Social and cultural expectations regarding what a person should do and who they should be at a certain age are not as strong as they were several decades ago. At the same time, however, age is gaining importance in the process of self-representation in society. Youth is a separate indicator of success. It doesn’t matter how old a person is, but it’s important how they feel and how they present their age to society.
This is particularly important for women, whose construction and perception of their own age is closely related to appearance and physicality. CYS scholars decided to look at how women in various stages of life perceive their age as related to changes in their bodies and appearances. The study was focused on two age periods, 15-20 years, as the period of maturation, and 30-35 years, as a transitional period from youth to the middle age. The researchers carried out 40 semi-structured interviews tracking this aspect of an individual’s life in various stages (20 interviews in each age group) with women living in St. Petersburg, who represent the working and middle classes. As part of this project, the authors also prepared a theoretical overview of Russian and international studies on how age and appearance are perceived and constructed in today’s society.
A number of studies are dedicated to age and age self-identification, which demonstrates how perceptions of age boundaries and attitudes towards one’s own age and other people’s age change over time. These studies have drawn varied and controversial conclusions. On the one hand, age is losing its importance when it comes to determining life choices. For example, people tend to marry and have children not when ‘it’s time’, but when they feel the need to do so. Young people don’t always hurry to get jobs, since they are trying to find their real vocation. And if someone decides to change professions and goes to study for a new degree in their pre-retirement years, no one would be surprised today. ‘An individual’s life is now less determined by the life cycles that formed a part of previous generations’ experiences’, the researchers said.
On the other hand, standardization according to age still exists. In consumer society, the image of a young and sexy body prevails and is broadcast in all types of visual media. Evaluation boils down to two categories, ‘young’ and ‘old’. ‘As a result, what matters is not how old you are, but the extent to which you’re not young’, the authors commented quoting the results of studies that describe the ‘mask of ageing’, which describes a way of demonstrating psychological/internal age by means of practices and external attributes of real youth. These include sports, fitness, cosmetic procedures or plastic surgery, which are a way of not only preserving youth, but of gaining self-confidence in the contemporary world. Figuratively speaking, there is an evolving gap between the body and the spirit, Nadezhda Nartova, Research Fellow at CYS, explained. Research shows that the gap between the real and the psychological age today can reach 9-12 years.
Practices for looking younger are especially important for women. Women’s youth is associated with beauty, and to be beautiful is a special women’s ‘privilege’ that remains relevant despite the fact that women today can express themselves not only through appearances, but by means of self-realization in many professional, creative and everyday areas that have traditionally been the domain of men.
‘Many researchers who work as part of the feminist discourse interpret this daily and persistent fight for a “beautiful” and “ideal” body as a manifestation of patriarchy’, the CYS researchers noted. The Russian gender order, they believe, is patriarchal. Under such an order, there are popular ideas that women obtain status and value through their appearance, while men can position themselves through a wider range of qualities, including intelligence, health, and strength.
Globally, mass culture standards are more exigent particularly to women’s beauty, which is represented as ‘initially requiring improvement’, the researchers said. As a result, in modern society, beauty is a value that women strive for as an absolute, religious imperative. In this context, body and appearance are an ‘object for investment’, which can not only help a successful marriage, career etc., but bring real returns in such fields as modelling or show business.
An analysis of interviews with girls aged 15 to 20 showed that youth at this age can be a problem rather than a resource. Most of the respondents said that it’s important for them to look their age or older, but never younger. Self-representation as an adult in society is a special skill among young people. ‘Wrong age display leads to a situation when other people think that girls are younger, and this is seen as deprivation of their rights, loss of status and the capital of adulthood’, the researchers said. They believe that this is a sign of young girls’ age status vulnerability. ‘When they find out that you’re 15, they have kind of a biased attitude, as if you know nothing about life yet’, one of the young female respondents said.
An adult body is perceived by girls and young women as one that has achieved permanence and stability, including emotionally and sensually. The respondents also see adulthood as the age when people know the techniques of care and decoration of their bodies. ‘According to the interviews, girls starting from about age 12 actively master the methods of body care with the help of their mothers’, the researchers commented.
There is an opinion that the older a woman is, the younger she is trying to look. Speaking of women in their 30s, this is nothing more than a stereotype, the study shows. Women aged 30 to 35 are on a ‘happy middle ground’, they feel their age comfortably and adequately.
Yet, there is a question about what the real middle of life is in terms of age. Researchers say that it’s difficult to determine clear boundaries of middle age today. In some studies, it is defined as 30 to 60, while in the others it has shifted to 50 to 75.
The CYS scholars limited the age in the sample to 30 to 35 years. First, the authors explained, there are other studies on women who are older. Second, this age is a transitional period from youth to middle age, a time of career building, gaining financial independence, creating families, and mastering practices to care for body and appearance.
The authors revealed that 30-year-old women relate positively to their age, body and appearance. ‘This age is not seen as critical and is not associated with old age. Women are not hiding their age and openly saying how old they are’, the study showed. ‘I never lie about being younger… And it’s rather stupid, because everyone is 18 only 365 days, no one can be 18 for two years. And I’ll never be 33 again’, one of the respondents reasoned.
The researchers did not see any ‘nostalgia for youth’ in their interviews. ‘This is a very good period… When you have some background, but you still understand that your whole life is ahead and that there are many more opportunities…’, another 30-year-old female respondent said.
Speaking about appearance and corporality, women in their 30s are satisfied with their looks despite the first wrinkles, etc. ‘This age is defined as the time when they get their “full” beauty, which gains new strengths’, the researchers commented. ‘The beauty is still kind of growing… It is not fading yet, but on the contrary, it’s transitioning to a different kind of beauty…’, one of the respondent women shared. At the same time, the authors said, 30-year-old women have a pool of skills that allows them to constantly reproduce certain images that emphasize their attractiveness.
The study analyzed differences between self-care practices among female representatives of the middle and working classes. Women involved in manual labour pay less attention to their appearance, unlike middle class women, who regularly invest in their beauty as much as possible. At the very least, this includes manicures, pedicures, anti-aging creams and masks made at home, if time is limited. The maximum programme includes active professional help: cosmetologists, fitness instructors, and nail technicians.
The authors concluded that at the age of 30 women live in a period of comfort when they have gained status and the desired professional position, and at the same time have reached the peak of their attractiveness. ‘They enjoy being at this age and try to stay in it for as long as possible’, the researchers added.
*The project was carried out with the support of the HSE Academic Fund Programme in 2014 by the ‘Social Studies of the Body’ research and study group, headed by Elena Omelchenko, Director of CYS.