Updated: Jun 27, 2021
Article written by Dilvin Yasa
Published in The Sydney Morning Herald January 21, 2021
At 51, she’s competing against other women half her age and she knows it, which is why she works so hard to look far younger.
I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to experience an existential crisis during a Metallica concert, but by all accounts, this one was a doozy. Having travelled overseas to watch one of my favourite bands perform, I was shocked to discover that since the last time I’d seen them in the 1990s, they’d become… old. Not a problem, sure, but here’s the thing: not only did seeing the cultural icons of my youth force me to realise that time hadn’t exactly stopped for me either, but that in each subsequent review of the show, there wasn’t a single mention of their looks.
It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about this week since 51-year-old Jennifer Lopez hit the news again with her takedown of social media users challenging the idea that her age-defying looks have anything to do with genetics or her new skincare range. “You definitely have Botox. And tonnes of it,” one follower wrote and (many) others agreed. Lopez shot back: “LOL that’s just my face!!! For the 500 millionth time… I have never done Botox or any injectables or surgery!! Just saying.”
What Lopez does to her face is her own business of course, but the moment I saw the post, my immediate reaction was to laugh and say, “Ha, that’s a good one”. It was only after I had time to digest the different standards to which we hold women within the entertainment industry (see, Metallica) that I began to ponder the bigger questions. Why are we all so obsessed with age anyway, and what’s with all the judgment directed at those who choose to defy it?
Comparison plays a key role, says Dr Amanda Ferguson, the psychologist behind podcast Psych for Life with Dr Amanda Ferguson. “If you see someone like Lopez set the bar really high, there’s a sense of, ‘Oh great, that’s what I have to compete with now?’ That can feel overwhelming for many of us.” (Particularly for those who feel they look more like the dudes in Metallica, like yours truly.)
Much of how we react when we’re faced with a 50-something who looks like a 20-something also comes down to the cognitive frameworks we develop to understand the world around us, explained psychotherapist Renee Raymond in an interview last year after J. Lo’s electric halftime Super Bowl performance. “We wouldn’t bat our eyes if we saw a 20-something wearing a midriff short or dying their hair blue. We may, however, find ourselves surprised to see someone like Jennifer Lopez, a 50-year-old woman who doesn’t look like what many people’s schema of a 50-year-old woman is, look like she did perform at the Super Bowl,” Raymond said. (More recently, of course, Lopez was also terrific performing at Joe Biden's inauguration.)
Somewhere at the heart of our obsession with age is basic evolution, Ferguson says. “Evolution theorists would say it’s a side to humanity that’s ramped up because of social media but we are genetically programmed to favour youth, particularly in women, because we know they’re going to reproduce better than their ageing counterparts,” she explains.
“Perhaps unfairly, we don’t have the same expectations for men because, as base level, we look to them for provisions, to make us feel safe and to look after our children. It’s hard to avoid the simple truth that we’re part of the animal kingdom.” This is why we allow men to age without comment, yet cannot extend the same courtesy to our women.
While Dr Ferguson, is not a fan of celebrities side-stepping simple truths about their beauty regimes (“It’s disrespectful to the sisterhood because you’re effectively undermining people’s intelligence in order to make yourself feel better”), she does insist we need to extend the likes of Lopez our support rather than our venom.
“To quote Robert Harrison, a professor of Italian literature at Stanford, ‘For the first time in human history, the young have become a model of emulation for the older population, rather than the other way around’,” she says. “Ageism is a huge problem in all areas of life and no matter how glamorous it all looks from the outside, for the likes of Jennifer Lopez, this is ultimately a workplace issue she’s dealing with. At 51, she’s competing against other women half her age and she knows it, which is why she works so hard to look far younger.”
I'm not going to lie; I've long judged age-defying celebrities for pulling the old “it's just sunscreen, water and genetics” line, but with Ferguson's words firmly in my ear, I plan to take the more sisterly approach moving forward. Trying to look 25 when you're in your 50s in order to remain what society deems employable? That's the kind of misery we don't need to contribute to.