Most of us want to look pretty, but how far should we go in the quest? And are we inadvertently hurting—or helping—anyone else along the way?
With Botox, I’m like a gateway drug for women of a certain age: Dani, Susan, Daphne, Lorin, Nancy, others whom I can’t recall—when I’ve happened to reveal that I avail myself of the needle, these women’s very mobile eyebrows have risen in surprise. “You do?” Or rather, “You do?” It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what about me suggests I’d never touch the stuff, but I’d guess it’s some combination of my no-bullshit mien, my feminism, and a midwestern blondness that semiotically speaks “natural,” though my hair color hasn’t been for quite some time. (It also might be due to my expert dermatologist; my face isn’t frozen; I don’t look “done.”)
The topic typically arises when a female acquaintance compliments me. “You look great,” or even, “Your skin’s so good.” It’s at these times that I matter-of-factly offer up the Botox. I say how my forehead was looking “rough”—rough, not wrinkly, was how I perceived it—and how, after a while, I made an appointment with a dermatologist who is a go-to guy around the offices of ELLE, where I work as an editor (maximizing one’s attractiveness is the warp and the woof of the place, if you hadn’t guessed). How when I saw this doctor, I secretly prayed that he’d gush, “You look so gorgeous and young, you don’t need anything,” but instead he told me that he knew exactly what I meant by “rough,” that a lot of his patients used that term. How he set me up—it stung just a little—and afterward his receptionist handed me a tiny, folded-up piece of paper where he’d scrawled what I owed, and I literally gasped; tears sprung to my eyes. “I’m spending $800 on this, and people are starving in Africa,” I blurted.
At this point in my testimonial to friends, I usually laugh. Ironically, abashedly, because my compassion for my fellow man did not keep me from getting another fix, and another—or from eventually expanding my Botox regimen to include the lines around my eyes. As for my interlocutors, once I spill, I can see the sugarplums dancing in their heads, their eyes how they twinkle. If she can do it, I can too!
One of my closest confidantes—who’s slightly older than me and used to say “Just wait” when I insisted I’d never cosmetically enhance—thinks that my readiness to admit I use Botox is cringingly confessional, not to mention sad for me. “You think the only reason you look good is the Botox?” she says, kindly. But that’s not it. I know that my physical charms go beyond my smooth forehead. (For the record, I am, and always have been, in the middle on the comeliness continuum: attractive, but no beauty.)
The main reason I’m loose-lipped about my affection for the botulinum toxin is that I’m embarrassed by my vanity. Botox, Botox, Botox—if you say a word enough, you forget what it means. By copping to my willingness to spend now about $3,000 a year to keep wrinkles at bay, I’m trying to inoculate myself against feeling that it’s reprehensible and weak to care so much about how I look, particularly when appearance is determined largely by genetic luck and when, worse yet, millions of people don’t have a roof over their heads. (Confessing is also an inadvertent recruitment tool; if every woman I know is doing it, then we can all be morally suspect together. Nothing sounds more dreadful to a drunk than hanging out with a bunch of teetotalers.)
There are those for whom youth and beauty are practically job requirements: performers, anchorwomen, high-profile people in glamour industries like magazines. Granted, research suggests that a fair face and a firm body confer benefits in most realms of life, but the cost of not being pretty darn good-looking is simply higher for, say, a big-time editor than it is for a banker. If public women keep shooting up, the standards of beauty won’t have a chance to change, it’s true, but it’s not fair to make any one individual bear the brunt of this. Who’ll stop Botox first, Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer? I assume both use, but I don’t know for sure because for most women Botox is seen but not spoken of, unless you’re Heidi Montag, who seems to have taken “plastic surgery guinea pig” as her job title. Pulling the plug on Botox is the classic collective action problem.
Regardless, I don’t have a face job in media. While keeping up appearances, so to speak, probably helps me fit in at the office, my currency is a facility with language, my network of writers.
All this said, when I set aside the issue of whether my money could be better spent (let’s stipulate that it could), I haven’t been terribly conflicted about planing my brow. I like to look pretty; in the days after a Botox treatment, I inspect my mug in the mirror with genuine pleasure. Who doesn’t feel exhilarated stepping out of the house knowing she’s looking especially fine? All day, my spirits are higher, and the contentment redounds to those around me. I’m more cheerful, perhaps more competent and creative, even more loving with my girls and husband. (Do I need to say that I’m more likely to want to have sex when I’m feeling sexy?) A friend told me she gets a similar Botox-high; it erases her “inner frown.”
This pretty-girl buzz doesn’t depend on anyone else noticing—it’s enough that I do—but when I happen to collect a few compliments, I soar a little. A colleague once told me that if you want to butter people up, praise their “small vanities.” What he meant is that for someone like me, it’s not necessarily effective to exalt my intelligence or assertiveness—qualities that are fundamental to my sense of self—but rather to lay it on thick about how lovely I look.
That’s because, perhaps unfortunately, people take their main calling cards (their large vanities?) for granted. Getting attention for them is nice, but…carry on about aspects of people that they either cannot or have not cultivated, however, and watch them glow. The simplest example: Which would a model prefer to be lauded for, her brains or beauty?
