Young women are turning their backs on body positivity. It’s time we all stopped obsessing about how we look | Zoya Patel

There was a time when a woman reaching the age of 28 may have been considered to be approaching her middle years. That time was probably in the early 1900s, when the average life expectancy for women (in England) was around 50.

Surely in 2024 though, a 28-year-old is still considered young, right? Wrong! According to a recent social media trend and the feral comments it has produced, the only thing more depressing than being almost 30 is looking like you’re almost 30.

The TikTok that started it features a closeup video of a young woman’s makeup-free face, with the caption “here is a reminder what the raw face of a 28 yr old girl who hasn’t had any ‘work’ done looks like”. Cue 15,000 comments, the first third criticising the original poster for her sun-damaged skin and wrinkles and the next two-thirds slamming the slammers for their hate.

The shocking thing though? The commenters with the most vile reactions were all younger women, some even teenagers. Comments like, “Oh my lord, help me if I ever look like this *vomit emoji*’ and ‘The sun damage *skull emoji*”, or “Looks more like 38 than 28.”

After decades of body positivity messaging aimed at women, why aren’t we seeing the results? How come younger women haven’t turned their backs on the beauty industry and the pressures it places on us to be thin, poised and conventionally pretty without a sunspot, wrinkle or blemish in sight?

In fact, the opposite seems to be happening: the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported in 2023 that three-quarters of plastic surgeons were seeing a spike in clients under the age of 30 accessing cosmetic enhancements. Among the most popular are lip fillers and Botox. And the side effect of seeing so many young women on screens with taut skin and unnaturally plump lips is that the sight of an unenhanced 28-year-old face becomes horrifying.

Of course, this isn’t the first time feminists and women adjacent to them have taken to social media to try and combat the beauty industry and its influence. You may remember the #NoMakeupSelfie Instagram trend of 2014, where women posted photos of themselves to the platform without makeup on to “celebrate natural beauty”.

The rationale was to role model body positivity and acceptance for younger generations and promote a different kind of real beauty that didn’t rely on makeup and injectables to shine.

Clearly, it didn’t work. In fact, I would argue that by continuing to focus the conversation around how we look, all that happened as a result of the #NoMakeupSelfie, or Dove’s “Be real” campaign for body positivity, or any number of similar movements since, is a reinforcement that how we look is the most important thing about us.

The reality is, the journey to body acceptance is an individual one, not a collective one. There is no feasible way for feminist messaging, good role modelling or diversity in media to balance out the depth of society’s obsession with a particular idea of beauty (one that changes with new trends every five or so years at a time). And as long as we’re willing to buy cures to our insecurities, the beauty industry will be there to sell it to us.

Ultimately, as women, we all wander the desert of self-hatred and insecurity throughout our lives, passing the mirages that the beauty industry offers of thinner thighs, or a smoother forehead, or the exact right level of lip plumpness.

Either we make it to the oasis on the other side – the point in time where we genuinely stop giving a shit about what we look like because ageing means realising our bodies have so much use beyond how they look – or we get stuck at one or more of those mirages, trying to grasp the fountain of youth and having it disappear like smoke between our fingers each time.

Feminism can’t help us find the end of the road, it can only offer some advice to ponder along the way, and each generation’s path is paved with slightly different bricks. Importantly, feminism can remind us that women have the right to make choices for their bodies, and that includes choosing to invest in cosmetic enhancements, if that’s important to them.

I looked long and hard at that TikTok of the beautiful 28-year-old who felt like it was an act of courage to display her actual face (the one she lives with day in and day out) to the world. I saw a young woman who has lived enough of a life to have evidence of it on her skin, and who has so much more in front of her still. I hope that, like me, she’ll come to see every wrinkle or freckle or extra inch around the waist as a token from the smiles, days in the sun (with sunscreen!) and nourishing food she has enjoyed in life. After all, regardless of which path we choose, we all end up older at the end of it, if we’re lucky. Ageing is a privilege, as they say.

The Guardian