Holding back the years – our obession with staying young
ON ANY given day of the week Liz McCarron will be doing something to fight the ageing process.
The 33-year-old has monthly facials, weekly fake tan treatments and a daily skincare regimen aimed at keeping her appearance at its best.
She sleeps on her back to avoid wrinkles from squashing her face against the pillow, she takes vitamins and antioxidants and drinks two litres of water a day.
As a beautician at Edinburgh salon Ritz Hair and Beauty, McCarron is able to perform most of the treatments herself.
They include regular manicures, pedicures and waxes as well as a range of intensive facials that rejuvenate the skin.
If she was paying up front she would be facing a staggering annual beauty bill of around £6,800 – more than double what the average woman spends and almost a third of the average British salary.
She says she simply enjoys pampering herself and wants to look her very best.
“I got into the beauty business so that I could have all the treatments without spending the money,” she admits.
“I have just got married and I don’t want it all to go to pot.
I don’t want to age too much because my husband is six years younger than me.
I’ve got to keep looking young while he ages!”
McCarron’s approach verges on the obsessive, but she is merely at the extreme end of the modern fetish for looking as young as possible for as long as possible.
The cult of youth is everywhere: it dominates the media and the beauty business of lotions and potions is now worth £1bn a year in the UK alone.
Meanwhile, as scientists avidly pursue the secrets of eternal youth, everything from porridge to red wine is reinvented as a route to staying young-looking and healthy.
In reality no-one knows how much is down to good genes and how much to time spent in front of the mirror.
So is our increasing preoccupation with preventing the onset of age merely a healthy desire to live a happier, more productive life?
Or is it the sign of a sick society which has come to value superficiality over seriousness?
Shirley Ogilvie takes a different tack to looking good.
A 47-year-old mother of four, who runs Edinburgh toy shop Pinocchio, she loves keeping fit, eats well and invests in quality beauty basics such as a good haircut and a few expensive luxury creams.
She looks great for her age yet her annual hair and beauty bill is a relatively modest £1,000.
“I would like to think I keep myself at my best,” she says.
“I think a person should just get the best products they can afford.
I think it’s essential to have a good haircut and colour, especially when you get older.
I love the feeling of being fit.
But I don’t spend much on beauty products compared to other girls I know, who spend a lot and don’t use them.”
Ogilvie, like McCarron, is often complemented on her appearance, and both women say they look and feel much younger than their years.
Their desire to defy their biological clocks, even if they do it in different ways, is shared by millions of men and women.
Spending on health and beauty products increased by 25% in the past four years in the UK, hitting £1bn for the first time this year.
Analysts predict the sector will grow even further in the next five years.
Research commissioned by New Woman magazine shows that British women now spend an average of £3,000 a year on beauty products and treatments.
Britain’s ageing population is increasingly turning to skincare as a means of preserving a youthful complexion without having to go under the knife – and while facelifts have fallen slightly out of favour, there is huge growth in non-invasive surgery such as fillers and Botox.
It’s not just cosmetics – there is also a growing fixation with so-called super foods that fight disease and increase longevity, from broccoli and carrots, to berries, oats, oily fish and green tea.
Supermarket sales of beetroot have doubled in the past year.
Blueberries also enjoyed a surge in sales after studies suggested their consumption may slow the ageing process by helping to prevent and reverse memory loss.
Last week the latest good news for the drinks industry – and wine lovers – was that a natural substance found in red wine can extend life and counter the negative effects of an unhealthy high-fat diet.
The study, published in the journal Nature, found that resveratrol, a plant extract found in grapes, prevented the negative effects of a high calorie diet in mice.
Although they gained weight, their health and longevity were almost the same as mice on a normal diet.
The researchers believe the results may go some way to explaining the “French paradox” of that country’s national diet, which is rich in animal fats while apparently not resulting in a high heart disease rate.
But why are we so fixated with attempting to stop the clock?
“It’s a lot to do with the images out there – all these fresh faces in magazines,” says Nicola Paterson, a lecturer in beauty therapy at Edinburgh’s Telford College.
“People are a step closer to that look if they have a treatment.
People don’t want to see fine lines and wrinkles and are so much more aware of it now.
