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Visible and invisible ageing: beauty work as a response to ageism



This paper examines how older women experience and respond to ageism in relation to their changing physical appearances and within the context of their personal relationships and places of employment. We elucidate the two definitions of ageism that emerged in in-depth interviews with 44 women aged 50 to 70 years: the social obsession with youthfulness and discrimination against older adults. We examine the women's arguments that their ageing appearances were pivotal to their experience of ageism and underscored their engagement in beauty work such as hair dye, make-up, cosmetic surgery, and non-surgical cosmetic procedures. The women suggested that they engaged in beauty work for the following underlying motivations: the fight against invisibility, a life-long investment in appearance, the desire to attract or retain a romantic partner, and employment related-ageism. We contend that the women's experiences highlight a tension between being physically and socially visible by virtue of looking youthful, and the realities of growing older. In other words, social invisibility arises from the acquisition of visible signs of ageing and compels women to make their chronological ages imperceptible through the use of beauty work. The study extends the research and theorising on gendered ageism and provides an example of how women's experiences of ageing and ageism are deeply rooted in their appearances and in the ageist, sexist perceptions of older women's bodies.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Laura Hurd Clarke, School of Human Kinetics, University of British Columbia, 156-1924 West Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z2, Canada. Email:


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