Why Are 12-Year-Olds Terrified Of Ageing?
Girls are products with a shelf life
There’s this line, at the top of my cheek, that creases when I smile.
I first noticed it a few months ago, in a photo of me at graduation — a tiny line that I thought was a crack on my phone screen. I smudged over it with my finger but it stayed, stubborn, stamped on me like an expiry date sticker.
I did what anyone would do in that situation and searched Google for solutions. wrinkle under eye help took me to a Reddit forum, r/SkincareAddiction, where I found a flurry of young women, like me, obsessing over the lines on their faces.
I soon got over mine. Not because I found a solution or anything but because I was suddenly disturbed by something else: a lot of these girls were younger than me. Some were teens. Others were pre-teens. “this is a pic of my freckles” began a post by a twelve-year-old girl. “would you say this is the sort of bad sun damage that will cause significant damage like skin cancer/deep wrinkles in the future?” I dug deeper, through posts like: “there are permanent faint lines there already at 16. Is this a normal thing ???? please help” and “I'm only 14 and I have so many face wrinkles…please someone help me...I'll do whatever it takes to get rid of them.”
All over Reddit, it turns out, girls are listing out their 20-step skincare routines, discussing their daily suncream applications and measurements in minute detail, and panicking about fine lines and crow’s feet and nasolabial folds before they’ve even hit puberty. What the hell is going on?
I decided to reach out to some Gen Z users to find out. Did they fear ageing? Why?
The replies came in fast. Most women my age blamed social media, specifically the childhoods we spent polishing the pixels of our skin on FaceTune and trying on new faces on Snapchat and Instagram. We learnt to be forensic about our features: examining, tweaking, thinking of ways to upgrade ourselves like refurbishing an iPhone. And some of us have become so detached from real faces that natural ageing now seems abhorrent. Like last year when Emma Watson trended on Twitter for having some forehead lines (“This HAS to be photoshopped right? Emma Watson is like 31. This looks like one of those apps to age you up!”)
Anti-ageing advice also flourishes on TikTok and Instagram. Our feeds are filling up with clips like “get rid of smile lines!” “3 ways you’re ageing yourself prematurely!” and “come get baby botox with me!” One TikToker, for example, teaches girls how to train their “facial muscles to stop working” to prevent wrinkles. She tells girls to avoid the sun, stick silicone patches over their face while they sleep, and rehearse a new, wrinkle-free smile in front of the mirror. Most influencers insist we apply suncream every two hours, even if we’re sat indoors. One suggests sleeping in it.
Of course, much of this is driven by consumerism. Girls are training themselves not to smile and saving up for botox because corporations convinced us we should. It’s been drilled into us that we need to buy £279 LED light masks and sleep on those Flawless Face Pillows™ shaped like electrical plugs and sip our coffee from anti-wrinkle straws. Maybe we obsess over our skin because, well, an anti-ageing industry worth over $60 billion depends on it.
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But back on Reddit, the girls I speak to don’t just blame the beauty industry. They also talk about wider societal attitudes to female ageing.
In her new book Hags: The Demonisation of Middle-Aged Women, feminist Victoria Smith argues that, as women age, we are increasingly seen as worthless and expired. Girls sense this early on. On Reddit, they describe a sort of static of anxiety that hovers over their youth, a feeling that any love or respect for them is fleeting, that with every year they inch closer to irrelevance. “I have a fear of being treated worse as a person for being a woman with signs of aging,” says one user, born in 2000. “People judge older women so harshly.” It’s the same fears, again and again: “Everyone thinks that you should start having sex and finding your lifelong partner in high school because they think by the time you’re 25 you’re old and ugly.” As one user puts it: “people think we expire before we turn 30.”
Spend enough time online and female ageing does seem terrifying and traumatic. On TikTok, middle-aged women film themselves crying after trying on the new teenage filter and seeing themselves without wrinkles. On Instagram, celebrities like Madonna post selfies of their filler-injected faces and call it feminism. On Twitter, men in the “manosphere” label younger women “high value” and older women “low value” like we are stocks on the market.
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In mainstream culture, though, men are usually to blame. Girls often talk about patriarchal beauty standards enforced by men who see female ageing as something shameful and repellant, and who expect women to have perfect, porcelain faces forever. They definitely exist! There are spheres of men, mostly online, who talk about women in this strange, inhuman way, and see us solely in terms of sexual currency. Like those who think the Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke has expired and “flown on a dragon into the wall” for having a few lines on her face when she smiles.
But there’s also a strand of feminism that I think gets out relatively unscathed. The kind of liberal feminism that emphasises the importance of women’s choices, but almost always within the confines of consumerism. Where botox and fillers are spun as “empowerment” or “self-love”. Where Kim Kardashian can promote appetite-suppressant lollipops to young fans and be considered a feminist icon, and Madonna fights the patriarchy through plastic surgery. It’s a feminism that believes women shouldn’t be limited by biological processes like ageing; instead liberation lies in manipulating and optimising our bodies.
Much like the manosphere, this type of feminism also reduces women to commodities — except by promoting self-actualisation through physical appearance and liberation through consumerism. From the manosphere declaring that women turn to dust at 25 through to Kim Kardashian saying she would eat her own faeces to stop ageing, the message is the same: girls are products with a shelf life.
Girls internalise this thinking. On Reddit, they describe themselves in economic terms: they worry that they have peaked, that they are depreciating and decreasing in value, like they are products approaching expiry. “2 years ago i used to get panic attacks when i slept after 10 pm (i saw on tiktok that it's super bad for your skin),” one user says. “it’s a fear of no longer being seen as ‘worthy’ by potential partners, friends and employers. we've figured out that everything revolves around us looking a certain way (young) and we're trying to preserve that as much as possible.”
Of course, female fertility does decline around age 30, and it makes sense that youth is desired in a sexual dating market. A fear of ageing is also nothing new. But now these normal fears are taken to absolute extremes. On social media, we are all marketable commodities. We now live in what Mary Harrington calls the “cyborg era”, in which new technologies set bionic beauty standards, and with the rise of injectables and surgical interventions we see ourselves as customisable avatars both online and offline. Of course we’re terrified to age. In this relentless march to maximise our market value and optimise our faces for visual platforms—while fed a narrative that endless customisation is empowering on one side and older women are worthless on the other—how could we see ageing as anything but a constraint to free ourselves from?
Anyway: I’m 23. If I see a tweet suggesting that all the happiness and love in my life will be snatched from my haggard hands by 25, or some Kardashian insists that the path to self-love and liberation is paved with a 20-step anti-ageing routine, I might believe it at first but then the rational side of my brain reminds me that decent people don’t treat each other like products. Sure, I might decline like a market stock in the often soulless, transactional dating market or by the metrics of an Instagram algorithm, but to those that love me, I like to think I’ll acquire value with age: become a little wiser, a little less self-absorbed, more focused on the things that matter.
But what about young girls? Girls whose brains are literally wiring while watching this stuff? Twelve year-olds catching clips about how they are going to “hit the wall” and terrified to move their face in case they dent their market value? Girls starting anti-ageing routines at ten because they saw it on TikTok?
Back in Hags, Smith writes of the middle-aged woman: “if we are taught to fear her, we are taught to fear our future selves.” Sometimes I look at that line on my face and feel that fear. But then I’ll find myself on some online forum, or I’ll see TikToks of girls afraid of the sun, trying not to laugh, training themselves to stop using the muscles in their face. And that terrifies me more than any stupid line ever could.