Beauty and the Double Standard of Aging

By Lisa Wade, PhD

Cross-posted from Sociological Images

Today I had the pleasure of reading a 1978 essay by Susan Sontag titled The Double Standard of Aging.  I was struck by how plainly and convincingly she described the role of attractiveness in men’s and women’s lives:

[For women, o]nly one standard of female beauty is sanctioned: the girl.

The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life-cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks — heavier, rougher, more thickly built. A man does not grieve when he loses the smooth, unlined, hairless skin of a boy. For he has only exchanged one form of attractiveness for another: the darker skin of a man’s face, roughened by daily shaving, showing the marks of emotion and the normal lines of age.

There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every gray hair, is a defeat.  No wonder that no boy minds becoming a man, while even the passage from girlhood to early womanhood is experienced by many women as their downfall, for all women are trained to continue wanting to look like girls.

These words reminded me of an idea for a post submitted by Tom Hudson.  Tom was searching for faces to help him draw and was struck by the differences in the results for “woman face” and “man face”:

 The wide variety of men’s faces, compared to the overwhelming homogeneity of the women’s faces, nicely illustrates Sontag’s point. Women’s faces are important and valorized for only one thing: girlish beauty. Men’s faces, on the other hand, are notable for being interesting, weird, wizened, humorous, and more.

On another note, the invisible but near total dominance of whiteness is worth acknowledging.

9 thoughts on “Beauty and the Double Standard of Aging

  1. And of course pregnancy adds a whole other layer to many women’s aging process – the stretching, sagging, and often added weight. My second child had a undiagnosed nutritional disorder that left me constantly hungry while pregnant, even though her body was unable to absorb most of what I ate. So, all those extra calories ended up on my belly. Thank heavens the doctors figured out what was going on with her when she nearly starved to death at age 2, but four years after her birth my belly skin still sags. It feels soft and silky, but it looks forlorn, like a fallen soufflé. I don’t have one of those husbands who tells me I’m still beautiful – he’s too shy to say things like this out loud. But maybe that wouldn’t help anyway. I need to stop waiting for things to change magically. I feel too busy to get the serious exercise that might make some kind of difference, and I don’t know how to start loving my appearance as it is. I was pretty attached to my flat belly, it seems.

  2. Having recently turned 30–and I know that this isn’t a big number in the scheme of things, but it certainly is when it comes to my supposed value as a woman, and therefore, as a human being–I liked this post very much. The double-standard is something that has concerned me for some time but it’s hitting me particularly hard right now for obvious reasons. So thank you. 🙂

  3. I love when people put into words the thoughts that I somehow can’t. As a black woman I also noted the lack of diversity in the images, particularly the images of women. Will definitely share on my FB page and site!

  4. Thank you so much for this. I have always felt this way but didn’t have the words in the right particular order in my mind to be able to really explain it, and, therefore, entertain and understand it fully.

    Amazing! And so true!


  5. This is so true and the pictures make the case so convincingly. I wrote a post called The Cougar Effect on my blog discussing this ever increasing pressure on women to maintain their youthful looks as their primary form of power. It completely defeats the beauty of aging and the wisdom that is gained with it.

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