The Psychology of Beauty |

4 min read

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is said, but social and cultural norms heavily shape who and what we consider beautiful. In Western society, personal beauty is deeply grounded in youthfulness, making it understandable why many people actively take steps to look young. For most, physical appearance is an important thing, as studies show that feeling that one is attractive helps build confidence and self-esteem. The psychology of beauty thus has much to do with individual self-worth and simply feeling good about oneself.

Beauty is as much external as internal in determining how we may think and act, however. In discussing the relationship between beauty and psychology, Psychology Today has made note of the halo effect, defined as “a type of cognitive bias or judgment discrepancy in which our impression of a person dictates the assumptions we make about that individual.” Because we correlate beauty with youthfulness, those who look young may receive preferential treatment of some kind—in other words, another reason to seek ways to make ourselves as attractive as possible by hiding signs of age, primarily wrinkles and gray hair.

The beauty industry is well aware of consumers’ desire to enhance their appearance by making themselves look younger than they actually are. The beauty market, which consists of skincare, fragrance, makeup, and haircare, generated $430 billion in 2022 and is forecast to grow to $580 billion by 2027, according to the consulting firm McKinsey and Company. With some notable exceptions—78-year-old Helen Mirren has appeared in L’Oreal ads and both 56-year-old Pamela Anderson and 71-year-old Isabella Rossellini have (shockingly) appeared in public sans makeup—youthfulness remains the primary currency of the beauty business.

Over the past couple of decades, “anti-aging” products have represented a key segment of the huge beauty market. With our notion of beauty steeped in looking young, it makes sense that marketers have presented their brands as fountains of youth. Companies are not surprisingly taking full advantage of the aging of baby boomers, once the largest generation in history, many of whom can afford to spend money on products that promise to take a few years off their biological age.

Despite the claims made—often by a “doctor” in a white coat who explains the benefits of an anti-aging product in scientific-sounding terms—there is little or no real science behind the marketing. For whatever reason (and scientists still don’t know exactly why), the human body is biologically programmed to age, with only calorie reduction shown to decelerate that process.

In a 2023 study published in the journal Nature Aging, eating fewer calories appeared to slow the pace of aging and increase longevity in healthy adults. (The study, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, was the first-ever randomized controlled trial that looked at the long-term impact of calorie restriction.)

Consumers are not fools and are likely aware that a $200 jar of anti-aging cream is probably more sizzle than steak. There appear to be psychological benefits to be had by using such products, however, as the knowledge that one is making a concerted effort to look younger itself may function as a form of self-assurance.

That diversity in age has not been fully embraced by the beauty industry can be seen as surprising. The population is aging, after all, suggesting that “oldness,” rather than youthfulness, would gain currency as an opportunistic marketing strategy in many businesses. Other forms of physical differences—race, ethnicity, body size, and ability—have been eagerly welcomed by beauty marketers, reflecting our current and powerful inclusion and belonging movement, but diversity in age has been notably largely ignored.

That the beauty industry continues to promote youthfulness despite compelling reasons not to may be serving to reinforce ageist attitudes, particularly in the workplace. “Anti-aging” products go even further by framing the human body’s natural determination to age in negative terms, and something to discourage and avoid. Sadly, many young adults in their 30s and 20s have subscribed to this narrative and are using Botox and other treatments to make themselves look (temporarily) younger.

Beyond the desire to appear young, one can argue that there is a subtext to the great popularity of anti-aging products. In Western society, values such as achievement, progress, and vigor are celebrated; aging, on the other hand, is generally perceived as a period of decline and irrelevance (despite the abundance of research showing that the latter stage of life is often associated with relatively high levels of contentment, happiness, and a kind of “wisdom”). Going even deeper, becoming “old” is commonly seen as the predecessor to death, this, too, encouraging people to slow or reverse the aging process through alleged miracle treatments.

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