The Inverse Sell-By Date

Why is it that with each passing birthday I sense that I am reaching my ‘sell-by date’, even though I am now only twenty-two? I know that I am not alone in this fear, which is shared by many women, superficial and non-superficial alike. It appears to be ingrained in us from an early age that our desirability to the opposite sex as ‘youthful’ and ‘beautiful’ in appearance ultimately defines our worth and status as women, such that when they deem us to have reached our ‘sell-by date’—our unavoidable destiny—we forever lose some of our legitimacy and value. The all too common replacement of an ex wife with a ‘younger model’—as the saying goes—appeals to this standard, which will always disempower women provided that we continue to fuel it with cosmetic surgery, or by turning a blind eye to, perhaps even savouring, the feeling that our current partner may have seduced us to (indirectly) reinforce this sentiment in their ex.

Psychological control through self-doubt
The ‘sell-by date’ is a corrosive means of self-deprecation that is designed to eat us from within so that we continually measure ourselves by it, as well as each other. Once force-fed its inescapable message, like a hamster we enter a rotating wheel that keeps us running through the shame of getting off, and the consequent fear of losing our worth as women.

By using its social prevalence to inundate us with images and stereotypes of an appearance-based concept of age, the omnipresent ‘sell-by-date’ induces pre-emptive fears in us, particularly in women, that we may one day ‘look like that’. Consider Jessica Rach’s Daily Mail article (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-4987868/Stockard-Channing-shocks-fans-appearance-Lorraine.html) as a prime example of this fear-inducement which preys upon the inevitability of the physical ageing of the body and the ultimate impossibility of its prevention to progressively constrain a woman’s self-esteem as she ages. Here the actress Stockard Channing, widely known for her portrayal of Betty Rizzo in Grease (1978), is shamed by a then and now visual comparison following her Lorraine ITV interview. Not only does the author emphasise fans’ “concerned” sentiment that Channing now looks “unrecognisable”, but she goes further in her ridicule by citing the professional opinion of a cosmetic surgeon who explores Channing’s potential use of Botox—however, such “concerns” seemingly relate not to the fact that she may have felt the need to resort to its use in the first place, but rather to the manner in which it may have been used, such as whether the injections have been placed “incorrectly” and when the “puffiness and dropping of the skin” are likely to “wear off”.

We are left with the following impression: “[w]hat has she done to her face”? Rach writes almost as though the change in her looks is self-imposed, thereby ignoring the reality that her own article is just one of many voices that continue to inculcate in women an irrational belief that our sole worth lies in the ‘youth’ and ‘beauty’ of our faces and bodies—our consequent urgency to cosmetically self-preserve is not self-imposed, but is rather an environmental humming we have grown so accustomed to hearing that we no longer seem conscious of it.

There is no winning against the ‘sell-by-date’ for it teaches us that our appearance now will always be compared to our appearance then and our worth judged accordingly. Furthermore, just as Channing’s physical signs of ‘age’ are intrusively nipped and tucked by Rach in comparison with her once ‘youthful’ looks, just so the cosmetic measures that she is supposed to have taken to retain such an appearance are criticised as preventing her from ageing “gracefully”, leaving her in an inevitable lose-lose situation—she can either do nothing and allow herself to age naturally, only to have her value judged according to a prior higher standard of ‘youth’, or she can take unnatural measures to retain her ‘youthful’ looks, only to be ridiculed for doing so, once again in comparison with that prior standard.

Constituting the majority of Rach’s article are descriptions of Channing’s seemingly all-defining portrayal of Betty Rizzo, including references to the almost forty years that have since passed, like a haunting eulogy to the person she used to look like, with a short sentence reserved in the final paragraph that she is currently “in a play on Broadway”—though unnamed—like an afterthought. Ultimately, the underlying message seems to be an inescapable downward trajectory of visually-defined female worth once we are deemed to have reached our ‘sell-by-date’—run hamster, run. Keep running or else you’ll be ridiculed for falling off the wheel, only to then fall off eventually.

Increasing the intergenerational gap between women
Wherever we may look, the beauty and fashion industries perpetuate the fetishisation of female youth as an ephemeral stage to be savoured, even preferred to the (older) woman equivalent for whom such clothes and products are typically designed. This can be exemplified by the idolisation of current industry ‘it’ girls, such as sixteen-year-old Kaia Gerber whose incredibly thin, almost prepubescent appearance is frequently juxtaposed with a skimpy outfit, heavy make-up, and a pair of high heels—a look stereotypically associated with an adult.

