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December 20, 2012

Frozen in Time


Photo Credit: Craig Cutler

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But the more a woman admires her mother, the more likely she is to delineate their differences. As daughters, we form our identities not in symbiosis, but in rebellion. From a psychological stand-point, then, it makes sense that my generation would be the Botox generation, that we have no intention of burning our pretty lace bras, even as we read Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem with gratitude and something akin to reverence. But we are also the generation most keenly aware that, as the feminist Carol Hanisch declared in 1969, "the personal is political." What we do to our faces is a boldly writ statement of belief. And the more people use Botox, the more unquestioned its use becomes until eventually (now, perhaps?) it is suddenly the norm.

I watch the HBO film About Face, in which the documentarian Timothy Greenfield-Sanders interviews former supermodels about aging, and find an echo of my ambivalence (if sadly not of her genes) in Isabella Rossellini. "I'm debating in my head," she says to the camera. "One day I get up and say, 'Hey, there's this new technology, why not use it? Let's go do the operation.' But most of the time I wake up and say, 'Is this the new feet binding? Is this a new way to tell women, You are ugly deep down, you should be this and this, and give a lot of other standards that are impossible to be reached because the main problem is misogyny?'" While my head is squarely in Rossellini's camp, the voice in the film that makes me smile is that of Carmen Dell'Orefice, once a muse of Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, and Horst P. Horst and who, at 81, remains a vibrant, heady beauty. With a breeziness that belies true conviction, she offers up the obvious: "Well, if you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?"

A flippant remark? Sure. Yet practical, too. And so refreshingly honest that I find myself immediately agreeing with her logic. But there's more to her comment than is first apparent: Dell'Orefice was always a great beauty, so in her mind, surgery is simply the means of restoring her face to its natural state. And what could be more natural than youth? Certainly not the natural process of aging. because, really, who among us feels our age? Most of the time, out of sight of a mirror, I still think I'm 30, tops. For most women over 40, looking in the mirror is an unpleasant collision with reality, a fissure in our denial. It's not that we're living a lie, it's that we feel vital, strong, and engaged. And isn't this a good thing? Shouldn't this happy feeling be maintained at all costs?

Has age, then, become a relative statement, no longer fixed but fluid, no longer precise and concrete but changeable, even irrelevant? Not according to my cardiologist friend. Not according to my oncologist friend. Not according to my life insurance company. I go and see Dr. David Colbert, a Manhattan dermatologist known for keeping his patients looking "naturally" young. "Really all we can do is be philosophers, think about why, when, and if we're going to manipulate our looks," he tells me. "Does it really make your life longer that you look 40 when you're 60? Maybe. Maybe it's the interpretation of your life that makes it feel longer."

Colbert is onto something. Experience is always an interpretation of reality. Interpreted, sorted, and labeled, feelings become memory. This memory becomes what we then consider our experience. It's all in the head. Can we, I wonder, twist René Descartes' famous line, "I think, therefore I am" to "I look young therefore I am young"? Young at heart, which, even more than looking good, is perhaps the ultimate goal? Or, to co-opt another famous line, if youth is wasted on the young, do we get a second chance by looking young when we are no longer so? We craft perfect versions of ourselves on Facebook, parallel lives on blogs. We remove the history from our faces and the love handles from our bodies . . . But is our experience of life changing? Are we any happier for it?

I speak to Manhattan psychiatrist Dr. Marianne Gillow, who tells me that her patients report being in better moods after their Botox injections. "It's almost like biofeedback," she tells me. I call Dr. Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, an assistant clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine, to confirm this possibility. I ask if removing the ability to frown can make a person feel less "frowny." Ultimately, yes, she tells me: "The motor activity of frowning is emotionally stimulatory to a sense of worry and unhappiness. Smiling is emotionally stimulatory to the mental state of happiness." I imagine a new me: always grinning, untouched by irritating thoughts, no doubt a gentler, more affable person. It's my husband who brings me back to earth. I tell him that Botox might make me less contrarian, easier, thinking that would surely be a convincing argument. "So your capacity for empathy would be limited," he replies almost instantly. And, of course, he's right. "You frown in consternation," he goes on, "when a friend is passed over for a job." That frown forms a current of connection, telling the friend that you are right there with them in their duress. He doesn't say it, but I know he's also talking about us. How unsettling it would be to see your wife appear unmoved in those moments when a friendly, loving face is what you most need at the end of a hard day. I'm also reminded of something a gentleman, who shall remain nameless, once said to a mutual friend: "What man, in the throes of an orgasm, wants to look at the woman he's making love to and see a frozen face?" (Someone else, of course, might be inclined to suggest that the gentleman had been attracted to his lover precisely because of her smooth brow, full cheeks, and plump lips.)

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