Women have always had a desire to look good, especially to men, and as anyone who's worked in a nursing home or around old people in a hospital can tell you, that desire doesn't go away with age. It's why you'll see 70-somethings sitting under the hairdryer at the salon and 80-something ladies with a smear of bright red lipstick. But in the past most women aged more or less gracefully and didn't try to look twenty when they were well past forty. They recognized that to do otherwise was futile and a bit silly and they had a term for women who tried, through dress, to look like girls--mutton dressed as lamb.
Nowadays it's different, and many women think they really are supposed to look like twenty when they're forty--or at least that they're supposed to try their darnedest. Fifty is supposed to be the new thirty, we're told.* So exercise classes are filled with middle-aged mothers trying to attain the relatively flat bellies of their teenage daughters, diet books are always on the bestseller list, and info-mercials abound for wrinkle creams and makeup that will "turn back the clock".** Thirty-something mothers sport tattoos, forty-five year old redneck grandmothers wear low-cut jeans and belly-baring shirts to show their belly button piercing, and fifty-something women with breasts not far shy of wrinkling wear plunging necklines--all in the name of looking young. Wealthy women come closest to achieving the new goal of eternal girlhood, thanks to the "miracle" of plastic surgery. But, aside from the sometimes creepy results, look at the cost they pay--not just the money, but the physical pain. Cutting, pulling, puncturing, and bruising their flesh. Burning it with lasers or injecting it with poison. All so they won't look as old as they are.
The worship of youth that boomed with the boomers, but probably goes back to the Romantics or further. Boomer narcissim. A culture of shallowness. Better nutrition and health care that, while providing actual improvements in appearance and function, may create unrealistic expectations about what else is possible.
But personally I wonder if the breakdown of marriage doesn't have something to do with it. Back when marriages could reasonably be expected to last forever, a woman could age gracefully. Her husband wasn't going to leave her because she had wrinkles. Neither was he going to divorce her because his secretary was better in bed or because he'd decided he wasn't "fulfilled" and the answer must be returning to bachelor life. For that matter she wasn't going to leave him for those reasons, only to discover she's now having to date men her own age who have--sorry, but it's true--a natural, biological preference for youthful-looking partners. Divorced women (and those in shaky marriages) can get used to sleeping alone or compete with college students for unattached males. What a choice. Women were, in this one sense anyway, more secure in the past. So a fifty year-old woman in the past could do the basic grooming that comes from the natural desire to look good and otherwise just let herself be a fifty year-old woman. There's a kind of freedom in that.
*These things really escalate. It's less than a decade and a half since we were told that thirty was the new twenty-one. I guess the next slogan will be "Seventy is the new forty" or "Life begins at eighty".
** NASA should really look into that. Think of the benefits for long-range space travel.