The beauty industry's mid-life crisis – why are women 'of a certain age' still being ignored?

As part of her hugely popular online skin clinic, Irish skincare expert Jennifer Rock has noticed that the majority of her clients range in age from 20s to early 40s, and then from the late 50s to mid-60s.

“There is a decade that isn’t as represented as we wanted, and we saw that with our own numbers,” she observes. “For some reason, women of a certain age don’t see themselves as a specific market. As a result of that, people tend to not speak out within an online clinic.”

Yet herein lies the paradox: when Rock and her team operate pop-up clinics across the capital, the majority of attendees in real life are in their 40s. “Many of them say something like, ‘it’s great for us to have something like this to go to, and somewhere where we can really tackle our concerns’,” she says.

It’s one of the beauty industry’s greatest mysteries. Women in their 40s and 50s have plenty of disposable income, and they make for discerning shoppers. Many, too, feel an acute pressure to address various issues in relation to skincare: ageing, post-pregnancy, menopause. Yet why, for a long time, have they been largely invisible in the beauty industry? Make no mistake, the beauty industry has taken a leaf out of the body-positivity movement and become more inclusive than it has been or years. Shades on offer have become more diverse, experimentation with make-up between the genders is more visible, while people are proudly posting their acne and rosacea photos online.

Yet, for as long as anyone can remember, beauty and unsullied youth have always been inextricably linked. Whether 14 or 40, everyone strives towards a poreless, flawless, hairless and line-free ideal, and the (young) models in big-budget beauty campaigns have long reflected that. In a concerted push towards diversity, some beauty giants have doffed their caps to the older generation, enlisting the likes of Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda to extol the virtues of anti-ageing. Yet they are very much the exception, rather than the rule.

According to a study from marketing agency We Are Human, around 70pc of women in their 40s and 50s still feel like they are ignored by the mainstream media.

It’s not been for want of trying. MAC was one of the first to promote diversity, with its ethos ‘All Ages, All Races, All Genders’. Neal’s Yard also acknowledged the ‘squeezed middle’, recently launching its Age Well Revolution. They picked six women, ranging in age from 45 to 80, to front their current campaigns. Elsewhere, beauty brand Revolution cast a number of people, aged 20-90, in their latest unretouched campaign, professing to celebrate personalities rather than faces, and boasting a 35-plus demographic that is reportedly growing each month.

Recently, Charlotte Tilbury prompted a visibility boost for the ‘squeezed middle’ when they posted a picture of a model over 40 on their Instagram page. Immediately, they were hailed by online commenters for “representing more ages of beauty than the typical 20-something we always see”.

Closer to home, Rock has noticed that in her 14 years in the industry in Ireland, many cosmetic companies had, in fact, targeted clients in their 40s and 50s.

“There has been a shift in the last four years toward targeting clients in their 20s and 30s with more preventative products,” she says.

It’s easy to see why cosmetic companies have turned their attentions to the Insta generation. As fans of contouring and experimentation, they are ripe for repeat buying and overconsumerism. Still, overall representation has often erred on the side of youth.

“If you look at someone like Jennifer Aniston who doesn’t look like a typical forty-something person, there’s a somewhat unfair representation of what 40 should look like there,” notes Rock. “I think there has been misrepresentation in the media in general.”

The unrealistic standards of the beauty industry, standing as they do on the cornerstones of perfectionism and escapism, play their part. We are often conditioned to expect them as the baseline standard.

“When we did our book The Skin Nerd, we had a lot of photos of people that were representative of the clients we had in our online clinic,” notes Rock. “A lot of people were like, ‘where’s the wow factor?’. That’s how used to seeing the flawless industry online we are. It’s gotten to the point where you can’t see pores or even the tiny white hairs on a person’s face. People expect to see a flawless texture.” (She’s not wrong. MAC’s recent refusal to Photoshop a model’s upper lip hair out of their lip liner campaign drew both praise and derision).

Beauty therapist Neelu White, who has been specialising in non-intervention skincare for older women from her Liffey Street salon, theorises that many beauty giants have sidestepped women in their 40s and 50s because they don’t have anything to offer them.

“The thing is, when women hit their 40s and 50s, a lot of the changes they experience are hormonal” she explains. “These changes mean that their skin is in transient condition. Often, beauty products don’t go into the blood stream to make physiological changes, and a lot of products only sit on the surface of skin. In all ages, people want instant results, and the problem is that people in their 40s and 50s don’t receive that instant gratification until they go for surgery or more invasive procedures. If L’Oreal did what it says its products do to women like Helen Mirren, no one would have any wrinkles.”

“Every customer has their own specific skincare needs regardless of age,” observes Elena Costello of Brown Thomas’ Beauty Style Team. “A consistent skin care routine is key to maintaining healthy skin and projecting a youthful glow, no matter one’s age. The science of skincare has never been stronger.”

Does Rock believe we’ll ever get to a point where a forty- or fifty-something women in a high-profile beauty campaign will simply be the norm, and no cause for fanfare?

“I think we’re getting there,” she reasons. “The beauty and fitness sectors are very much in line, and in fitness, you see a lot of people in their 40s and 50s exercising, and it’s not a huge deal. In Ireland, it’s a little slower than elsewhere, but it’s trickling through. In addition to the beauty brands and the industry, a movement needs to also come from the people consuming the information. For real-life models to be celebrated in the industry, it really does come down to both parties.”

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