One day not long ago, as I was looking in the mirror, my hands went reflexively up to either side of my face; I pulled back the skin at my cheekbones, stretching away the grooves that make parentheses around my mouth. Oooh, I look like I’m 30, I thought, half thrilled at the effect, half lamenting the slack state of affairs. Botox doesn’t address this marker of aging—that would require a cosmetic filler or a face-lift, I learned from my derm’s procedure-pushing nurse—and I perform this small ritual of wrinkle-ablation fairly frequently.
“Mommy, what are you doing?” my 11-year-old daughter asked, ending my reverie. I’d forgotten she was there.
“Oh nothing,” I said, too casually.
“Mom-my…tell me the truth.”
“I’m just seeing what I looked like when I was younger.”
“Do you think you look bad now?”
“No, not exactly, but…get dressed. It’s time for school.”
Edie gazes at me sadly—is she upset because I’m getting older and she’ll eventually lose me, or disappointed that I don’t practice what I preach? I’m not sure. It’s fun to look pretty, I tell Edie and her seven-year-old sister, Tess, but what matters most is how you treat people, how you use your brain, how hard you work.
My parental rhetoric may not win awards for persuasiveness, but I do believe my girls will be better people, and happier ones too, if they put interior development before exterior. And I’m not one who thinks you should avoid setting standards for your child unless you follow them religiously yourself—isn’t that one of the joys of adolescence, rebelling against your hypocritical parents? Still, there are limits to “Do what I say, not what I do,” and I worry that I’m bumping up against them as my girls grow older and more aware.
“Looking around here, I can tell this group isn’t exactly, umm, unconcerned about appearances,” Anne Kreamer began, during a discussion group about Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a provocative and readable take on the potentially deleterious impact of the hyperfeminization of young girls. Kreamer herself is an author of a polemical memoir on her decision to stop dying her hair—talk about a slice of life—and so has an ax to grind (scissors to sharpen?). Nonetheless, her comment made me feel like hiding my unnaturally blond head.
Regretfully, however, Kreamer had a point under her gray-haired self-righteousness: How do each of us draw the line between what is desirable and/or acceptable physical improvement, to use the most benign term, and what is not? To me, the question has only taken on urgency as I’ve dared to reckon with the influence I have on my daughters.
Orenstein’s book, the reason Kreamer and a passel of publishing types had gathered in the first place, brought the issue home. A thorough reporter and breezily accessible writer, Orenstein strongly argues that the princess-in-pink juggernaut for toddlers that morphs into the Hannah Montana/iCarly/Lady Gaga juggernaut for preteens that morphs into the juggiest juggernaut of our time—the Internet and Facebook—for teens is warping girls’ sense of self. Taken individually, she writes, none of these are “inherently” dangerous, but each is “a cog in the 24/7, all-pervasive media machine aimed at our daughters—and at us—from womb to tomb.”
Orenstein trains much of her focus on young children, and while she hastens to point out that nobody has ever proved that “playing princess specifically damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations, [t]here is…ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy. And a ream of studies show that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity—especially those who emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior—are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers. They are also less likely to report they enjoy sex.” Yikes. More sobering news: In a survey of 2,000-plus school-age children, “the number of girls who fretted excessively about their looks and weight…rose between 2000 and 2006 (topping their concern over schoolwork), as did their reported stress levels and their rates of depression and suicide.”
A common retort to warnings that the youth are in peril, or going to hell in a handbasket, is: Hasn’t it always been thus? For this subject in particular, a skeptic might cite Peter the Hermit, from 1274 a.d.: “The young people of today think of nothing of themselves.… As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.” Or for a more contemporary comparison, weren’t girls in the 1950s equally obsessed with pulchritudinous presentation, though there was no such thing as the Internet, toy marketing by gender (a brilliantly successful strategy to optimize sales, according to Orenstein—think pink Legos), or a round-the-clock celebrity-news cycle? In other words, old fogies always believe that change is irksome, so I should relax.
Perhaps, but just because my daughters might have been been equally burdened by you-are-your-shell propaganda had they been born at another time doesn’t mean I want to stop nudging them toward what I consider fuller, more sustaining identities. And Orenstein contends that there is a distinction between today and yesteryear. “The warnings of the past were concerned with girls’ becoming too sexual,” she told me in an interview. What she’s addressing is their becoming too sexualized. “The culture encourages girls to view femininity, sexuality, identity as something they perform for the benefit of others, and that gives them less freedom under the guise of giving them more. It encourages girls to define themselves so narrowly, to hang their self-worth on looking a certain way.”
Okay, I’ll admit it, I do think that the emphasis on looks was less pervasive when and where I came of age, in suburban Cleveland of the 1970s. Maybe it’s just a question of balance. In those years when modern feminism went mainstream, all the attention lavished on other parts of female identity, on breaking the age-old female mold, might have worked to neutralize the appearance fixation: You can be anything you want to be, girls—find a career! Your sexual pleasure is just as important as the boys’—read all about it in Our Bodies, Ourselves. I am woman, hear me roar!
