The number of retirement-age people across the world is growing. In the U.K., residents over the age of 65 will account for nearly 1 in 3 people by 2050, and by the same time in the U.S., the number of Americans over the age of 65 will increase by 27 percent.
In some ways, people across the world entering into retirement may feel a sense of dread regarding what getting older may look and feel like. These misconceptions are largely perpetuated by external and social factors that might not be telling the whole story.
To understand how we perceive people aged 55 and older across the world, we asked graphic designers from 18 countries to retouch an image of a man and woman to the standards of their country’s ideals. In seven of the 18 countries, more than 1 in 4 residents are 65 years old and older. Continue reading to see what they sent us.
Envisioning Older Women Around the World
Does a cultural lens change how our graphic designers perceive women as they grow older?
In countries like Argentina, China, South Africa, and Japan, the artists who participated in our experiment modified the model to make her appear significantly thinner. We also found that in almost every country, the graphic designer changed the model’s hair color from a natural gray to a darker or lighter color that might appear on a younger woman.
While artists from some countries left the model’s swimsuit exactly as we presented it, some designers recreated her attire to appear more modest. In Egypt, the artist had the model wear a burkini. Some designers – like those in Argentina, China, Japan, Peru, and Ukraine – reimagined the their apparel completely, either by changing its color or turning it into two pieces.
While artists from some countries (including the U.S.) smoothed over the model’s skin to reduce the appearance of dark spots or cellulite, some countries chose to depict her with a slightly darker, tanner complexion. In Argentina, Italy, Spain, and the Philippines, our model was shown with a darker skin tone, while her complexion was lightened in countries like Peru, South Africa, and the U.S.
Envisioning Older Men Around the World
Our study found similar adjustments to a typical male model by the designers who adjusted the image based on their cultural perceptions.
Much like our female model, the male model was depicted as more slender in some countries. In China, South Africa, and the U.S., artists adjusted the proportions of the model's waist, making him appear smaller than the baseline we presented them with. Still, the model was modified by some designers to appear heavier. In Egypt, the Philippines, and Ukraine, for instance, we see an increase in body fat because the artists made the model appear more robust.
In Egypt, Peru, and Ukraine, the model’s apparel was also adjusted to cover more of his body. In Egypt and Peru, the designers chose to modify the model’s appearance to include shorts that came to the knee. In the U.S., the model’s swimsuit was modified to appear more revealing.
Only in Argentina was the model modified to have tattoos, and a few countries (including Colombia, Serbia, and Spain) added body hair.
All in the Details of Women
Here you can see close-up details associated with each modified image of the models.
The images modified by designers in Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, and the U.S. show a significant reduction in the presence of facial wrinkles and veins. By smoothing out our model's skin (particularly in the U.S.), designers may be highlighting unobtainable standards of youth. As the world's population continues to age, anti-aging treatments aimed at helping men and women maintain the appearance of youth are evolving. There has also been a rise in the popularity of treatments like injectable fillers and Botox, which are designed to be less invasive while still reducing the effects of aging. Still, the media may be catching up to the idea that aging is not a condition that needs to be treated.
The designer in Egypt chose to clothe the model in a burkini, saying “[The] ‘ideal body’ might be a sort of taboo subject these days, since women are not supposed to be showing their bodies in modern-day Egypt, and women who do are treated like they are promiscuous.” In Argentina, we saw one of the most dramatic changes to our model: the addition of long, dark brown hair and smoother features. According to the designer, “For Argentinians, I think the aging process is a very big challenge because it is still not accepted to have an older body, for both men and women. People exercise, have operations, and tan to perpetuate youthful beauty.”
In South American countries like Mexico, Peru, and Colombia, the designers used either dramatically lighter complexions or Caucasian features (like blond hair) to convey their perception of the ideal older body.
Here’s a closer look at our female models:
All in the Details of Men
Unlike the alterations made to the female model’s hair, many of the designers chose to either fully maintain gray hair for the male model or a combination of gray and black. Public perception holds that women with gray hair are perceived as older, which can begin to grow during a person’s early 30s.
While the female model was typically shown as skinnier, the modified male model was shown as more muscular, particularly around the midsection. In South Africa, the model was altered as thinner and more muscular, with a clear definition around the abdomen and upper legs. We found a similar transition in the Netherlands, where the designer said, “... aging gracefully, according to the Dutch perception of beauty, means pressure to look healthy: healthy and full hair, healthy skin […] and body proportions.”
Designers from other European countries like Italy, Romania, Serbia, and Spain were more likely than others to depict the male model with added facial hair.
Here’s closer look at our male models:
Age With Confidence
Our study found that some countries, particularly the United States, Argentina, South Africa, and Peru, had potentially dramatic standards of how men and women should look as they age. While they may have modified the models’ skin, weight, and muscle composition to make them appear younger, some designers used the opposite effect. Ukraine, Egypt, and the Philippines modified their models to look more appropriate for their age but making them heavier, adding wrinkles in the appropriate places, and letting their gray hair shine..
We asked artists from 18 countries to alter images of a man and woman roughly 55 years old according to their cultural ideals regarding aging. We asked artists to consider what standards of beauty older citizens in their country are held to and to alter the images accordingly.
Fair Use Statement
Interested in sharing the image ideals of older people? Feel free to share our findings for noncommercial purposes, but please give credit by linking back to this source.