Archive for Sunday, April 21, 2002

Will science take character out of aging?

April 21, 2002


— Just because the FDA has approved of Botox doesn't mean that I have to. In fact, since 835,000 people have already had their foreheads injected with the paralyzing fluid that keeps them from being able to frown, I figure that somebody has to frown for them.

When I first read about Botox as a cosmetic, I thought there was something vaguely charming about the idea. After all, the microbe created by the U.S. Army to inflict botulism poisoning on our enemies was now being used for domestic and aesthetic purposes. Talk about beating your swords into tweezers.

But even before the FDA gave the green light, we heard that Botox gatherings of women had become the Tupperware parties of the 21st century. Only what's being preserved are the women, not the leftovers.

This is not, I promise you, a screed about the political incorrectness of plastic surgery or vanity. Nor is it about how beauty is only skin deep.

Over the years, my attitudes like my jaw line have softened toward women who choose to change their faces rather than live with them. I know there's a line between those who "need" to be "fixed" and those who don't, between those who need surgery think burn victim and those who need therapy think Michael Jackson. But I'm less inclined to draw it for anyone else.

When 47-year-old Greta Van Susteren became the poster anchor for plastic surgery, I thought the criticism was way over the top. As she said, "Having plastic surgery isn't shoplifting." If it were, nearly every female-and-fifty face on TV would be behind bars.

After all, most of us choose, um, some self-improvement. Where is the unacceptable point on the aesthetic slope between braces and face lifts? Aging gracefully does not mean that you have to age gray-ly. So, you tell me the cut-off between hair color and collagen.


As a woman of a certain age the age targeted by the $53 million campaign being launched by Allergan, the maker of Botox every time someone I know, or watch, has some "work" done, I get a feeling of being deserted. It's as if they'd left a threatened neighborhood, the endangered, natural species free range, and sided with the image-makers.

Remember back when Gloria Steinem turned 40? (If you do, it's probably too late for Botox, anyway.) She said: "This is what 40 looks like." At that time it was a statement that said proudly: We are not your grandmother's 40-year-old.

Of course, 40 never did necessarily look like Gloria. But what happens when 50 is supposed to look like 40? Does that mean the whole standard of aging has changed? Do we think 60 should look like 50? Does, say, a 70-year-old Barbara Walters actually change the future for older women on TV? Or is an older woman only accepted if she doesn't look her age?

Chemical peels. Endoscopic lifts. Microfat injections. Eyelid lifts. Face lifts. Botox marketed to women the way Viagra is to men (never mind). How long is it before looking "your age" is regarded as a slatternly failure of effort? How long before any woman who doesn't try one of the above is dismissed as someone who is "letting herself go"?

I have always loved the expression, "letting yourself go." Where do you go, when you let yourself? To the recycle bin or to freedom? On Oscar night, in a sea of nipped and tucked, siliconed and surgeried women, the only seamed faces over 50 belonged to the likes of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren. They are all character actors. Is that where they let themselves go? Into character?

In the past few years, I have found myself looking at older women as harbingers of the future. I'm looking for energy and confidence, and yes, attractiveness. Who do I want to be when I grow up? I am sure there are young women searching for the same clues. But there's no way to find them on the Botox party masks.

This is the real symbolism of Botox. It eliminates lines temporarily by paralyzing muscles. It offers an actual trade-off. You trade the ability, literally, to express your emotions furl that brow, crinkle that eye for a flawless appearance. In the search for approval from others, you hide what you are feeling. Especially anger.

This seems to my cranky eye and creased eyebrow to be exactly the opposite of my goal to become an outspoken, maybe even outrageous, laugh-out-loud, nothing-left-to-lose old lady. Spare me the Botox. I plan to remain the kind of character actor who wears her emotions, not on her sleeve or on her surgeon's bill, but on her face.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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