The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happens when daughters start to outshine their mothers?

Actress and honoree Reese Witherspoon (C) poses with her daughter Ava Elizabeth Phillippe and son Deacon Reese Phillippe at the 29th Annual American Cinematheque Award ceremony in Los Angeles, California October 30, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

We’ve all heard the proclamations: 40 is the new 20. Fifty is the new 30. And middle age is now a second adolescence. The upshot? The notion of aging has transformed, and women are holding on to their youthful appearance longer than ever before.

Celebrities including Elle MacPherson (51), Bethenny Frankel (45) and Christie Brinkley (61)—plus non-celebrity women who are following their lead—demonstrate daily that apparently it is possible to look 35 forever. As a result of the advancements in plastic surgery and medical aesthetics, the comment “You two look like sisters!” has become an actual fact as well as a compliment for many mothers and daughters today.

Just look at Reese Witherspoon and her daughter Ava, Julianne Moore and her daughter Liv Freundlich, or singer Vanessa Paradis and Lily Rose Depp.

For mothers of daughters, growing old while navigating the current beauty culture can be particularly difficult. That’s because adult women today have grown up alongside ever-intensifying beauty ideals and expectations. “The stakes are higher now than ever before when it comes to beauty standards,” explains Jennifer Berger, Executive Director About-Face, a non-profit organization in San Francisco that aims to equip women and girls with the tools to resist harmful media messages. “Our culture values women’s youth so much that 45-year-old mothers are feeling they have to look like 20-year-olds to ‘stay in the game’ or ‘not let themselves go.’ And unfortunately looking young for women over 40 means doing even more than ever to their faces, bodies, and skin in order to look hot.”

One business that’s seen a boom: eyelash extensions and eyebrow shaping. “Mothers come in all the time saying that they want thick, lush lashes and brows like their daughters’,” says Rickina Velte, an esthetician in Virginia Beach. “They feel like they need to be beautiful longer, and their youthful daughters make that painfully obvious.”

Our obsession with youth can be blamed in part on Age Compression, or the adultification and sexualization of young girls paralleled by an infantilization of adult women. Age Compression is the reason that the same celebrities are featured on magazines that target adult women and on those marketed to adolescents—and why the fashions in stores for mature women often closely resemble those in trendy teen boutiques.

The result: a beauty competition between women in vastly different stages of their lives. “What we’re dealing with here is mothers who are experiencing the inevitable loss of youth, and daughters who are becoming sexually mature, and thereby growing into their attractiveness to the opposite sex,” says Lori Gottlieb, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist and author of the teen eating disorder memoir Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self. “It’s a perfect storm of transitions—the autumn and spring of womanhood.”

So no wonder some women are finding this turning point tough to deal with despite being both proud of and happy for their daughters. After all, we’re at a cultural moment where women who have been encouraged throughout their lives to invest in their appearance and who have been rewarded for looking young are aging. And for many mothers of girls, it’s happening just as their daughters are entering into the time in their own lives associated with effortless beauty. Even supermodels are feeling the burn. “I wish I could say it was easy for me to be getting old,” Cindy Crawford confesses in her new coffee table book/lifestyle manual Becoming. “I always tease my daughter—who, everyone agrees, is a mini-me—and say, ‘You have my old hair—I want it back!’ Or, ‘You have my old legs—I want them back!’”

And she’s not alone. For 46-year-old Joy Dill of Denver, who modeled in Japan in her late teens and early twenties, watching her 14-year-old daughter come into her beauty raises plenty of conflicting feelings. “As a young woman, I based a ton of value on my appearance,” says Dill, who also admits to currently “feeling the pain of aging” in our culture. “I love watching my daughter blossom from a cute tomboy into a graceful young woman, but it is strange to watch men my age drink her in.” Which of course they do, because our culture has little problem with May/December pairings like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones (age gap: 25 years) or Billy Joel and Alexis Roderick (age gap: 33 years).

Christina Daves, almost 50, of the Washington D.C.-area, agrees. “Back in the day my husband and I hosted so many parties, and I was always ‘the belle of the ball.’” Today, however, it’s her 15-year-old-daughter and her friends that garner the most attention. “I’m so proud of their beauty and confidence,” says Daves, “but it’s hard to know that all the men are looking at them and not me.”

So how can mothers of daughters come to terms with aging in our current beauty culture while watching their daughters bloom? According to Lori Gottlieb, mothers can start by being okay with their daughters’ emerging sexuality. “It’s a healthy stage that every girl goes through,” says Gottlieb, “and it’s important to not rain on their parade. Making them feel bad about it or ignoring it because of your own mixed feelings sends confusing messages and can affect their self-confidence.”

And as hard as it is, mothers also need to try hard brush off pop culture pressure to act and look as young as their daughters. Because in the struggle to stay young-looking, there are no winners. “Even celebrities or the very privileged who can invest in the procedures that help maintain a youthful appearance can’t keep it up forever,” says Jean Kilbourne, author of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and creator of the Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women video series.

And there’s nothing worse than trying and failing. Remember how actress Kim Novak was ridiculed after her appearance at the 2014 Academy Awards? The derision and mockery she endured in the press because of her obvious plastic surgery was savage and heartbreaking.

Ultimately, the way in which mothers deal with aging sets the stage for their daughters’ relationship to both our beauty culture and their own self image. “We need to think about what kind of women we’d like to raise,” contends Dina Zeckhausen, PhD, the founder of Atlanta’s Eating Disorders Information Network. “Because if we don’t completely alter what’s complimented on for both mothers and daughters, our culture’s values around this issue won’t change either.”

Audrey D. Brashich is the author of All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and New York City. Find her on Twitter @AudreyBrashich.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more news, essays and updates. Sign up here to get the posts delivered to your inbox via newsletter.

You might also be interested in:

The best way to compliment little girls

What I said when my daughter criticized her body

Why I’m envious of my two sons