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Keeping Beauty Real: Media's Missed Opportunity?

Mirror/Mirror: AARP 2023 Survey of Women's Reflections on Beauty, Age, and Media

Pressure to look young and beautiful is real for American women, but a new AARP survey shows that some are pushing back on those expectations as they age. Many say they would welcome more realistic images in the media that celebrate all shapes, sizes, and skin tones.

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A recent national survey of more than 7,000 adult women finds most believe beauty ideals are largely set by media in general and social media, with advertising, other women, and men also playing a role. But how these women are affected by beauty standards and expectations varies by age. While 41% of women ages 18-49 felt a great deal of pressure to meet beauty standards, just 22% of women 50 and over felt the same.

The Digital Impact

Today's prevalence of photo filters and editing tools to enhance images adds even more pressure to look perfect — especially among younger women, according to the AARP study. More than one-third of women have used these tools to improve how they look online or in photographs, including 54% of those under age 50 and 20% of older women.

Still, when it comes to beauty standards, the research shows women have great empathy for each other at different stages in life, with many recognizing that pressures around physical appearance are toughest for younger women. Collectively, on average, women believe age 29 is when women are held to a higher beauty standard than women of other ages. Respondents believe that age 42 is when most women, on average, come into their own authentic selves living without self-judgment and not trying to impress others, the AARP study reveals.

The Pressure to Reduce Signs of Aging

When asked about the most popular beauty standards today, the top answer was reducing signs of aging (48%), using Botox and fillers (44%), accentuating features (43%), and being fit/thin (34%). Older women are significantly more likely than younger women to acknowledge some beauty standards that allow for being natural, dressing casually, and wearing less make-up.

Most respondents of all ages (71%) say when the outside world evaluates a woman's beauty, they are judged by their external beauty, compared to 29% who say the evaluation skews toward internal beauty. That impression flips when asked about assessing their own beauty: 70% judge themselves by their internal beauty, including 66% of those under 50 and 76% percent of those 50 and over.

Just who do women turn to for beauty or grooming inspiration? AARP finds women most often cite friends in their social circle or other women they see around them. Social media, ads, and celebrities are less influential, although such factors have a greater impact on younger respondents.

About half of all women admit social media has some influence on their beauty choices. Women 18–49 are more likely to be influenced by Instagram than other platforms; for those 50 and over, Facebook has the most impact.

The Sluggish Pace of Media Evolution

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, some women say they have become more relaxed about their beauty routines, with fewer coloring their hair, wearing make-up, and getting manicures. This shift was especially true among women working in offices.

Most respondents (88%) say they love or find it refreshing that the media is becoming more diverse in its representation of different kinds of women yet many still don't think it regularly reflects them. About 51% of women 18-49 say they rarely or never see themselves in today's media and advertising; 68% of those 50-plus rarely or never do.

Businesses that disrupt the status quo stand to gain, according to the findings, with about three-quarters of women saying they are more likely to buy from brands that represent their age and different body shapes.

As they gain life experience, the survey concluded, many women care less about what others think and show up unapologetically as their authentic selves for their families, among friends, and at work. The AARP study also suggests younger women have an opportunity to learn from older women about how to sidestep societal expectations to be comfortable in their own skin.

Methodology

The research is based on a survey of 7,368 women ages 18 and older; it was fielded November 2–30, 2022. The survey was conducted by telephone and online, with questions posed in English and Spanish. Weights were used to adjust for disproportionate probabilities of selection, nonresponse adjustments, and sample balancing to Census benchmarks on age, education, gender, race/ethnicity, and geographic population distributions.

For more information, please contact Colette Thayer at cthayer@aarp.org. For media inquiries, please contact External Relations at media@aarp.org.