of the cultural perception of formerly accepted biological bodily changes such as ageing as somehow unnatural or wrong.

The face has emerged as an important commoditised symbol of self-identity in contemporary society. Central in media representations of ideal attractiveness and embodiment, recent beauty advertisements zoom in closely to digitally-perfected faces, normalising flaw-seeking scrutiny (Benbow-Buitenhuis 2014). Goffman (1955) discusses the social significance of the face as a site for emotional experience and as a signifier of self. People fall in love with faces and gaze deeply into the face of their beloved to bond. Faces are a symbolic stand-in for the person as a whole. If someone is humiliated, they “lose face”; in making amends, they “save face” (Goffman 1955, p.227). The concept of “face” is used widely in Chinese and Korean culture to describe dignity or prestige in social contexts (Bian and Forsyth 2012, p.1446, Elfving-Hwang 2016). Part flesh and part imagination, facial youth and beauty has become an imperative seemingly democratised by a plethora of commercialised goods that promise to transform the compliant consumer (Benbow-Buitenhuis 2014). Thus, social scientific debates about anti-ageing, cosmetic surgery practices and beauty are fundamentally examinations of the face. The perception of age damaging the face, hence the self, is the main cause of ageing anxiety for individuals at most stages through the lifecourse (Morton 2015).

Ageing as a Treatable Disease and the Anti-Ageing Treatment (AAT)

The contemporary anti-ageing cultural phenomenon emerged mid-1990s, alongside much-publicised biomedical advance and technological development (Dunham 2011, p.6). Moreover, the term ‘anti-ageing’ was taken from the 1992 formation of the American Academy of Antiaging Medicine, a professional group of interested doctors that decreed ageing was not inevitable, rather, a treatable disease that could be eliminated (Haber 2001, p.9). In addition to these developments, the public was enamoured with postmodernism and a unilaterally-aged adulthood allowing for new commoditised selves. Artificiality and the appearance of the body was emphasised; moreover, the notion that self could be perpetually restyled underscored new cultural understandings of identity. Exemplifying postmodern culture, sociologist Mike Featherstone (1991, p.100) writes; “nobody is a teenager anymore because everybody is”. The circulation of ideas about new ageless identities, scientific advance and the illusionary fragmentation of traditional structures encouraged individuals to believe anything may be possible.

Topical over-the-counter cosmetic AATs purport age-defying effects to individuals of all generations (Brown and Knight 2015; Haber 2001). Although anti-ageing cosmetics have been commercially manufactured since 1910 (Peiss 1998, p.67, p.81); the anti-ageing cosmetic and its commodity culture has only recently achieved sociocultural legitimation and widespread practice (Haber 2001). Despite discourse within AAT marketing suggesting scientific authority and empiricism, the claims of the topical AAT cream are unproven. Their seductive assertions about repairing wrinkles or preventing skin ageing are exhortations to consumers to buy a product (Coupland 2007). The more effective anti-wrinkle injection (such as brand-name Botox) and dermal filler (brand name Juvederm) provide short-term results via injecting pharmaceutical cosmetic solutions under the skin; a non-surgical medical procedure increasingly practiced illegally outside of medical clinics by beauticians and other under-qualified individuals (Bagshaw 2015).

However, in contrast to the optimistic views of the postmodernists who hoped for a new adulthood free from the constraints of age, it appears that commercial anti-ageing culture may have seen an opposite effect as ageism has been ratcheted-up by the expectation that individuals fight ageing through these much-hyped technologies. Recent research has shown a sociocultural trend of growing Middle Ageism (Gullette 2004); where individuals, particularly women, consider themselves ‘too old’ at age 35 (Chonody and Teater 2016, p.121). Consumer culture, media, pharmaceutical capitalism and neoliberal imperatives compound to accelerate time and age has become devalued, seeing individuals become ‘aged by culture’ Gullette 2004). 

Cosmetic Wellness and the Ideal Ageless Face

What Blum (2003) calls ‘cosmetic wellness’ – the idea of optimising healthy bodies for cosmetic reasons, permeates contemporary medical discourse and underpins social and cultural understandings of contemporary health (see also Pitts-Taylor 2007; Berkowitz 2017). The commoditisation of healthcare and the medicalisation of society have far-reaching repercussions, influencing neoliberalised state policies. This has further shaped citizens as medicalised subjects of a privatised system (Moynihan and Cassels 2005, Rosenberg 2007). Recent scholarship has expressed concern over whether discomfort or natural bodily processes such as ageing have been medicalised into invented diseases (Weintraub 2010, Scott Graham 2011). Furthermore, sociocultural conceptions of beauty and youth have become interlinked and entwined to symbolise new narrow ideals of class, race, gender, ethnicity and bodily ability. The global definition of beauty has been reduced via the sieve of culture in the last 30 years to mean “ethereal weightlessness and Nordic features” – an exclusionary idealisation that interpellates all individuals regardless of their distance from it (Etcoff et al. 2004, p.4).

This sociocultural focus on the perfected ageless face puts women particularly in a double-bind, as they feel damned if they follow these expensive and misleading AAT regimes and socially ostracised if they don’t (Benbow-Buitenhuis 2014). Newly targeted by AAT advertising, men also now feel pressure to utilise these cosmetic practices, often feeling the need to hide this behaviour due to tension in masculine norms (Calasanti et al. 2016). However, the normalisation of Botox, retouched perfect faces in media and advertising, and the cultural discourse of the neoliberal enterprising self has seen men and women undertake AATs to avoid being pushed out of workplaces early and be seen as professional and competitive in increasingly precarious work environments (Hurd Clarke 2010, Berkowitz 2017, pp.52-53).

The idea that age is a ‘decline narrative’ underpins current social understandings of what Gullette (2004) calls Middle Ageism. Middle aged people are increasingly being rushed out of jobs to make way for the young, who are seen as more dynamic, flexible and energetic. A new cultural speed-up sees people rushed through their working lives into retirement, which is increasingly not state-provided and few can afford self-funding (Gullette 2004, p.30). Thus, the AAT has spoken to the cultural mores of this epoch, seeing what Berlant (2011) may call ‘cruel optimism’ in times of heightened Middle Ageism, insecure employment and socio-political turmoil. Additionally, ageing is thought to ‘de-gender’ the individual, hence, the AAT promises to restore the vital signifiers of heterosexual femininity or masculinity (Calasanti 2007, p.348). The seductive notions promoted by the AAT suggest individuals can avoid stigma, social exclusion and continue their lives as ‘normal’, despite succumbing to natural human bodily processes.


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About the Author

Anoushka Benbow-Buitenhuis is a PhD candidate in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University. The title of her PhD is: ‘Consuming the Fantasy of Youth: A Sociological Analysis of the Face and Anti-Ageing Cosmetic Culture’, which looks at a similar problem to the blog post. Anoushka’s PhD thesis supervisors are Professor Alan Petersen and Dr Jane Brophy. Her doctoral thesis presents a return to the study of consumption as symbolic and aims to problematise luxury by examining the wider social forces at play, such as worsening wealth inequality worldwide. Although the project is mostly theoretical, a small empirical qualitative case study based in Melbourne has been undertaken to assist our understanding of why middle-class individuals may participate in luxury commodity culture. Anoushka is a postgraduate member of the Centre for Applied Social Research and the Centre for Urban Research’s Beyond Behavior Change working group.

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