This preference for the appearance of female youth is part of the wider ‘sell-by-date’ culture which cultivates an intergenerational gap between women, grounded in a sense of mutual distrust. Rarely, however, is such an interpersonal barrier at the forefront of women’s minds as we live our day-to-day lives, but rather it is an objective assumption— ingrained in us by an external correlation of our value with the deemed ‘youth’ of our faces—that this is how women of different ages should and do in fact see one another. Take, for example, the clichéd portrayal of the ‘older’ woman who views her ‘younger’ counterpart as a potential threat to an existing romance, or even as a competitor for male attention more generally, and contrast this with the ‘younger’ woman whose constant alertness to her physical signs of ‘age’ reflects an underlying fear of one day losing out on male attention—the epicentre of both anxieties is an ambiguous ‘male’ perception of our status as women. We thus readily put our entire self-worth solely into the hands of a hypothetical man who may glimpse us only briefly.

The ‘sell-by-date’ reinforces its grip through its intangibility. Does it solely concern the appearance of ‘age’ or does it also involve our numerical age? It appears to lack objectivity in differing from woman to woman. We are taught that it is the age at which our physical desirability to the opposite sex begins its exponential decline—we start to ‘lose our looks’, whatever that means. But although there may be ‘scientific’ attempts to pinpoint an exact age at which women are objectively deemed to have reached their ‘sell-by-date’, the general fear of the slippery unknown and of being relegated to a category of less value in the eyes of men compared to a ‘younger’ female generation is enough to keep us running in the hamster wheel, perpetually.

Gender inequality – the inverse sell-by-date
It appears that the ‘sell-by-date’ also exists in relation to men, but not to the same all-defining extent—whereas for women the appearance of ‘youth’ and ‘beauty’ are generally considered to epitomise our femininity and desirability to the opposite sex, for men the dominant concept of masculinity is usually defined, not on the basis of ‘youthful’ looks, but rather in terms of career success and social status, amongst other things.

This gendered difference can be noted in the portrayal of heroes and villains in Disney films. Here, typically older female villains are often depicted as obsessed with the attributes of ‘youth’ and ‘beauty’ possessed by the heroines, which they themselves lack—for example, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) the older and more experienced Queen Grimhilde’s bloodthirsty plot to kill the younger and naïve Snow White is grounded in her single-minded determination to be “the fairest one of all”; and in The Little Mermaid (1989) the older and larger Ursula can be contrasted with the youthful Ariel in her quest to obtain Ariel’s innocent voice—arguably indicative of her youth—as a means of attaining power over Atlantica. Therefore, a discrepancy in the appearance of age and objective ‘beauty’ between the characters is used to allude to their respective roles as heroine and villain, and more importantly to create a sense of lacking that solely occupies the latter.

Contrast this depiction of female characters with their male counterparts where little reference is made to disparities in ‘youth’ or ‘beauty’ as a way of identifying their roles. Instead of obsessing over what he may visually lack in comparison with the hero, a male villain is typically driven by a desire for revenge or power. Even in Peter Pan (1953), while Captain Hook and Peter may be distinguished by the fact of—and not necessarily the appearance of—eternal youth, the former is solely motivated by revenge.

Furthermore, while a man may suspect others’ criticism as he ages for any changes in his once ‘youthful’ looks, popular perception more freely permits him, unlike his female counterpart, to establish his worth in other respects, such as through monetary influence. Consider this gender disparity when comparing journalistic coverage of the political careers of David Cameron and Theresa May: in reporting on May’s role as prime minister, as opposed to Cameron’s, visual references are often employed to distract from and undermine her political actions. Comments on her choice of footwear (http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/style/celebrity-fashion/theresa-wears-265-russell–11285543) or the manner in which she holds a wine glass (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2017/nov/21/how-to-drink-wine-quick-guide-theresa-may-russian-state-tv), for example, while not directly concerned with the appearance of ‘youth’, nevertheless appeal to the wider looks-based standard of femininity and desirability to the opposite sex—criteria of ‘worth’—of which the ‘sell-by-date’ is just a part.

We are therefore left with the overall message, ingrained in us from a young age, that while a man may freely establish his value according to standards judged outside of the ‘sell-by-date’ obsession with a ‘youthful’ and ‘beautiful’ appearance, women, no matter how family-oriented or career-successful, will always be held to such visual demands which have the potential to wholly counteract their other attributes, inevitably reducing their worth to nothing—the inverse ‘sell-by-date’.

