Why you probably look much older than you think | Arwa Mahdawi

Sit your old bones down, because I’ve got bad news: you probably look older than you think you do. Don’t shoot the messenger – blame science. A recent study published in the journal Psychology and Aging found that 59% of US adults aged 50 to 80 believe they look younger than other people their age. Women and people with higher incomes were slightly more likely to say they thought they looked fresher than their peers; and only 6% of adults in the bracket thought (or realised) they looked older than others their age. In short, most of us are delusional.

While the survey only included people over 50, I reckon they would have got the same results if they polled anyone over 30. Our brains have inbuilt denial mechanisms that stop us confronting our own mortality. Many people’s biological age tends to differ from their “subjective age” (or how old they feel). Mine certainly does: according to my passport I’m 40, but in my head I’m still a sprightly 29.

I’m not totally deranged. I regularly have moments where I am reminded of my passing years. Eating in a restaurant tends to be one of them. Have restaurants become louder recently? Or have I just got more intolerant of noise? Either way, I’m pretty sure I didn’t grumble about decibel levels in my 20s.

My skinny jeans (which you will have to pry off my geriatric-millennial pins before I wear barrel-leg trousers) are also a perennial reminder that I am tragically over the hill in the eyes of gen Z. Then, of course, there are the newfangled random aches and pains – and the fact that I can now get a three-day-long crick in the neck simply from turning my head too fast.

Aches, pains and fashion faux pas aside, however, nothing makes me feel older than other people my age. I’m not talking about people I see regularly – you don’t really notice how they’ve matured. I’m talking about having an acquaintance from school or university pop up on social media and realising, with horror, that the fresh-faced teenager you remember is now an ancient-looking adult. “Surely, I don’t look that old?” I mutter to myself on those occasions. “Surely the ravages of time haven’t been so cruel to me?” Then I study myself in the mirror and realise, oh dear, they have.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not saying getting older – or looking older – is terrible. Far from it: ageing has many perks. I used to be terribly self-conscious and, in my 20s, I would rarely leave the house without makeup. Now, I no longer have any proverbial ducks to give, and run errands looking like a scarecrow. I wear makeup so rarely that, when I do, my dog becomes instantly alarmed because he knows something weird is up. It’s liberating to no longer care what people think.

But let’s not go overboard here! I’m not welcoming every new wrinkle with open arms. I have various serums and retinol creams in my bathroom. I have plucked out a grey hair or two in alarm. I have internalised many of the ageist messages that society throws at us.

You probably have too. More than 80% of people between ages 50 and 80 subscribe to self-directed ageist stereotypes, according to a 2022 study. We start to absorb ageist messaging from a young age and, thanks to social media, which is full of influencers showing off their skincare routines, that messaging has grown even more potent. Dermatologists in the UK have said that kids as young as 10 are asking their parents to buy them anti-ageing skincare products. One beauty chain told a Swedish broadcaster that 20-40% of its customers are now aged under 13, and one of the country’s leading pharmacy chains recently had to put age restrictions on anti-ageing skincare because so many children were buying products that may actually damage their skin.

Internalised ageism doesn’t just harm your wallet and confidence; it can hugely affect your health. Indeed, a study from 2002 found that people with more positive self-perceptions of ageing lived 7.5 years longer than others. Embrace your subjective age, in other words. There’s a lot of truth to the cliche that you’re only as old as you feel.

Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

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