At a pre-Covid drinks party, a group of women I'd just met were comparing skincare notes. Most of them were successful businesswomen juggling busy careers with family life. Between them, they'd amassed a multimillion-dirham fortune and eight children, yet looking around the circle, there wasn't so much as a forehead crease or laughter line in sight.
As we chatted, it transpired that several of them had succumbed to the lure of Botox, while others had opted for laser treatment to roll back the hands of time. I listened transfixed until one shiny-faced blonde nudged me conspiratorially and said, "Gotta give the 30-somethings a run for their money, eh?" My shock that the wrinkle-free visage winking at me was in her 40s was only outweighed by the sting of having to admit that I, in fact, am not.
As I made my excuses and slinked off home, subconsciously tracing my crow's feet with my fingertips, I was forced to take a long hard look in the mirror. At 34, I'd never really worried about ageing before. A career writing for women's magazines has afforded me access to a beauty cupboard full of lotions and potions, and a solid grounding in skincare basics: SPF is good; sleeping in your make-up is bad. I cleanse, tone and moisturise, and layer on the peptide-packed night cream before bed. I thought I was doing my bit to keep myself looking as fresh as possible for as long as possible. But was it enough? After all, six years living in an arid Arabian desert can't exactly be good for the skin, and I had just been mistaken for a woman six years my senior.
But worse than the thought of looking 'mumsy' and developing saggy skin and wrinkles was the thought that all my peers would remain eternally youthful thanks to the magical intervention of knives, needles and lasers. Panicked, I did a quick straw poll among my friends. "Yeah, I've had laser treatment," admitted my best friend, sheepishly handing over the business card of her dermatologist.
This was the woman from whom I had no secrets. We'd shared everything from dating horror stories to late-night bottles of fizz and even shoes over the years. Now it transpired she had been running off and frolicking with the anti-ageing fairies behind my back.
Another friend had dabbled in Botox, while a third had invested an eye-watering amount of money in a new 'miracle' face cream, the name of which she protected as though it were a state secret.
The news hit me like a wrecking ball. When had sensible skincare shifted to a beyond-natural beauty standard? And more importantly, how had I missed it? It was like I'd discovered all my friends had been secretly swimming in the fountain of youth at night, while I'd been sitting at home rubbing face cream on my crêpe-like, ageing skin.
And my friends are not alone: a survey by Elizabeth Arden found that 45 per cent of women are more concerned about ageing than they are about saving for retirement. What's more, it seems anti-ageing is an epidemic. The Harley Medical Group reports an 18 per cent rise in Botox and anti-ageing treatments at the start of school terms, as yummy mummies prepare to battle it out at the school gates. Fanatical anti-ageing used to be the preserve of crazy celebrities like Madonna and Cher (enough said). But now it seems it's permeated the domain of the average woman.
Dr Annie Crookes, a psychology lecturer at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, says this all-consuming fear of ageing is rooted in competitiveness. "For women in particular, appearance and youth are fundamentally tied to your value in society. This creates a false hierarchy in which the more attractive and youthful are seen to be of higher importance and value than the rest. So, as in any hierarchical system, we compete to climb up it," she says. "We are also told to compete by the anti-ageing media who tell us not to accept our current position in this mythical hierarchy, but to buy various products and surgeries in order to succeed."
Compounding the phenomenon is the fact that we are hardwired to compare ourselves to our friends - so when they are showing off a new 'refreshed' look after a weekend at the medi-spa, it sees us running off to the dermatologist faster than you can say "Crème de la Mer".
"We have an inbuilt cognitive mechanism to use others as a measure of our self-knowledge," explains Dr Crookes. "When we are searching for information about ourselves and our self-esteem and self-worth, we gather information from observations. The best data is the visual measure of how we compare to others on appearance, popularity, career success... the things that we have learnt to be the most important aspects of our lives."
Cher, Madonna and other celebs are partly to blame as well, of course. "Ageless celebrities - and in particular the enhanced media images of them - give a false sense of the 'norm' for ageing," says Dr Crookes.
"Especially as these images are all around us all the time. You may have many friends who are just as wrinkly and soft around the edges as you, but you probably don't see them as often on a daily basis, as we are confronted with images of the ageless women in magazines, on billboards and TV and on the internet. Therefore your brain works out that the 'average' woman must be more like the celebs and less like us."
So how can we stop this competitive anti-ageing? Learn to embrace middle-aged spread and laughter lines, says Dr Crookes. "Think about the positives of being the age you are - apart from perhaps not quite having the slim, toned physique you had at 20, almost every other aspect of your life is probably better. You're likely to have more achievements to be proud of, more stability in your career, more financial wealth, more friends and family around you. Learn that these things are what make you valued by the people in your life."
So next time I clock my laughter lines in the mirror, I'll remind myself of how I earned them. In the meantime, I'll be hanging on to that dermatologist's business card, just in case...