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December 20, 2012

Frozen in Time

With Botox, fillers, and lasers at the ready, is it now a woman's right — or duty — to look as young as she feels? Aleksandra Crapanzano weighs in on the antiaging dilemma.


Photo Credit: Craig Cutler

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Not long ago, I found myself at a table on Manhattan's Upper East Side, surrounded by the very group I'd had dinner with 10 years ago to the date. I can say this with certainty, as it was a birthday dinner and the friends were old friends — although, I immediately realized, no one looked exactly old enough to claim such a title or to have lived through the past decade. And while, at 41, I was the youngest female guest by a good 15 years, you might have thought I was the oldest. Madonna may sing of the erotic allure of a virgin, but no one — to date — sings of the beauty of the Botox virgin. And that, I realized, was the name writ deep in the furrows of my brow that birthday dinner. While the other guests had been retracing their footsteps, I had been simply getting older.

Perhaps it was the glass of champagne that mischievously turned my thoughts to Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. In this spot-on satirical tale, Willy Wonka, the owner of the famous chocolate factory, offers Charlie's bedridden grandparents a pill called the Wonka-Vite. Each of these magic pills promises to make them 20 years younger. Faced with this elixir of life, three of the grandparents greedily start gobbling as many pills as they can, and before Charlie can stop them, two have morphed into wailing babies and one has become minus-2 and must be rescued from the hellish netherworld Minusland. Dahl, of course, is suggesting that the fountain of youth is as tempting as the tree of life and as certain to doom you. The author died in 1990, just a few years before Botox began its rapid ascent to become the most popular cosmetic procedure ever. Perhaps if Dahl were alive now, he'd write a version for grown-ups, set not in a chocolate factory, but in a plastic surgery clinic on a small, private island somewhere off the coast of Brazil.

Looking around the table, I wondered what surgery each guest would choose and how radical. Would removing 10 years be enough? Twenty? Thirty? Who would plunge off the slippery slope and fall into minusland? Who would refrain? And then, naturally, I began to wonder what I would do. It wasn't hard, as I, like most women I know, have a long list of improvements I'd be happy to make to my appearance, beginning with my no-longer-taut jawline. So why hadn't I? And what made me bristle at the implications buried in that question?

My train of thought was now taking me somewhere alarming. The expectations of a certain stratum of society — albeit, but certainly not limited to, the rich, socially powerful, and educated one at this particular dinner — had changed. Was it now uncouth of me to show up at dinner with my fine lines? Was this akin to showing up with mud on my boots and a moth hole in my sweater? Ten years ago, I might have splurged on a manicure and had my hair blown dry before a formal dinner party. Was I now obliged to add Botox and fillers to the routine? Had these become part of the uniform? And was this a sudden change, or was it simply that I'd hit 40 and the need had made itself apparent? Did other women feel as I felt?

I called my friend Anne Kreamer, the author of Going Gray: How to Embrace Your Authentic Self With Grace and Style. We had a passionate conversation about society, feminism, her daughters coming of age in the world of Internet images. We spoke with indignation and, we thought, honesty. And then I asked Anne if there was anything about her looks (she's a beautiful woman, so I wasn't expecting much here) that bothered her. "My teeth," she replied instantly. "Theyve yellowed." "Why don't you bleach them?" I asked. "I want to," she answered, "but I don't want to have to." My face broke into a smile (laugh lines parading) because this, of course, was the very sentiment that had been nagging at me. I too was caught in an internal battle between feminist ideology and personal vanity.

As a Harvard undergraduate, I fell into the camp of "lipstick feminists" — women who believe unquestionably in equality, empowerment, reproductive rights; women who march for Take Back the Night and cheer each other along as they pummel the balls of mock criminals in the defense class Model Mugging; women who write their theses, as I did, on Virginia Woolf or, as my roommate did, on "Thelma & Louise: The Phallic Landscape"; and — herein lies the rub — women who wear lipstick. Not just wear it, but delight in it. Women who have read their Naomi Wolf and — even as they know they are succumbing to the trappings of the male gaze and the beauty industry's reflection of some antediluvian male hegemony — find a giddy, not guilty, pleasure in shopping for that perfect shade among the many lovely pinks, corals, and reds. Women for whom the beauty floor at Bergdorf Goodman is the adult equivalent of Dylan's Candy Bar, and who feel no less empowered for this apparent weakness. Jump to middle age, however, and the question is no longer as simple as whether or not to wear lipstick.

I go for a coffee with Katie Roiphe, the author of In Praise of Messy Lives and a friend from college. Both of our mothers were vocal in the women's movement of the 1970s, and the conversation quickly turns to where we are as women today in the history of feminism and in what can only be called the Age of Botox. "We kind of climbed up to a point where maybe, if we had kept going with this refusal to fall prey to these sorts of things [antiaging procedures and the compulsion to do them], our generation might have been the generation that at 70 actually would look more powerful for it," Roiphe says. "Not caring and not trying to please is a sign of power. There could've been a generation that was like, 'We refuse.'" But it's the reverse, and this can't be seen as an accident. Throughout history, we see cycles of women gaining power, only to have the next generation hand it right back or, as has been more often the case, lose it. Roiphe, already the author of five books, muses: "What if all this energy [that we spend on beauty] was spent on work? What if you just pursued serious things? There would be a lot of forward motion." We look at each other and laugh — we've just described our mothers.

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