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December 20, 2012

Frozen in Time


Photo Credit: Craig Cutler

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The Republican and Democratic conventions take place, and I'm fairly stunned to see so many smooth foreheads among the many speakers. I, for one, want my leaders to have furrowed their brows late into many a night revising bills and pondering governance, diplomacy, national security. Genocide certainly deserves a frown. And if that anger is removed, will the impulse to act also be lessened? I need to see a life of experience and thought in a politician's face. I need transparency, not the opacity of perfection. Of course, it's easy to understand the impulse to remove unsightly flaws. Politicians are photographed and televised daily. A bad snapshot taken in harsh light depicting them at their very worst is certain to go viral. The Internet revolution has removed our ability to hide, maintain privacy, or control our public image, and our culture appears to have little remorse over this dramatic shift. But is there now a professional mandate in having cosmetic procedures? "The reality is that people think they still have mile- age, that they'll still be in the business 10 years from now," explains Alexiades-Armenakas. Many of her patients have observed that the older a woman, the less relevant she appears. Is this true for men? Of course not. We all know the rules have never been equal. We may now have women CEOs, but the expectations placed on a woman's looks have only grown . . . or have they?

In the book Survival of the Prettiest, Harvard psychologist Nancy Etcoff takes a Darwinian approach to beauty, rebuking the theory that the pursuit of beauty is a learned behavior and suggesting, instead, that it is a fundamental part of human nature and, moreover, a biological adaptation that "impels actions that help ensure the survival of our genes. Our extreme sensitivity to beauty is hardwired — that is, governed by circuits in the brain shaped by natural selection," she explains. "We love to look at smooth skin; thick, shiny hair; curved waists; and symmetrical bodies, because in the course of evolution the people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproductive success. We are their descendants." It's hardly surprising, then, that we spend billions of dollars on cosmetics — "looking good has survival value." And while there may not have been an Estée Lauder or a Max Factor until the 20th century, the history of cosmetics is indeed a long one. King Tutankhamen was buried with a pot of moisturizer. The British Museum exhibits a cosmetics box from 1400 B.C., replete with makeup containers. The ancient Egyptians wrote their wrinkle remedies on sheets of papyrus. Would Cleopatra have sprung for Botox, fillers, and a neck-lift? Probably. The quest for youthful beauty has not changed, only the available procedures. For a price, perfection appears attainable. But at what price? It is the technology that has changed the dialogue — Botox is botulism and going under the knife is in itself a violent act. No longer are we simply choosing between creams.

Paulina Porizkova asks in About Face: "In your 20s you want to have children, you're looking for a mate, you need to attract. At 50, you don't need to attract the same thing, so why do you need to look like you still want to attract the same thing?" Returning to Cleopatra, the answer is in the power beauty affords.

People respond to beauty. It is persuasive even in its silence. It speaks to others. And, sadly, the ideal doesn't age. For the most part, what we perceive as beautiful is youthful beauty. It is not, however, uniform beauty. We are beautiful in our differences, in our uniqueness. "Compare an actual, natural tree with one that we could create artificially," explains Alexiades-Armenakas. "In an artificial tree, the branches would be symmetrical, absolute perfection, but it would lack beauty. What's beautiful about a real tree is that the branches are not symmetrical. There's beauty to the happenstance of the variegation of branching and leaves. That's nature. That's beautiful. It's the same with the human face."

I'm reminded of a story a friend told me about going to the funeral of a Los Angeles plastic surgeon. The service, he thought, was notable for what appeared to be an unusually large number of family members in attendance. There were rows and rows of clearly related people: straight-jawed, creaseless-faced, full-cheeked, perky-breasted relatives. It was only after the service that my friend learned that the mourners were not sisters or first cousins but patients. Clearly this doctor's work left little room for variation.

Harvard-trained plastic surgeon Dr. Haideh Hirmand points to our culture of excess: "People get carried away and think, if a little looks good, a lot will look even better. And that's not the case. I'm actually certain you look older if you do too much." Manhattan dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco, for example, has patients come in frequently for very small doses of injectables. These mini shots, she explains, are all but undetectable and allow her to preserve a patient's natural expression. It's a more costly alternative, but I quickly realize that the choice of doctor is as defining as the choice to try a procedure in the first place. It's as much art as science, and you want someone whose aesthetic matches your own.

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