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AARP Survey: More Than 70% of Women 50+ Feel Pressure to Live Up to Beauty Standards Dictated by Media

As women age, they are more likely to have less self-judgment and embrace their ‘authentic’ selves


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Tara Moore/Getty Images

First, the good news: 7 in 10 women say they look inward to define their own beauty instead of comparing themselves with others. This holds true for three-quarters of women 50 and older and two-thirds of women 18 to 49.

Now, the not-so-good news: Nearly the same percentage of all women say most people judge their gender on external beauty. The number of people who felt this way remained the same — 71 percent — for women 18 to 49 and 50-plus.

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Those insights from Mirror/Mirror: AARP Survey of Women’s Reflections on Beauty, Age, and Media highlight the pressure women often feel to meet beauty standards set by others.

The majority of respondents say advertising and social media are the main entities dictating beauty standards for women. Nearly half say those norms come from “what we see other women doing,” and a fifth say men also influence those standards.

The national survey of 7,368 adult women conducted Nov. 2–30, 2022, uncovered some contrasting attitudes and actions. For instance, among women familiar with photo filters, 60 percent view those filters and other editing tools as “distorting/negative” when it comes to how women present themselves or how advertisers represent women. Yet slightly more than one-third of all respondents have used filters or editing tools to alter their appearance in photos or videos. More than half of those 18 to 49 used them, as did 20 percent of those 50-plus.

Women welcome more inclusive marketing messages

Most respondents noticed increased efforts by marketers to include models of varying ages, body shapes and races and applaud those endeavors. Nearly 7 in 10 women say they “love it” or “find it refreshing.”

At the same time, 51 percent of those 18 to 49 and 68 percent of those 50 and older say they “rarely” or “never” see themselves represented in media and advertising. And when it comes to women 50 and older being accurately portrayed in the media, respondents of all ages say that only occurs about a third of the time.

“There are certain companies embracing that individuality and authenticity,” says Patty David, AARP vice president of consumer insights. “But overall, the advertising business has a long way to go to be truly reflective of the everyday woman.”

For example, although those 50-plus make up a good portion of the workforce, few images show older adults in the workplace, she says.

Businesses that embrace diversity and more accurately represent their customers have an opportunity to boost sales. Roughly three-quarters of all women surveyed say they are more likely to buy from advertisers that represent their age. Nearly the same number of respondents say they are more likely to make purchases from brands that feature different body shapes.

Survey respondent Tracie Metzger, 61, from Franklin, Tennessee, says she would “absolutely” buy products from a brand that put forth realistic images that represent herself or others in her demographic.

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“A few years ago, Dove did a marketing campaign which reflected women of different ages and sizes,” she says. “I actually started buying more Dove products because of this marketing campaign.”

Aging brings about more authenticity

As women get older, they feel less pressure to succumb to the beauty standards of others and are more likely to feel their true authentic selves in a variety of situations, according to the survey. For instance:

  • Although 41 percent of women ages 18 to 49 say they feel a great deal of pressure to meet beauty standards, just 22 percent of women 50 and older say the same.
  • Women 50 and older say they show their authentic selves at work 77 percent of the time, compared with 66 percent of women ages 18 to 49.
  • Women 50 and older say they show their authentic selves with family 88 percent of the time, versus 83 percent of women 18 to 49.

Those responses are consistent with past AARP research, David says.

“Data that we have collected over the years shows that, as we age, we feel more comfortable in our own skin and more comfortable being ourselves,” she says. “I think that that’s a function of life experience. It’s being able to overcome things. You become stronger in your convictions and less susceptible to peer pressure and other pressures that come on.”

Metzger says that’s been her experience. “As I matured, I realized that I don’t have to please anyone but myself,” she says. “I still take pride in my appearance and try to look my best, but I have reached a point where I really don’t care what anyone thinks. Frankly, I wish I had learned this earlier in life.”

Survey respondent Dee Geddes, 75, from Chamberlain, South Dakota, says retiring helped her embrace her authentic self. She has more time to spend on hobbies and friends instead of being in a competitive work setting. Dealing with challenges gave her more perspective, she adds.

“As we age, we evolve,” she says. “You become more aware that there are much more important things in the world than how we look every morning and that we have our makeup on perfectly.”

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Being an example for younger women

What can older women do to help younger women become more comfortable with themselves?

Set a good example, says David, who is 56.

“I really hope that I show up as a role model, whether I put makeup on or I don’t put makeup on, whether I’m wearing relaxed clothes or high heels,” she says. “There’s no right or wrong. You’ve got to be true to yourself.”

Survey respondent Janet Boyer, 53, from Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, says women can inspire younger generations by “being their bright, bold self without apology.”

And respondent Dyann Berndt, 64, from Berwyn, Illinois, passes on wisdom that her father gave her: “to always do what I wanted, not what society expected of me or others advised me, and to be true to myself.”

“My most fervent wish for young women is to understand that they are the masters of their own lives,” Berndt adds. “They should always be their own best admirer rather than worst critic, and they should live the life that they want, not the life that’s expected of them.”

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