They love the packaging of products and like having something new to try.
That’s how it works; that’s how we are able to sell these things.”
One of the most in vogue treatments at present is the non-surgical face lift.
Although most who opt for this are in their 40s and 50s, some younger women are also having it done, according to Paterson.
“We have clients from their mid-20s onwards having it as a preventative treatment to prolong their looks.
Most people who have this treatment get quite enthusiastic when they see the results.
“The beauty industry is one of the biggest industries out there and one of the fastest-growing.
We have bigger numbers coming through the college now than ever before.”
Despite the vast sums being spent on highly-priced skincare products, Paterson insists that a basic regime can have a powerful effect.
“There are a lot of expensive creams out there, but the best thing you can do is have a healthy diet and drink lots of water.
Doing facial exercises at home can also help.
The treatments do make a difference and I have definitely seen results, but you have to stick with them.”
Most image-conscious adults know about the basics of skincare, outlined by Paterson, yet still spend thousands on products that promise miracle results.
Michelle Strutton, a senior market analyst at Mintel, explained exactly how manufacturers are exploiting this anti-ageing obsession.
“One of the major trends in the market has been the increasing alignment of face make-up with skincare,” she says.
“Manufacturers in all cosmetics and toiletries sectors view skincare’s success enviously and see skincare-related products as a prime way of adding value and encouraging women to use products more often.
In face make-up, this trend continues to produce anti-ageing formulations which blur the distinction between cosmetics and a treatment product and acknowledges the ageing population in Britain today.”
A recent Mintel report highlighted the trend for products that “address common age- related skincare concerns such as blemish control, wrinkle prevention or reduction”.
This in itself is becoming more specialised, particularly in anti-ageing as new products target specific concerns such as age spots, crow’s feet or saggy necks.
The public’s growing trust in medical advances, coupled with exposure to high-profile TV doctors and extreme makeovers is also encouraging people to think about how well they are ageing.
Celebrity doctor and dermatologist brands are expected to command premium price tags and drive sales upwards until at least 2010.
But is there more to this trend than the public’s susceptibility to mass advertising and peer pressure?
Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and agony aunt, believes society’s obsession with stopping the ageing process is becoming an “enormous problem”.
“This has come from the United States, like everything else, and has been happening for the last 50 or 60 years,” she said.
“We have become increasingly materialistic as a society.
The advance of science has meant we are less interested in the idea of a God.
There was a comfort in thinking that we knew what was going to come in the next life and it was going to be better.
Now we don’t know what’s coming next so to get the maximum out of this life we have to be quick-thinking, attractive and youthful.
It’s about what we can get out of life now.
We need to do it all right now.”
Blair says she is “not discouraged”, however.
“The rocker generation who are now in their 50s and 60s are the ones who have got all the money and they are the ones who are getting older now.
Maybe we will start to see a reverse trend.
Aubrey de Grey, a researcher at the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing, who is working towards a “cure” for human ageing, has a different view: “People want to remain young and look younger than they are because that’s how we’ve evolved.
Young people are more able to have kids, so they’re more attractive, so people want to look as if they can have lots of kids.
Nothing clever, just the standard logic of the selfish gene.”
De Grey has set up the Methuselah Mouse prize to encourage scientists to take up his ideas and use them to create long-living mice.
Mice usually live up to three years, but, under the project, scientists have so far managed to get a mouse to live just a week short of five years, which equates to about 180 in human years.
He believes that despite the efforts that have so far been made to cure and treat diseases, the scientific community needs to take the ageing process more seriously.
“The real question is, why is people’s desire to stop the ageing process so pathetically ambivalent?
And it kills them really slowly and horribly.
Other things make us pretty determined to stop them when they kill a tiny proportion of that number.”
For Shirley Ogilvie, however, there may be a simpler explanation.
“I have tried some of the most expensive face creams and they are similar to some of the older and more basic types,” she says.
“I think a lot of it is just psychology – ultimately people just like putting something nice on their face.”
Our obsession with staying young has pushed the beauty market through the £1bn-a-year barrier – is this a healthy sign or the mark of a sick society, asks KATE FOSTER