“The Tone-Up” amplifies the voices of Muslim women who have something exclusive about Muslim women to talk or rant about. In this instalment, Wardah Abbas writes a thought-provoking piece on the politics of anti-ageing.
“If there is anything behind a face, that face improves with age.”
~ Karen de Crow
I am climbing up the stairs that lead to our apartment, tiptoeing into my mother’s colossal dressing room to hide from the other kids. Rather than hide, I stand by the door and stare at my mother. She is wrapped in a cream cotton towel, water dripping from her face and body. I watch her rub blue seal Vaseline on her wet skin, comb out her shea butter infused hair and slip into a big pair of trousers under large boubou blouse.
My mother had a kind of understated beauty; one that could have graced any billboard or magazine cover. But she never used expensive skincare products and except for the ponds oil-control face powder she dabbed on her face, she did not wear any makeup. I thought it was because she was so disarmingly unaware of her own striking beauty. When she smiled, I couldn’t help but smile along too. To be around her was to feel that I too was someone, that I had been warmed in the golden rays of the sun even on a hazy harmattan morning.
Over the years, as I watched her grow with time, I saw the skin around her eyes drooping, the creases on her face deepening, her hairline receding and the malaise of time casting a dark spell over her looks. I wondered what it must feel like for her to look into the mirror every day and watch the passage of time leave its mark on her body. After going through a life-threatening illness, I would look at her and mourn the loss of her beauty but little did I know that my mother had quite a different perspective.
“A Mother who radiates self-love and self-acceptance actually VACCINATES her daughter against low self-esteem.”
― Naomi Wolf
“Beauty does not fade, my dear, It evolves,” my mother said to me one evening when I finally summoned the courage to ask her. She told me that the lines on her face are works of art; that her greying bald head tell many life stories and the bags under her eyes are evidence of her wealth of experiences, all collectively a marker of the years fully lived. She didn’t know what I was talking about when I said that beauty fades with age. “You’re a person, Wardah, not a number.” She reiterated. And no matter what anybody says, never buy into the myth that beauty fades because it never does.” Since that day, I have never looked at my mother the same way. And the wider I expanded my definition of beauty, the smarter and wiser I became.
Since ancient times, the world has been a witness to the life-changing powers of properly applied cosmetics and beauty elixirs. From Cleopatra’s “red ochre” and “black cumin” to the “liquid-gold” serum of the ancient Greeks, and the Huang Qi and Goji of the Chinese - the tradition of skincare and beauty has been a long one coming.
But has the beauty industry evolved progressively and inclusively? I’m afraid the answer is a difficult one. The media presents beauty to us as synonymous with youth, propagating the idea that ageing signifies the loss of beauty. We see this in the way products are branded as “anti-ageing” and “age-defying”, as though ageing is a disaster that should never happen to us. We are tempted with youth-restoring plastic surgeries as though the accumulation of years and experience is something so distressing.
Most beauty advertisements feature young faces, while people over 50 are generally ignored. In our twenties, we are told to invest heavily into skincare, not so we can nurture our skin and look good, but just so our fifties and sixties would thank us for it. We put in so much effort, with the hope that we would stay young forever. But what happens when nature takes its full course? Isn’t it toxic to vilify something as natural and beautiful as ageing and throw millions of women into sadness and depression when they begin to see grey hair and wrinkles? Isn’t it time to broaden our definition of beauty? To embrace what is inevitable?
In the age of unparalleled freedoms to live our lives as we wish, it’s unfortunate that women still allow beauty and the illusion of its inevitable fading to lurk around and threaten the fringes of women’s progress. The pressure to be beautiful in a certain way or according to society’s dictates is one of the greatest enemies of women’s progress. Naomi Wolf in her book “The Beauty Myth”, talked about how the modern beauty industry, particularly the widely-increasing anti-ageing sector is a capitalist backlash against feminism. Whether we choose to buy it or not, these promises of everlasting youth and flawless beauty are not only used to sell everything from food to clothes and even gadgets, but they’re also a weapon against the genuine progress of women.
“As women demanded access to power, the power structure used the beauty myth materially to undermine women’s advancement. – “Naomi Wolf ― The Beauty Myth
And have you heard of the term “ageing gracefully”? What does it even mean? Are we implying that some women do not age “gracefully”? When we pay attention to the media’s use of the term, we are quick to notice that the women who are applauded for ageing “gracefully” are women who look old, but not “too old”.
Are we truly free if we have to conform to the standards that society has imposed on us? What exactly are we afraid of? That we will lose the power vested in us based not on our merit but our youth? There is power in growing older. As the years pass by, we get smarter, stronger and more confident. We lose our youthful naivete and have these lines of wisdom and experience grow on our bodies. For women, this should be a positive thing; not something to despise or be ashamed of. Perhaps it’s time to ask why society does not “yet” find power and wisdom attractive in women; why they seek to create insecurities in women and profit off it; why they propagate the idea that a look that tells of inexperience and naivete is what the world finds attractive in women?
4o-year-old Model, Gisele Bündchen, recently told Allure in an interview that “When I look at these changes and see a reflection of all the years I’ve lived so far, I feel an incredible sense of gratitude. As I’ve gotten older, I have grown more comfortable in my own skin, and I’m grateful for every experience, and every year of my life so far.”
Looks change with every tick of the clock. And with each change of the season, it only gets better. Ageing is not the loss of beauty, but a new stage of beauty. Isn’t it time to open our eyes and hearts to it all? To lean into the truth that there’s beauty in every stage of our lives; that there are certain inevitabilities to pass through as long as we keep living. Our epidermal cells produce less collagen, causing the skin to fall or wrinkle. Dark circles, which had been a short-lived indication of an all-night party in our teens (or with a new baby in our young-adulthood), become prevalent as we grow older due to a thinning of the skin around our eyes. And no matter how dedicated we are with the use of our serums and SPF’s, wrinkles and hyper-pigmentation may still occur due to hormonal changes.
This is not a piece on why you should throw out your make-up or skincare bag. This is rather a lesson to you and to me, to unlearn the toxic narrative that beauty fades. This is a call to unlearn the poisonous beauty standards that devalue women as human beings and reduce them to their age. Beauty never fades. It evolves.
“She wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her.”
― Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
It’s time to change the narrative; to propagate the positivity of ageing and connect young women to the beautiful progress of growing with the years. We want to see in media and advertisement, more aged faces; faces that tell stories of the highs and lows of life; wrinkles that tell tales of all the life obstacles surmounted, and grey hairs that carry a lot of wisdom, experience and resilience. But what’s most important is learning that these changes are not to be viewed as flaws to be hidden but beauties to be celebrated; ones that show a long and joyful journey.
Wardah Abbas is the Founding Editor of The Muslim Women Times. She is a Lawyer, Writer and Social Justice activist.