Yes, I wanted boys to like me, and I knew looking as blond and zit-free as possible—and losing the braces and gaining a butt to fill out my Jordaches—was essential to the task, but I wasn’t bombarded by images, and rhetoric, of girls and young women who seemed to take looking hot as a central preoccupation. (And we all know media is influential—the only question is the degree to which it shapes how we feel, think, act.) I was also a hard-core tomboy, with a hard-core-tomboy-loving dad, spending hours a day playing basketball and volleyball and everything else under the sun, activities that took me far away from perseverating on my appearance.
My daughters are more physically delicate than me, and the eldest, at least, is temperamentally less aggressive, and they’re growing up in a fancy part of New York City, where organized team sports are an afterthought for girls. They have many wonderful opportunities I didn’t have, but one disadvantage is that they don’t have the chance to lose self-consciousness during sweaty, rough combat on the field or court. Like their friends, Edie and Tess dance and do gymnastics, which of course are sports, but they’re ones that demand girls remain ever cognizant of how they’re seen. (A caveat: Edie plays in a police basketball league in which I coach, and while she seems to be cottoning to it as she gets older—one reason she plays, I know, is to make me happy—it meets only once a week, too infrequent to have much impact.)
In any event, the woman I’ve become, the mother my girls know, is far less jocky and far more girly than she used to be. It’s a result of age, extra disposable income, evolving standards of appropriate female upkeep, and age. When I moved to New York at 30, I’d never had a manicure or pedicure, never dyed my hair, never had a bikini wax—how is that last possible? The only makeup I wore was mascara and blush, and I let my long blond hair air dry, except in the dead of winter when my natural curl went limp and I fired up the blow-dryer. Suffice it to say that I devoted scant thought to personal grooming. Again, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to look pretty, but, owing to the gift of genes, I was thin and blond and young, which seemed like enough.
Now in my midforties, I still eschew manicures and wear light makeup, but I get bikini waxes in the summer and semiregular pedicures the year through. I have my hair colored every few months and blown out nearly weekly in the winter and fall. My girls say, “Mom, what color would your hair be if you didn’t dye it? Mom, why don’t you just let your hair go gray—isn’t it better to be yourself?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I reply, brushing them off. And, occasionally, “Get off Mommy’s case!” I feel ashamed at their questions; I wish I could show Edie and Tess, not just tell them, that it’s what is on the inside that counts. They don’t pester me about the pedicures, by the way, because they get them too sometimes, with me. I both can’t quite believe that I allow this and that I spend a moment berating myself for it.
As for the Botox, they’ve never asked. I know it’ll come, however. Edie recently inquired as to whether I’d had breast augmentation, spurred by a People magazine story on the aforementioned Montag. Perfect! I thought (as soon as she asked). That’s something I’d never do, for real. “Of course I’ve never had a boob job,” I told my daughter, putting my pique on. “That’s ridiculous.”
Now who’s the self-righteous one?
At different times, I have these two thoughts with equal clamoring intensity. Thought one: I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die. Thought two: I know I could get my stomach back, I know I could get my stomach back, I know I could get it back.
The first thought is like a plea, ragged with sadness and desperation. No one can answer it, I know; no one can help. The second is fierce, like I’m challenging an enemy to a duel: My stomach has always been great, still is, better than most women’s. I could get it back—six weeks, tops. Most women couldn’t do it, but I’m tough.
Man, talk about misdirected anger. Casting my fellow women as adversaries distracts me, of course, from facing my real foe, which is infinitely tougher than me, tougher than us all.
This bitter little fantasy will go on for a while; I’ll imagine hiring one of those drill-sergeant trainers, blowing him away by my endurance, by my epic number of crunches. I’d kill it. By then, I’m usually smiling; one of the blessings of growing older is that I’ve been able to get some perspective on my crazy, compensatory ferocity. Do I really want to spend the decades I have left doing sit-ups? I think not. A few things I’d rather do: coach basketball, write, hang out with my family, throw parties, play piano duets with my daughter, go to dinner with my friends, collect shells in jars, play doubles tennis with my husband. And that recently traitorous stomach? The truth is, it’s been good to me. I don’t need to punish it…punish myself.
Ah, but that still leaves the Botox: It’s so quick and effortless and makes me feel so good. I don’t have the willpower to stop, though I do wonder if I’ve stepped onto the proverbial slippery slope and will find a way to rationalize adding filler to my routine to plump out those hated creases around my mouth. Just another injection, right?
Then again, maybe I’ll resist, because not all slopes must be slid down, and because I can draw lines—I’m a grown-up. Where I draw the line, obviously, will be subjective; it won’t be the same as Anne Kreamer’s or Peggy Orenstein’s or yours or yours, but I’ll draw it in the spirit of acknowledging the ambiguity in which we must live. And when my girls are old enough to understand, that’s part of the message I’ll try to get across. That being able to tolerate warring parts of oneself is better than striving for absolute purity of mind and deed. Also: That looking good can bring enjoyment and excitement to your days—and nights—but it also may feel too necessary, like a mandate or question of survival. That growing old is deeply scary and distressing at times, but other times it feels all right, like something you can handle. And, always, I’ll tell them, pretty is as pretty does.