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Opinion | Toxic Beauty Standards Can Be Passed Down

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When my best friend and I lived together 13 years ago, our shared bathroom had a handful of products: soap, tanning lotion, deodorant, toothpaste, potpourri and maybe, occasionally, a face cream that one of us found on sale at Walgreens. No serums, no toners, no anti-aging products. We never considered we wouldn’t be young forever. Our bank accounts were empty, our pores were clogged, our mascara wands were dry — but we were 22, and we were allowed to be messy. We were allowed to be young.

Our generation came of age during the ’90s toxic diet culture. Millennials weren’t taught to fear aging; we were taught to fear fat. Butter was our enemy. When we watched Victoria’s Secret Angels walk down the runaway, we loathed ourselves. Disordered eating may have been a psychiatric issue, but it was also symptomatic of a social problem. And if you had a mother who internalized diet culture and projected it onto her children, the damage could also happen from within the family. Researchers have found that mothers who encourage weight loss or food restriction or even express dissatisfaction with their body weight may lead to their daughters’ becoming more likely to have eating-related problems.

As my generation grew up and became more conscious of the impacts of diet culture, we began to openly celebrate and encourage body positivity. Many of us became aware of our own body dysmorphia. We began seeing clearly how we were manipulated to shrink and hate every part of our bodies.

And yet, even if parts of society came to terms with natural bodies, the same cannot be said for the natural process of women aging. Wrinkles are the new enemy, and it seems Gen Z — and their younger sisters — are terrified of them. A recent video on TikTok that has garnered more than eight million views features a 28-year-old woman showing her “raw,” procedure-free face, meaning no Botox or fillers. As some women and girls cheered on her bravery, others were left horrified. “Praying I’ll never look like that,” one comment read.

Gen Z-ers are being introduced to the idea of starting treatments early as “preventative” treatment. They are growing up in a culture of social media that promotes the endless pursuit of maintaining youth — and at home, some of them are watching their mothers reject aging with every injectable and serum they can find. Jessica DeFino, a beauty writer, recently coined the term Serum Mom to describe a mother who is “obsessed with meeting a certain standard of beauty and nurtures the same obsession in her children.”

For me, lessons of preventative skin care came from social media, not my mother. I was a few years shy of 30, digging into Instagram and series like Emily Weiss’s Into The Gloss’s Top Shelf. My skin care regimen suddenly became a 10-part routine, each step promising beauty and extended youth.

Since then, the rise of TikTok seems to have increased the way anti-aging beauty standards are consumed and internalized. Many girls and women now have endless access to social media posts of skin-care purchase “hauls” and plastic surgery before-and-after slide shows.

There’s a nickname for tweens and teenagers who have been influenced by social media to get into skin care — Sephora Kids. Johanna Almstead, a fashion industry friend, tells me that in her local mothers group chat, nearly every mom had “Skincare, skincare, skincare!” on the holiday gift lists they were given — by their fifth graders. Johanna’s 10-year-old daughter doesn’t have access to social media, but she is exposed to this skin care obsession through friends, who are copying TikTok beauty influencers and whose parents are buying the products for them — acids, peels and toners — even though many of these products are meant for actually aging or acne-prone skin.

Representatives for the pricey brand Drunk Elephant (a tween favorite) posted on Instagram in December a list of products safe for kids and tweens. Buying a 10-year-old a colorfully packaged lip gloss or adult moisturizer may seem trivial, but it seems to me it can create a pipeline to a 15-year-old discussing forehead wrinkles on TikTok. We need to be wary of how the cosmetics industry can manipulate both mothers and kids, and how by backing it, we as mothers create a new set of worries for our children.

The anti-aging craze comes with the same toxicity as diet culture does. Serum Moms didn’t create ageism, just as our mothers didn’t create diet culture. But considering the speed at which social media is pushing ever more unattainable beauty standards onto children, it’s time for us to consider our moral obligation to minimizing damage for the next generation.

Mothers are both victims and perpetrators of a culture that sells women the lie that we aren’t enough exactly as we are. And yet, if a mother’s insecurity can fuel her daughter’s own self-loathing, a mother’s radical self-love might just protect and even heal her daughter from a toxic culture. When I ask the few friends who haven’t gotten Botox why they haven’t, they tell me it’s because they love how their mothers are aging and how they embrace it. They don’t fear aging because their mothers don’t (or didn’t). Culture may set the tone for unattainable beauty standards, but we mothers and the women around us have power to change the trajectory of our daughters’ insecurities and internal monologue.

I still think about my weight every day, but I fear that the impact of Serum Moms and anti-aging culture will be worse than the lessons I learned as I was growing up. I wish I grew up with women who truly nourished themselves — mothers who ate when they were hungry; mothers who ate toast, pasta and birthday cake; mothers who simply ate. I look at my daughter’s beautiful face, cheeks full of butter and innocence, and I want her to know that she’s enough as is.

Alexandra D’Amour is a writer based in California. She writes about motherhood and matriarchy.

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