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Jennifer Lopez turned 49 this week. In the past year, she’s done a lot: She has a movie called Second Act coming out in November. She’s in the middle of a Las Vegas performing residency. She released a makeup collection, selling out several products within days.
The headlines calling attention to Lopez’s birthday have included “Celebrate Jennifer Lopez’s 49th Birthday By Checking Out the Evolution of her Six-Pack Abs!” and “Jennifer Lopez Flaunts Her ‘BirthdayWeek’ Body As She Nears 50.” Or, to paraphrase: “Can you believe someone so old can be this hot??”
These stories and others like them (many celebrities, from Sandra Bullock to Cate Blanchett, get the “so hot for their age” articles too) point to a bigger issue: Women aren’t allowed to age naturally in Hollywood. They have to look fit, smooth, and toned into their 40s and beyond.
This may seem like a frivolous problem that concerns only rich movie stars. But celebrities help set the standards for the rest of us because they are so visible everywhere now, from social media to more conventional news outlets. There is ample evidence suggesting that these images and the narratives framing them can affect regular women too.
The problem with “She looks great for her age!”
The “happy birthday, you’re hot for an old person” article is a staple of the celebrity press. Halle Berry, 51, is “Proof That You Can Do Wellness at Any Age,” the implication being that after some arbitrary age, you can’t do wellness anymore. Might as well give up and become sickly. The other Gen X Jennifers, Garner and Aniston, are targets also. (See, for example, “15 Real Reasons Why Jennifer Aniston Has Not Aged Since 1995.”) So are Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. The latter had been a spokesperson for the pricey skin care brand SK-II, which recently ran an influencer campaign highlighting the difficulties of aging as a woman without speaking to anyone over the age of 36.
Basically, if you’re a slim celebrity over 40 and look younger than that, but don’t overtly seem to have done anything surgical to your face or body, you earn the incredulous headline. You’ve succeeded. You’ve done the thing where you don’t look your age.
This celebration of looking young reverberates beyond Hollywood. Yearly statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons show consistent growth in procedures like Botox, liposuction, and tummy tucks, a procedure that is a major surgery with a long recovery period. It’s often marketed as part of a “Mommy Makeover” to help women bounce back preternaturally quickly from a pregnancy, another thing celebrated in the media.
The truth is that it takes a lot of time and money to look 10 years younger than you are: Botox, fillers, lasers, personal trainers, and skin care regimens are not cheap, so if you don’t have a certain amount of disposable income, you’re automatically left out.
Then there’s the psychological toll. A 2017 book by Northwestern University professor Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, notes that one study revealed that 70 percent of women think they would be treated better if they looked like the media-approved beauty ideal.
There’s also evidence that appearance discrimination is real in the job market, according to the LA Times, which noted, “There is an ‘attractiveness penalty’ for age, which is more severe for women than for men.” So if the norm is that you have to look 30 when you’re 50, that makes it arguably even tougher for women who actually do look 50 — or at least who look like what 50 used to look like.
I’m susceptible to this pressure myself. This past weekend, while scrolling through Instagram, I came across a selfie by J. Lo in which she is at the gym wearing a workout bra and leggings. My immediate reaction was so visceral that I screengrabbed it and put it on my own Instagram story, along with the cry-face emoji and the caption “Jesus Christ, how.”
To fully understand, here it is:
I am only a few years younger than her and grappling daily with the aftermath of a stealthy 12-pound weight gain that has left me with a closet full of nothing that fits well, not to mention the daily assaults of bodily indignity wrought by a hormonal system gone awry: a hair here, a new lumpy thing there, gray everywhere. J. Lo possesses the body of an Olympian and the lineless glow of a 26-year-old. And my feelings of inadequacy when looking at her should probably be a conversation I have with my therapist. But it’s hard not to think, What the heck am I doing wrong?
The lie of “aging gracefully”
Celebrities who do aging “wrong” get skewered. A few years ago, a fitness magazine published a list of female (they are always female) celebrities who are “aging gracefully” versus those who are “aging badly.” Aging gracefully ostensibly means you have some lines on your face, but not too many, and definitely don’t look like you’ve done anything to yourself, because that would indicate you’re trying too hard and are desperate.
On the good list? Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington Burns, Halle Berry. On the bad list? Madonna, Courtney Love, Kate Moss(!!), and Olivia Newton-John, whose “sunspots on her chest are hard to hide.” It’s not clear when this list was published, but Newton-John has been diagnosed with breast cancer and has since relapsed; one can only hope she made this list before her diagnosis.
Madonna (disclaimer: I am her biggest apologist), 59, often gets thrown on these lists because she has committed the sin of not aging gracefully by Hollywood standards. Her face sometimes looks plumped beyond what topical hyaluronic acid can do, and the media’s obsession with the appearance of her hands rivals that of Trump’s with Hillary’s emails. Combine this with the fact that she is not above baring her still-toned ass on a red carpet and you have someone who is pushing back against the norms too obviously.
She knows what she’s up against. Madonna once said in a speech that in the music industry, “to age is a sin.” I have a lot of empathy for her as she struggles with her own and society’s expectations about how one should look as they get older.
Sometimes the celebrities themselves are guilty of promoting the idea that it’s relatively easy to not age. Just drink water! And think positively! In a recent interview with Harper’s Bazaar, which noted how J. Lo has mantras embroidered on pillows all over her house, she said, “I am youthful and timeless. I tell myself that every day, a few times a day. It sounds like clichéd bullshit, but it’s not: Age is all in your mind. Look at Jane Fonda.” Okay, J. Lo, but, as evidenced by the number of selfies you’ve taken at the gym, there’s more to it than just the power of positive thinking. And Jane Fonda talks openly about her plastic surgery.
But Lopez is really just a cog in the wheel of this whole aging narrative. When she posts a proud picture of her abs on social media, she’s controlling the narrative. When tabloids do roundups of these images with hyperbolic headlines, it’s not her fault.
It doesn’t have to be this way
I think a lot about this W magazine article from 2016, which details the slew of nonsurgical procedures many celebrities, allegedly including J. Lo, undergo to age backward, costing many thousands of dollars and hours of time every month. This comparison to the celebrities of yore really blew my mind:
Ann B. Davis, the recently deceased actress who played Alice, the matronly housekeeper, on The Brady Bunch, was just 42 when she was cast on the show. Jean Stapleton was roughly the same age as Julia Roberts is now (47) during the first season of All in the Family, and Sally Field was 42 when she played Roberts’s mother in Steel Magnolias.
Our perception of what is normal and attainable has clearly changed, and not in good ways.
I see some reasons to be hopeful, though, at least a little a bit. NewBeauty lauded Jennifer Garner last month for posting a selfie of herself and pal Juliette Lewis in which their facial lines are clearly visible. (That said, the fact that this is laudable and worthy of note still tells you how far we have to go.) And to be fair, many outlets didn’t focus on J. Lo’s body and agelessness this year for her birthday. Perhaps the recent movement in Hollywood to #AskHerMore is having a ripple effect.
J. Lo recently said in an interview, “Listen, at some point, I’m going to age. They’ll say, ‘She looks old!’”
I hope they just say, “Happy birthday, J. Lo. Congrats on all that you’ve accomplished!”