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Why does the beauty industry ignore older women?

Ignored by brands for a very long time, older women, who have higher decision-making and purchasing power, are beginning to demand better representation 

The 57-year-old model Paulina Porizkova
The 57-year-old model Paulina Porizkova

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Sometime in July 2020, when the whole world was locked down because of covid-19, entrepreneur Martha Stewart posted a selfie, posing by her pool with puckered lips. It went viral. The selfie also managed to shake up the stereotype of a woman in her late 70s as a wrinkly matriarch leading a dull life. For, here was a septuagenarian in a swimsuit totally owning her looks.

Recently, Stewart made a reel centred on that pool selfie. Titled Thirst Trap 101, it was a nifty way to announce her latest gig as the US brand ambassador for the French cosmetics brand Clé de Peau. In a space teeming with young beauty influencers, Stewart becoming a beauty ambassador at 80 is a refreshing change.

Lest you think this is the new normal, it isn’t. In Amsterdam, photographer Denise Boomkens, who runs an age- and body-positive Instagram handle called @and.bloom, recently posted about her disappointment while going through a make-up brand’s social media. “Looking for a face I could identify myself with, I started scrolling down, and down, and down. I couldn’t find even one ‘tiny little bit older’ woman represented. Maybe they don’t know yet that women over the age of 40 also buy make-up products, nail polish and lots of skincare?” she wrote.

Denise Boomkens
Denise Boomkens (Instagram)

Clearly, most of the beauty industry still doesn’t really represent women over 40— either in the models it chooses to promote its brands or the customers it targets. Women in the 50s-plus bracket are as good as invisible. The little that the industry does is wrapped in selling products with an “anti-ageing” label. The mature segment, however, is beginning to demand more.

The messaging about age

Signs of change so far are few and far between. “The messaging that you constantly get is that you are not supposed to show your age or you are supposed to hide it,” says Sonia Dhawan, a Bengaluru-based geneticist and founder of Granny Gregs, an alternative and holistic health brand. In her 50s, Dhawan rues that there’s little representation of older people in mainstream media. “You mostly see older people in ads that are about old-age homes or joint mobility or something similarly depressing,” she laughs.

Art consultant and writer Lata Vaidya, 59, says, “Skincare/make-up brands are usually alarmists who wield the power to scare women even in their 20s with narratives of fine wrinkles and whatnot.” As contrast, she cites an ad featuring supermodel Paulina Porizkova for American make-up company Laura Geller Beauty’s Let’s Get Old Together campaign. In the ad, Porizkova—her wrinkles and greys visible—asks, “I am getting older. And what’s wrong with that?” Quite.

What we would like to see

In India, where people are quick to label you aunty on the basis of greys in your hair, you need such messaging. However, it may be a while before you have Indian women mouthing Porizkova’s words, unconcerned about their worry lines.

“I think the process of ageing should be celebrated. I would like to see media propagating messages that advocate ‘embracing ageing’,” says Dhawan. Vaidya would like to see a beauty industry that “doesn’t go on about looking young”. “I would like to see advertising where age is bereft of beauty stigma, where a product is sold by a mature woman to women of all ages without the promises of ‘looking younger’ —but of ‘looking beautiful’,” she says.

Archana Jain, founder and managing director of the PR agency PR Pundit, who is in her late 50s, would be quite happy to buy a product that has an older woman modelling for it. “Where do we even see any older faces on posters or banners today? So yes, I would be motivated to try out a product endorsed by someone closer to my age,” says Jain.

That remains a challenge. “Today, where everything is digital, we find it easy to reach out to millennials and Gen Z. On the other hand, it is difficult to find older women (consumers or influencers) because they are either reticent or constitute a micro segment. Finding appropriate channels to communicate with them is a challenge,” she says.

Hint of change

Jewellery brand Olio Stories, founded by Aashna Singh and Sneha Saksena, has run a few social media campaigns with older men and women wearing their handcrafted jewels. A recent Olio Stories ad featured an octogenarian, Asha Sahgal, as the model. Dressed in a bright vintage top, gold jewellery and make-up, Sahgal stood out in the overcrowded social media feed.  Singh says about Sahgal: “She is my husband’s grandmother, and Sneha and I have admired her style for many years. She’s always dressed to the nines, mostly in wonderful vintage pieces. And more than that, she’s full of life, her eyes sparkle and her energy is infectious. We are grateful to have been able to shoot her in this way.” Singh says the campaign has turned Sahgal into a viral sensation.

Older women are a core focus for luxury skincare brand LR Wonder Company, which creates products from exotic ingredients like snail mucin, bee venom, caviar and 24k gold. “As a brand, we sit at the intersection of high efficacy and effortless luxury beauty—something this age group values. They value quality and efficacy, and are willing to invest in luxury skincare. They also tend to have higher disposable incomes and purchasing power,” says Viren Sawhney, a partner in the company.

Dermalogica, which has recently signed on actor Neha Dhupia, 41, has a skincare range for the older segment. “Our Age Smart range addresses the needs of older people. But because skin ageing begins as early as one’s 20s, our focus is to address triggers that cause accelerated and visible signs of ageing, and help customers live in their healthiest skin across ages and stages of their lives,” says Pushkaraj Shenai, CEO, Unilever Professional Beauty, which owns Dermalogica.

Most brands that cater to the older segment find older models help them connect with audiences. “For products addressing concerns such as anti-age, tightening and lifting of the skin, it’s quite important that we are relatable. So, yes, we have used older models and even have campaigns planned for which we are actively looking for models aged 35-plus,” says Sawhney.

Singh holds out hope of a more meaningful shift in perspective. “Social media campaigns are tools of storytelling. The response to all our jewellery campaigns reassures us that consumers are interested in unique characters. The days of ‘perfect’ models are behind us.”

Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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