Sitting on a budget flight to the South of France, I am leafing through an old copy of one of the UK’s many popular weekly magazines aimed at ladyfolk. My boyfriend, noting my lamentable choice of reading material, stares resolutely out of the window and turns up the music on his MP3 player to avoid being drawn into an inevitable commentary from me on the woman whose gastric band exploded at her wedding and the magazine’s movable stance as to what is a ‘healthy’ weight for women (‘If I read the phrase “celebrating her curves” one more time, I swear…’ etc., etc., ad infinitum.)
Silenced but not defeated, I flick to an innocuous article in the Beauty section, which profiles the condition of women’s skin from their twenties up to their forties. Somewhat predictably, it just turns out to be a ridiculous list of expensive lotions a woman has to apply to her face to avoid the inevitable gravitational surrender that comes with - gasp, and say it quietly girls - 'getting older'. I’m bored already, but appalled enough to read on. And that's where the trouble starts.
As someone in my twenties, I am told I have ‘naturally springy’ skin and that I only need a relatively short list of ‘essentials’ (none of which are water or air) to disguise my humanity from the world.
However, once I turn thirty, Old Father Time apparently starts to turn the screw and I am faced with - and I quote - ‘eye bags…wrinkles… greying skin… double chins’ (chins, plural?!) as well as a whole further barrel of hideous afflictions that will no doubt send my suitors running to the nearest Spearmint Rhino for solace.
But hang on - that’s only a year away for me. What could possibly happen between now and then to turn me into this sunken harpy?
ElleUK helpfully chips in to tell me that my decaying three-decades-old skin will be down to ‘all the fun you had in your twenties’. Sadly, I think even if I had remembered to take my make-up off while pissed at the tender age of 21, I’d still be confronting the inevitability of time (unless The Picture of Dorian Gray was right and unmediated pleasure really does take a physical toll.) Still, some £59 SK-II Signs Eye Masks will get rid of those fine party lines for me for now. No portrait in the attic for me - I'll be partying my way from eye masks to Botox with a great big smile on my frozen face.
Because it does get worse; appaz I can’t rely on that £59 working forever. Unless you are Cindy Crawford, the feature continues, a woman’s face in her forties is set to resemble a windswept heath of burst blood vessels and gaping pores.
Not to worry - there are various industrial-strength collagen creams and fillers to cover those imperfections and keep your face smooth as a newly tarmacked road. However, it’s gonna cost ya. According to some recent product plugs, you could try some £67 anti-wrinkle correction eye cream recommended by Grazia – it’s got that delicious glandular secretion royal jelly in it - or £109 for Skinceuticals Ferulic Serum, which will apparently rebuild my collagen levels despite sounding way more like the name of a fungal toe infection.
Needless to say that these Beauty sections, like most others, ignore some of the major factors of good skin care, which include: drinking lots of water (free); not overdoing the sunbathing (free); and not smoking (free free free!) Funnily enough, none of this advice accompanies, say, Stylist magazine’s 'top 30 anti-aging products' (when, oh when, was their cause for such a list?) Meanwhile, a quick trip to Cosmo Online reveals their early-twenties beauty writer freaking the fuck out about turning 30 lest she shrivel up like a sun-dried apricot - a sentiment within the article which is sensitively conveyed through the accompanying picture of a crinkly Shar Pei dog. She hastily recommends some £42 'age support treatment cream’ to take the edge off. And there was I thinking that the only expensive ‘age support’ I had to worry about was the government’s woefully low provisions for elderly residential care.
But you know what’s even healthier than age support treatment cream? Accepting that there’s nothing wrong with ageing. Picking up some wrinkles over time is natural, beautiful and does not indicate a failure in your skin care regime. You know that, but these rags are invested in putting up all sorts of crazy barriers to stop you believing it.
Want further proof? Venture just outside the Beauty section, and many magazines will happily point their acrylic nails and mock the embarrassing facelifts and 'botched Botox' that celebrities undergo to avoid the most feared outcome of being labelled ‘old’ - check out Heat’s sensitive surgery-spotting column ‘Face Watch’ for heinous, head-slamming-on-desk examples - while wilfully turning a blind eye to the fact that the age-conscious attitudes they propagate are the driving factor behind such extreme decisions. Now magazine specifically advises 32 year old Kim Kardashian to lay off the Botox (whilst plugging a pricey collagen cream, of course), but will happily lay in to 45 year old Ulrika Jonsson’s ‘turkey neck’ with gleeful insensitivity: ‘EEK! Ulrika Jonsson shows off sinewy 'turkey' neck she inherited from her grandma!’ Is it truly unfathomable that Kim-K’s fear of headlines such as these that had her running off to the needle farm in the first place?
Looking good is a lucrative business, and even the most erudite publications are guilty of plugging over-priced eyeliners and face creams to get a slice of the beauty dollar. But leveraging our differences and insecurities to sell products, whether it’s our size, skin tone or age, is a manipulation too far.
As someone who is naturally pale-skinned and unable to do anything other than burn when exposed to direct sunlight, I have found myself subject to the baffling, unsolicited sympathy of colleagues and friends after I’ve hit the factor 40 hard and returned from my summer holiday sans tan. But you know what? I’m happy with my skin now, and I’ll be happy when it’s even paler and furrowed with lines in the not-too-distant future (even if those tales about gaping pores and double chins are true), because when I look in the mirror I’ll recognise my own face gurning back.
That seems like a beauty essential to me.