Consequent female disempowerment
The corrosive consequences for women of the inverse ‘sell-by-date’ find their inadvertent appeal in Julia McCurley’s Huffington Post article, which covers the “crisis” of “involuntarily single-and-childless” women post-thirty, whose apparently dichotomised decision to pursue a career and education in their twenties, rather than a romantic partner, has ultimately cost them “their fairytale ending” (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/julia-mccurley/expired-or-desired-do-sin_b_11628234.html). Not only does McCurley actively endorse the ‘sell-by-date’ by referring to an alleged gendered inversion once we reach thirty in the “primary weapon[s]” we have to attract the opposite sex, where a woman’s “looks” start to “decline..” and a man’s “personality, confidence and status” begin “to rise..”, but she also propagates its empty promise of life happiness through an augmented female identity when women abide by its dictates. We are therefore taught to see ourselves as defined by and only valued as being a walking reflection of a man’s ego, leaving us constantly haunted by the inescapable “ticking” of our appearance-based “clock” of worth.

McCurley indicates that career-minded women in their post-twenties, having supposedly reached the age at which men tend to court “younger, more attractive versions of themselves”, are now stuck on the proverbial shelf after failing to realise that “he was there all along while they were busy focusing on their career aspirations”. In so doing, she reduces the female path in two respects: firstly, by alluding to our exclusively being defined by the pursuit of a dream man with whom to settle down and have children, rather than by a separate independence or identity; and secondly, by suggesting that a career-or education-focus in our twenties cannot coexist with a successful search for a romantic partner—we can only have one or the other. “[L]ove really is about timing”, we are told, but what sort of ‘love’ is this where “men select for looks” and “women are most desirable to [them] when..in their [twenties]”? Taken to its natural conclusion, McCurley’s implicit instruction to avoid seeking the independence of a career or education in early life in favour of dependence on a man who has selected us on the basis of our ‘youthful’ looks would leave us trapped. If it is true that “[m]ost powerful men..want a feminine magnifier for themselves [which]…is best achieved through a young, attractive..woman who focuses on him—not on herself”—which, I admit, is a stereotyped and poor indictment on men generally—this man we felt so pressured to devote our twenties to seeking, will eventually replace us with a ‘younger model’ after we hit thirty, because, of course, marriage or bearing him children are no fail-safes.

By correlating the alleged predicament of the single woman in her thirties with “poor life-planning strategies” in which “women expect more from relationships than men do [by wanting not just]…a boyfriend, [but also]…a lover, playmate, career adviser…”, McCurley teaches women to lower our expectations of a romantic partner because our options will only get worse with age—we should settle for someone who is less than perfect today because he and other men will not be as interested in us tomorrow. Taken to its logical extreme, women would develop such low self-esteem that we would feel compelled to remain with an abusive partner, our objective worth and voice having depleted with age, our romantic options now completely reduced—essentially, accept what you have now before it becomes too late. Her article disempowers women of all ages, not just those who have passed their ‘sell-by-date’—the ‘younger’ woman may be motivated by an awareness of growing older, the impending doom of her value causing her to act now and think later, and the ‘older’ woman may feel deserving of ill-treatment because her pool of choices have already closed around her. So, what should I not tolerate? If he hits me is he still covered by the restricted ‘boyfriend’ standard I should hold him to? Should I stay with him for fear of being alone tomorrow, my options having already restricted with age?

Ultimately, the inverse ‘sell-by-date’ is designed to deplete female worth ad infinitum as we age, not solely when finding a romantic partner, as in McCurley’s article, but also more generally as it seeps into our day-to-day lives: motivated by the physical awareness and self-doubt it induces in us, we may make particular life or career choices, and even purchases, seeking various means to appear younger and thus feel better about ourselves. This downward spiral is only reinforced every time we encounter advertisements when we turn on the TV or take the tube, or even when we read a newspaper article about an older male celebrity who has recently left his wife of many years for a much younger girlfriend. We need to be aware that our identities lie outside of the ‘sell-by-date’ and that its perpetual pursuit of visual ‘beauty’ and ‘youth’ is not a ‘natural’ or ‘ideal’ part of the female identity, but is rather imposed on us by an external and disempowering mantra. Instead of teaching our sons and daughters that the female appearance is to be coveted in its ‘beauty’ and ‘youth’, we must encourage them to find strength and acceptance in themselves as they are. We are not hamsters, confined to an indefinitely turning wheel of progressive decline—we need to stop running.

*This article has been inspired by Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1990)

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