A few weeks ago I bought a new moisturiser. I was looking for something with SPF (sun protection factor) in it because I don’t want the sun to damage my skin, mainly because I’d like to avoid skin cancer. I eventually chose one that was aimed at tackling an oily complexion – I’m yet to emerge from that phase of spot-prone, greasy skin, because I’m 20. There’s a reason I’ve mentioned my age.
As I went to pay (parting with £13.50 of my student budget, I might add) the woman at the till asked if I use a serum; the moisturiser was part of a skincare range so I wasn’t surprised that she was trying to sell me something else. She proceeded to explain to me about how it’s actually “best to start anti-ageing treatments as soon as possible, and they reckon you should start at 21! How old are you?”
Slightly flustered, I immediately replied that I was 20. In hindsight, of course, I would have replied a bit differently – and in an infinitely more bad-ass way – but in truth I genuinely couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so just wandered off in disbelief. There are so many things wrong with what she’d said. I’d be pissed off with her if I was 17, 28, 36, 54 or 87. Even assuming anti-ageing products have miracle properties that restore baby’s-bum qualities to your skin (which, SPOILER ALERT, they don’t), it’s up to an individual to decide whether they’re interested in any of that. Why are university students now being marketed a package deal in life-long insecurity at the till?
Let me just put how old I am into context: my memory of 9/11 is being disgruntled that my parents wanted to watch the six o’clock news instead of The Simpsons; I can still remember all of my GCSE results (if you let me write them down); the general election in May was the first one I’ve been old enough to vote in; and I still haven’t learnt not to squeeze my spots, even though I know it makes them all scabby and horrible.
It felt bizarre to be asked if I was taking anti-ageing measures because I’m still the target audience for Clearasil adverts. Apparently my particular age group is caught up in an overlap between marketing for these two very different groups of products. I’m a bit confused, because when is this golden age of “perfect skin”? Oh wait, how naïve of me – does it not actually exist? The message I’m taking from all of this is that a woman should never be happy with what she looks like – we’re either removing “blemishes” or trying to prevent or reverse the formation of wrinkles. We’re never actually that beautiful, soft-lit young woman skipping amongst the daisies in the advert that promises us eternal youth, so long as eternal youth doesn’t involve blackheads.
I was a relatively late convert to beauty products (emphasis on ‘relatively’.) Throughout my teenage years I’d occasionally buy a bright blue eyeliner, just to admire it, maybe try it on once and then be too shy to wear it properly. People I knew then might be surprised that I’m now the go-to-gal in my house of four women for hair and make-up advice. I love the creativity of make-up – although I still don’t wear it very often, when I do, I go for it. I treasure my bright green Illamasqua eyeshadow in “Fledgling” and gorgeous Topshop lipsticks in “Brighton Rock” and “Rio Rio”, and am pretty smug about my dexterity with a liquid-eyeliner brush. The other night I genuinely described my look as “electro mod”.
I love creating hairstyles for my bottle-red Eton crop with an array of sprays, lotions and waxes so diverse that my housemates are confused as to why I need so many. I’m pleased that I can enjoy beauty products; now I’ve found the guts to try experimenting, I’m not going to stop something that I enjoy. What makes me sad is that I use beauty products to change how I look for me – not for men, not for my friends, not for strangers – but this woman in Boots was making assumptions about what I’d want to do and what I want to look like based on nothing except my age and gender. Maybe she didn’t even think that I’d particularly want to, just that she’d been told to target a demographic that I happen to fall into. If she’d said, “What do you want from your skincare products?” and I’d replied, “I’m worried about wrinkles”, then fair enough, try and sell me an anti-ageing serum (although actually I’d rather they wouldn’t do that to anyone). But the takeaway message seemed to be: you should be concerned about this stuff, even if you aren’t concerned about this stuff. Because somebody else is concerned about how it might look on you, and that’s good enough reason to change.
What’s sobering is that in hindsight, I’m not that surprised that the whole situation happened. When I’ve discussed it with my friends most of them haven’t been particularly shocked either; one of them even said, straight-faced, “Oh? I heard it was 19 that you’re supposed to start.”
Can you imagine how ridiculous it would sound if the woman in the shop had asked one of my male friends whether they’d started anti-ageing treatments? That really would be unbelievable, because it just wouldn’t happen. Out of curiosity and in the interests of balance, I’ve had a look, and there is a whole world of anti-ageing skincare for men (apparently having a Y chromosome changes the fundamental structure of the skin under your eyes), but I think the fact that I had to actively search for those products shows that it’s dramatically different to the way women’s skincare is marketed. As a woman, you can’t walk through a department store or pharmacy without being bombarded with bullshit about what they’ve been developing in the “labs” to make you look younger – no matter what age you are.
Two days after my 21st birthday, I’m going to graduate with a degree in Biochemistry and Microbiology. I imagine that in a few decades when I look back on this part of my life, I’ll be proud of the hard work and determination that got me that degree, not mourning the loss of some proteins around the cells in my face. Let’s hope, anyway. Because it’s not like that trip to Boots has exactly helped me along.
- Amy Tooke