Any time you open a fashion or lifestyle magazine, you are likely to be inundated with glossy advertisements, all claiming the latest skin aging prevention. What is most remarkable is that almost all these are directed at women and have gorgeous female models proclaiming that they have discovered the elixir of youth. Does this gender bias imply that women age faster than men or is it yet another way that consumerist culture reinforces age-old gender stereotypes?
Differences in skin structure
The skin is perhaps the first place where the advancing years make their presence apparent. Wrinkles, uneven skin tone and dryness on the facial skin and neck are some of the most common symptoms of the aging process. Clinically these are caused by degeneration of components in the skin like collagen and elastin. Collagens are a group of proteins in the dermis, the connective tissue layer of the skin, and are responsible for the strength of skin. The human body makes a lot of collagen in youth. But collagen production declines with aging. Using a new laser imaging technique scientists in Germany1 discovered that in general, women lose collagen faster than men. As bodies age, the skin begins to lose its elasticity which is reflected on the surface as wrinkles and sagging skin. Because of the delicate constitution of women’s epidermis, they are often more noticeable in women than men.
Role of changing hormones
Yet another reason why women appear to age faster than men could be because of significant hormonal changes as their bodies go through menopause. A co-author of the paper, In Vivo Assessment of Human Skin Aging by Multiphoton Laser Scanning Tomography which was published in Oct.1 issue of the journal Optic Letters, Dr. Johannes Koehlerit believes that women’s skin showing earlier signs of ageing by the above mentioned laser imaging technique may have to do with declining levels of hormones estrogen and progesterone when they pass through menopause. Estrogen actually appears to aid in the prevention of skin aging in several ways, according to a publication Estrogen and skin: An overview that appeared in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health in 20012. The paper mentions that estrogen maintains skin moisture by increasing acid mucopolysaccharides and hyaluronic acid in the skin and possibly maintaining stratum corneum barrier function. Skin wrinkling also may benefit from estrogen as a result of the effects of the hormone on the elastic fibers and collagen. Menopause brings a fall of natural estrogen in a woman’s body because of which her skin appears to age faster than men of her own age who do not have to go through such major hormonal changes.
Graying of hair
One of the most glaring signs of aging is increasing graying of hair. While men and women are almost equally prone to this process, women tend to get more upset about it because of cultural differences in perception of aging. According to this graying of hair in women implies aging whereas silver strands around the temples and in side-burns of men are supported to make them look distinguished. Even in case of thinning hair, it is traditionally women who borne the brunt of negative associations of aging since thinning hair looks worse on longer hair styles. in contrast men sport close cropped styles which is why thinning hair looks less obvious but even balding men have been represented as ‘mature looking’ rather than as merely old.
Effects of stress
Ever wonder why despite earning more than before, women are today still as hassled and rushed – some would day, even more – as their grandmothers? It is because that despite having more resources, there is little time to enjoy life and even less to reflect and relish all your achievements. And an inevitable effect of all this stress over the years is an exhausted and haggard-looking appearance which does nothing to hide the impact of advancing years. Cosmetologists will point out that being stressed at the time will lead to fine lines on your forehead but more than that, lack of sleep and anxiety will age you sooner. And women are particularly prone to this way of aging since research shows that they are especially vulnerable to stress and depression. Depression affects both men and women, but more women than men are likely to be diagnosed with depression in any given year3 . Researchers are still trying to zero in on to various causes that can explain this difference which are believed to be related to certain biological and social factors that are unique to women. Thus the more women stress and worry and get depressed, the faster they appear to grow old.
Lack of exercise
Yet another way that the human body can keep signs of aging at bay is through regular exercise. Physical exercise has an immediate positive effect on the skin – when you work out, you automatically boost the circulatory system of the body, leading to a healthy flush on your skin. In the long term, effective circulation helps the blood to carry essential nutrients to the skin cells, thus replenishing the decayed cells and regenerating new ones. Also regular exercise helps to keep your body weight to the ideal level so that you end up with the well-toned body of someone who is ten years younger than you are. Unfortunately in this department too, women seem to have got a worse deal. On average, women get 18 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise daily, while men get 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise daily, according to a study of a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 U.S. men and women who participated in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey in 2005 and 20064. The study did not address why women exercised less than men but according to study researcher Paul Loprinzi , women often cite a lack of time to exercise due to child-rearing. This is hardly surprising since in most societies of the world, it is women who end up juggling various domestic chores, parenting duties and even a day job, thus leaving them too exhausted to even think about jogging or the gym. Unfortunately merely being busy throughout the day does not confer the age-defying benefits of regular exercise on the body with the result that women often put on weight, develop sagging skin and lose muscle tone, making them look older before time.
While there may be some physiological reasons why women may appear to age sooner, most of it is cultural. Just like the associations of graying hair differ for men and women, advancing years are construed in gender specific terms. Men are thought to gain a distinguished and mature appeal as they advance in years while women are thought to reach the end of their lives as sexually desirable beings. And the fact that women themselves obsess over their looks does nothing to help matters either. Because of cultural and consumerist pressures, women are far more inclined to fret about their wrinkles and fine lines whereas men just seem take it all in stride. And since women tend to draw attention to every new wrinkle that appears, this is probably why they are all the more noticeable.