Correcting My Face and Other Tales of Ageism

The thing I was before I was anything else was a little sister, so, as you can imagine, I’ve always been conscious of my age. For decades I was not old enough. I was not old enough to have a sleepover. I was not old enough to wear high heels or to shave my legs or wear makeup. I was not old enough for a long time. And yet in the blink of an eye somehow, I became too old.

As I settle into my middle-age body and life, again and again I am confronted with that message. I somehow out-aged learning to surf, wearing certain clothes or knowing anywhere near as much as my teenage sons. If you haven’t been mansplained to by your child, you really are missing something special!

I’m not sure exactly what age is the right age. I know Millennials are flocking to Botox. I know there is a trend to embrace your grays. I know that I hate the little black hairs that I pluck out of my chin, and that even though I feel too old to have more children, I passed a billboard promoting a woman who gave birth at 57 after having three brain tumors.

And so last week, I corrected my face. I didn’t know my face needed correction, but I received a sample of an age-corrective face mask, and I used it with my friend and colleague, Dr. Leanne Clark-Shirley, a social gerontologist and the leader of our Thought Leadership team at the American Society on Aging.

Together, we corrected our faces while we discussed our partners, work, family life and told each other jokes. About 20 minutes later, we washed our faces and VOILA! ... they were corrected, and the entire process just felt wrong. We weren’t sure which was worse—to know that someone out there in the cosmetics industry thought our faces needed correcting or to know that we were partaking in this ageist ritual. Why couldn’t they have simply called it a moisturizing mask? Why imply that the aging process and our aging faces were mistakes that needed correcting?

‘I’m not sure what my correct face is and I’m not sure how my age is supposed to affect that.’

I’m not sure what my correct face is and I’m not sure how my age is supposed to affect that. I know I’m a perimenopausal woman who has a wrinkle above my lip that makes me think it’s a hair I need to pluck. I know I have stretch marks where I carried my babies and occasional bursitis in my left hip. And society has taught me to hate all of those signs of getting older. The thing is I don’t. I don’t mind that I have to put on glasses to see my cell phone or that I Facetime with my phone next to my ear because it helps me hear better. That’s just part of me. And those are the parts of me that are physically changing. But other things that are changing, too.

I am bold enough to always say what’s on my mind, unapologetically. I am wise enough to know that what I say doesn’t always show how smart I am, and that I could use a little less boldness!

I am brave enough to try almost anything except a roller coaster. I am funny enough to crack myself up on a regular basis and to make my partner laugh at least 60% of the time. I am patient enough to listen to that mansplaining teenager and simply nod. And I wasn’t any of those things when I was young enough to not need to correct my face.

Fostering Age Inclusion in Ads

You may be wondering why I am writing all of this. It’s because of something I did with Leanne (the gerontologist) the day after we corrected our faces. We sat in a conference room at the Shutterstock headquarters in the Empire State Building with some of the most creative, smart and successful people in advertising, business and journalism to talk about guidelines that we had co-developed with our partners at Shutterstock to foster the use of age-inclusive content in advertising.

We ranged in age from Millennial to Boomer. We were all living in our different experiences. And we could each recount how we had faced ageism in our personal and professional lives over the years. But what this group did not do was focus on problems; rather, we spent two hours brainstorming solutions. What opportunities did our collective experience and expertise bring us that would not exist otherwise?

Yes—age inclusive imagery is all around us if the product is deemed to be for older adults. Looking for a reverse mortgage? Facing erectile dysfunction? Thinking of taking a river cruise? How about dealing with diabetes or a heart condition? I’ll bet you can see yourself in ads for all of these situations (especially if you are White, heteronormative and in the high-middle or upper socioeconomic classes).

Yet, despite the fact that people older than 55 hold 70% of the expendable income in America that totals around $17 TRILLION, despite the fact that Chanel sells 80% of their clothes to people older than 50, despite the fact that population demographics are shifting so quickly that already there are more 65 year-olds than there are 5 year-olds, we continue to see older adults showcased not as changemakers, decision makers and those on the cusp of greatness, but rather as the ones who are declining and passing the torch.

This group of people dared to ask the question: If we know that by 2035 there will be more people older than 65 than there are people younger than 18, how are we going to ensure the addressable market is not shrinking? How can we shift our expectations of the consumer to include all of our consumers? How can we stop looking at youth as aspirational, but instead focus on the shared values that we have at a variety of ages?

When will we stop telling people to correct their faces?

And our answer for the moment is STAY TUNED … but don’t blink, because ASA is moving quickly, as we combat ageism and work toward building an age-inclusive world together.

Cindy Morris is ASA’s vice president of Development and Community Engagement.