This week Time magazine asks feminist author and Ms. magazine founding editor Suzanne Braun Levine: “Should women lie about their age?” No one will be surprised to learn that Levine, the author of “50 is the New Fifty,” responded in much the same way as Gloria Steinem did back in 1974 when a reporter told her she didn’t “look” 40. Steinem replied: “This is what 40 looks like. We’ve been lying so long, who would know?” (Much more puzzling: Where is that Time intern who inserted a thoughtful link to “See pictures of facial yoga!” right after Levine spoke about her concern that her 22-year-old daughter didn’t fully understand the struggles of women in other societies?)
Meanwhile, over at the Guardian, writer Kira Cochrane is less concerned with women who won’t accurately report their chronological age and more concerned about those who insist, beyond all sense, that their bodies reflect the “natural” look of a woman in her age group. While there are few people alive who do not know that Madonna Louise Ciccone recently celebrated her 50th birthday, most would agree that she bears a closer family resemblance to this 50-year-old blonde icon than she does to, say, her own 46-year-old sister, Melanie Henry. But Madonna is at least straightforward: While she doesn’t come right out and say she’s partaken of a little medical enhancement, she coyly acknowledges that she “thinks” about it, and that if she were to do so, she wouldn’t consider it grounds for a “press conference.” In other words: She’s not telling.
Truthfully, I don’t care much for the argument that women and men who are quite literally paid to be beautiful are also required to shoulder the additional burden of being realistic beauty role models for the rest of us. While “the rest of us” include many extremely attractive people, conventionally so and otherwise, few of us have to worry that, say, Perez Hilton is going to catch us on a bad bikini day and plaster us all over the Internet. Of tabloid culture, Cochrane writes: “It’s an environment that is at once trashy and highly exacting: every hangnail a sin; every eye-bag a crime.” She goes on: “In the face of such constant surveillance, it’s not surprising that women would want to erase marks that would otherwise be circled with exclamations of disgust.”
But while it’s not sinful to mess a bit with one’s eye bags, it’s quite another thing to insist that the work of a particularly well-paid and skilled cosmetic surgeon is actually an uncommonly large blessing from the ageless beauty fairy. Writes Cochrane: “When describing how they stay so taut, the explanation is generally this. They moisturize. They drink water. They work out. They eat well. They avoid the sun. They don’t smoke. Which is enough to make the average healthy-living woman wince while inspecting her own wrinkles.” As evidence, Cochrane cites Nicole Kidman (whose forehead Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek once compared to melamine), who claimed way back in 2007 that she was “completely natural. I have nothing in my face or anything. I wear sunscreen, and I don’t smoke. I take care of myself. I’m proud to say that.” Perhaps Nicole Kidman is still benefiting from the good genes that made her better looking than just about every other 20-year-old of her time, but if she truly is an “enthusiastic user” of Botox, as many have said, it’s absurd to claim her youth is nothing but a virtuous reward for clean living.
This particular moment in cosmetic intervention has its own distinct look — what Jonathan Van Meter described last year in New York magazine as the New New Face. These new faces, as he wrote, are “not being pulled tight in that typical face-lift way; they seem pushed-out.” This change is attributed to the new prominence of injectables — Botox, Juvederm and Restylane — which have gone up 754 percent between the years of 1997 and 2007 (in contrast to 114 percent increase in surgical intervention). Tracy Mounthead, a specialist in “non-surgical intervention,” gives Cochrane a particularly apt metaphor. “If you have a prune and you tighten the prune, you don’t get a grape. You get a tight prune. But if you restore volume back into the prune, you get a grape back.”
While it is somewhat depressing to see all of life’s promise reduced to aspirational fruit metaphors, she’s got a point — the new injectables do result in a moister, plumper face than the cruder face lifts of yore. The downside is, with all that liquid sloshing around, a dewy glow might easily go awry. Pity the women who, according to Cochrane, end up with “rogue treatments leaving strange, floating lumps beneath the skin” and “strange bags of filler products under the eyes,” and the woman who described the result of her treatment as “a moving layer of custard.” But whether one is returned to one’s essential grape of youth, or disfigured by a congealed chemical custard, one can be converted to a beauty junkie all the same. Virginia Blum, author of “Flesh Wounds,” says: “If you have a good result, you’re in it. And if you have a bad result, you’re in it, because you have to fix it. So either way it’s addictive.”