shar_pei.jpgA few days before my 45th birthday, I found myself doing it. Alone, in the bathroom, and not for the first time.

It’s true: I was staring into the mirror, slowly smoothing my fingers across my forehead to see what I’d look like with Botox. I didn’t really think I had that many wrinkles, until I’d pulled the skin taut and realized that, yep, should’ve been more vigilant with that sunscreen back in college, instead of slathering on baby oil and settling down on the tar-paper roof of my dorm with a tinfoil-covered record album under my chin to make sure that the sun hit every inch of skin.

From what I’ve read about Botox and other such “procedures,” it seems that it’s a bit like re-covering your couch: first you do just the couch, but then the couch looks so good that you notice the walls are dingy; so you do the walls and now the rug looks a mess…

I mean, if I were to shoot my forehead full of botulism, then what would I do with the hairline fractures appearing around my mouth? And if I fill those in with Restylane, what do I do with the delicate webbing around my neck? And below my neck? I shudder to think.  

It’s one thing if my face were my fortune – if English professors could also earn lucrative spots shilling for Revlon. If that could happen, then maybe I’d contemplate needles in my face, a nip here and a tuck there, here a nip, there a nip, everywhere a nip-nip.

Thus you should understand that when I went to the dermatologist’s office the other day, it was really and truly only to get some kind of cream for the little rash on my cheek that wouldn’t go away. The office was, of course, filled with ads for various products that will erase the effects of aging, but what struck me most was a framed certificate of commendation hanging on the wall in the examination room. The certificate was from, like, the Institute of Botox or something, and certified his training in some advanced procedure. Here’s the picture on the certificate:

IMG_0070.JPGDo you notice something about the woman’s face? Right. She doesn’t have one. She has features: nose, mouth, eyes, but there’s nothing holding it all together. She’s a blank, a cipher, airbrushed practically out of existence.

They say there’s no truth in advertising, but I think this certificate unintentionally hits it right on the (perfectly coiffed) head: we can use “science” to “remedy” the aging process and, in the process, surgically strip our faces of what makes them ours: the record of our experiences, our failures, hopes, worries, dreams. I won’t even mention the question of why we’re so afraid of mortality that we’re willing to inject poison into ourselves in order to defy the inevitable movement towards the grave; nor will I say anything about how our aging faces and bodies connect us to our parents (omigod! I have my mother’s knees!)…nope, not gonna say any of that.

I am going to ask, however, if any of you have seen the posters for
“He’s just not that into you,” which offers up an astonishing array of
Hollywood faces:

hesjustnotthatintoyou-final-poster-full.jpg So many chiclet-sized white teeth, so much shiny taut skin, such perfectly oval eyes set jewel-like under eyelids that don’t droop… It’s amazing – not their beauty, but the fact that, except for variations in hair color, all those people look the same: it’s a big group of happy white people (apparently people of color do not experience romantic comedy the way white people do, with the exception, maybe, of Will Smith). All the individuality has been airbrushed out – but the airbrushing didn’t happen just to the photograph itself. Now the airbrushing happens beforehand, in the doctor’s office, where any flaw (real or perceived) can be magically whisked away. (On the movie poster Kevin Connelly has wrinkles in his forehead, but we all know that he’s going to be the comic relief, so it’s okay.)
Yes, I know, I can hear the protests: well-applied Botox just makes you look rested, revitalized; I don’t feel my age so why should I look my age; if I feel better about myself with fewer wrinkles, why shouldn’t I have some work done…

I don’t have answers to those questions and I can’t explain precisely why the Botox bonanza bothers me. Is it the overtones of Dorian Gray? Is it our relentless pursuit of physical perfection, regardless of the cost? Is it our symbolic rejection of previous generations?

Should I really be so afraid of getting wrinkles that I sleep only on my back, staring up at the ceiling, as a friend’s dermatologist said to her, quite seriously. Are wrinkles really such an atrocity I shouldn’t curl up around my husband or my favorite pillow and get comfy?

Or is this rant simply my own fear about being ignored by culture obsessed with youth? I get “ma’am” a lot these days – and it makes me feel like I should be in a wheelchair, or at very least bent over a walker.

Or maybe what bothers me is the hubris of thinking that we can airbrush away the passage of time, stop the wheels from turning; it’s as if we’re trying to reverse nature’s progress, whitewash away the truth of our experiences.

And now – wait for it – a leap from beauty to the beast: the Bush years seem to me the embodiment of a plastic-surgery obsessed culture: eradicate the truth of experience, gloss over imperfection, erase any unpleasant fact, tug and twist and pull at anything even slightly out of alignment so that everything coheres into a happy-faced image.

Maybe now, in this new administration, we will become a country unafraid of the blemishes and age spots, brave enough to confront the truth about ourselves, and willing to look ourselves in the mirror without flinching – and without trying to smooth away the wrinkles.