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The 19th-century origins of today’s biggest beauty myth

The oddly persistent myth that women age faster than men? Blame the Victorians.

The 19th-century origins of today’s biggest beauty myth
[Photos: Flickr user Alan Burnett]

The global anti-aging market is worth at least $250 billion—an astonishing amount, and it’s growing. Anti-aging treatments are supposedly used to correct “premature aging.” But what does this really mean? Surely, aging is just aging. It is a process that occurs over time—at the time that it’s supposed to.

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The target consumer, and so the audience for this narrative of accelerated aging, is overwhelmingly women—unsurprisingly. Men and women age at roughly similar speeds, but the language and pictures around anti-aging treatments suggest that women have far and away the most to worry about. Any online search will reveal a standard picture of a young woman scrutinizing her reflection and hastily applying cream to her face.

The message is clear: It’s a race against time. Many companies advise women to start using these treatments in their 20s. Men worry about aging too, but advice for their skin is packaged as maintenance rather than emergency.

This focus on the aging of women is by no means a modern phenomenon. We can, in part, blame the Victorians. The Victorians judged age by appearance more than by chronology—especially as the ill-educated were not likely to know their age, or the age of their relatives. They also believed, or at least encouraged the belief, that women were more delicate than men. They thought that a woman’s body was in many ways the opposite of a man’s and that women were physically and emotionally weaker too.

People have always been interested in the aging process and how to stop it, but it was only in the 19th century that aging was seriously studied. The mid-Victorian period saw the rise of gerontology: the study of aging.

Victorian gerontology

The Victorians made progress with thinking about elderly people and what they need to survive. They established that older patients required different food and noted that the largest proportion of older people die in the winter.

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But there were some more curious claims being made about aging too. The first gerontologist, George Edward Day, made some particularly odd claims about women. He believed that women enter old age faster and continue to age ahead of men. As a man, perhaps it was tempting to see aging as something that happened faster to the other sex.

Victorian physicians were influenced by classical thinking. Hippocrates and Aristotle both argued that women aged faster than men. Despite Day’s progressive view that old people were worth specialist care, Day still theorized that women were in the process of declining into old age by around 40. Men, on the other hand, supposedly didn’t show signs of aging until they were around 48 or 50. Day stated that, in the race to the grave, women were at best biologically five years older than a man of the same age and at worst 10 years older.

Now, of course, we know this isn’t true. But it is a narrative that hasn’t really disappeared—as the enormous market for anti-aging products aimed at women reveals.

Victorian novels

The assumption that men and women are biologically dissimilar and experience age differently was promoted in Victorian fiction too. Authors including Charles Dickens, Henry James, and H. Rider Haggard seemed to delight in embellishing the details of female decrepitude. And, in much of their fiction, aging women seem to be at fault for declining in the way they do. It’s worth thinking about how these aspects of aging still niggle away at women today.

An illustration of Miss Havisham, of Great Expectations [Image: Wiki Commons]
Henry James’s Juliana Bordereau is depicted as a living corpse, whose grip on life equates to temerity, especially as she was once a beauty. Dickens’s Miss Havisham, meanwhile, crumbles into an old hag because of the bitterness of marital rejection. His poisonous Mrs. Skewton cannot hide her hideous interior, or exterior—even when she is caked with cosmetics. Yet the author insists that she looks even worse without make-up.

Most pertinently, H. Rider Haggard’s novel Ayesha makes it clear that his heroine Ayesha is up to something. Even as the narrator is attracted to her body, he senses something deathly around her person. This is because Ayesha is more than 2,000 years old. She still looks beautiful because she has found the elixir of youth in the form of a fire. There is little doubt that using such a substance is morally wrong, since Ayesha is punished for it. By overdoing the treatment, Ayesha dies, covered in a million wrinkles.

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Echoes of all of these sorry tales are seen in the puzzling narrative of today’s anti-aging culture. If a woman makes no attempt to maintain her looks—or to hide the effects of aging—she has failed. If, on the other hand, she succumbs to temptation and tries to cheat the aging process, she may end up damaging her face—through plastic surgery or otherwise. Female celebrities who maintain their looks are scrutinized in the media, with the view that if we watch them long enough, they will surely begin to disintegrate. Who would have thought that we could blame the Victorians for this dilemma?

Sara Zadrozny is a PhD candidate in literature at the University of Portsmouth. This article was republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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