The beauty of a hippie chick face-lift

I surrendered to vanity, but I wanted to keep it real. How does one avoid looking like a Beverly Hills real estate agent?

Published August 19, 2002 7:39PM (EDT)

About a year ago, I was blessed with an unexpected small inheritance. After depositing my windfall in the bank, I sat down with an iced Hanson's, blasted Taj Mahal through speakers big as steamer trunks, and mulled over my financial options.

I could invest the money to ensure a more secure retirement. I could sail the seven seas with my husband. I could donate to Doctors Without Borders or Amnesty International or the Sierra Club.

Or I could undergo a coronal brow lift, bilateral upper and lower lid blepharoplasties and a rhytidectomy -- also known as a brow lift, an eye job and a face-lift.

I chose the cosmetic surgery.

But not without a crisis of conscience.

I am an aging hippie chick, and one of our core beliefs is that cosmetic surgery is the domain of wimpy women who feel they must resemble youthful movie stars in order to be accepted in a culture still controlled by white males like Donald Rumsfeld.

We hippie chicks belong to a liberal subgroup of the baby boom generation, that graying postwar population tsunami that threatens to bankrupt America's Social Security system. The U.S. Census defines baby boomers as American men and women 35 to 54 years old. Hippie chicks belong to the elder strata (45 to 54 years old) of female baby boomers. According to Census 2000, there are more than 19 million women in this age group, about 13.4 percent of the country's population. My instinct tells me hippie chicks compose at least half of this particular demographic, which means, by my count, there are about 9.5 million of us.

For the record, hippie chicks are not and have never been hippies. Real hippies dropped too much acid and shot speed and roamed Route 66 in painted school buses. In their altered states, real hippies did not always bathe or brush their teeth. They were known to eat things like Hostess fruit pies for breakfast. They were not averse to having children out of wedlock and naming them after a winter month, an Indian chief or a predatory bird. Real hippies tended to ignore their formal educations.

Hippie chicks, on the other hand, were young women influenced by, but not wholly devoted to, the countercultural movement of the '60s and '70s. Although we pretended otherwise, we really did value our educations, and graduated from college in unprecedented numbers. We savored Acapulco Gold. We listened to Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, Dylan, Donovan, the Beatles. We marched down campus malls protesting the military-industrial complex and the fact that no organic food was served in the college cafeteria.

We eschewed sororities. We believed in zero population growth and trumpeted the salubrious effects of the Pill, which at the time was a recent scientific breakthrough. We attended our classes barefoot, accompanied by dogs. We waxed eloquent about Carlos Castaneda, Kent State, Vietnam and the head busting at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In short, we considered ourselves experts in matters of cannabis, public policy, morality and beauty.

I think our idea of beauty was all mixed up with the gender revolution that was sweeping America at the time. Androgyny was fashionable. We didn't wear bras. We didn't wear makeup. We didn't dye our long, uncut hair. We didn't shave our legs or our pits.

A lot of people think Jane Fonda was a hippie chick because of her anti-Vietnam antics. Wrong. With her Barbarella bod and perfectly coiffed hair, Fonda was much, much too well-groomed and uptight to be a hippie chick. Joan Baez, on the other hand, was our idea of beautiful. She was hairy and sloppy and comfortable with herself even though she had a big nose.

We frequently viewed our well-groomed mothers as unsuspecting victims of male domination. They suffered through cosmetic surgery, we reasoned, because they felt they had to look attractive to their husbands in order to ensure their own survival. They were helpless housewives. They had no way of supporting themselves. They were sex slaves. We tried to explain all of this to our mothers, but they didn't seem to understand.

Looking back on it, I think our "natural" beauty code was at least as rigid as our mothers'. Our hand-sewn granny dresses from Vermont might have chafed our young nipples, but we wouldn't slip on a bra for comfort. We poured our nubile buns into bell-bottoms so tight they cut off our circulation and numbed the skin covering our hip bones. We wore ergonomically correct shoes even if they caused corns. We did all of this to look attractive to men. And we didn't comprehend our hypocrisy.

Then we got old.

As we aged, we realized we weren't all that enlightened after all. We struggled with divorce and children and careers and illness and the loss of parents and friends. And it all began to show in our faces. ("Smile," strangers would tell us on the street, "life can't be that bad.") We reluctantly acknowledged that coloring the gray and wearing bras and patting on makeup to conceal the circles beneath our eyes improved our looks.

But at some point even those stopgaps failed us. We would come home from work to a messy house, suck on a glass of pinot grigio and glimpse our aging faces in the mirror as we changed out of our work clothes. We'd furtively inch up to the mirror, pinch back the gobblerlike wattles that dangled beneath our middle-aged chins and wonder if cosmetic surgery was really such a terrible thing after all.

For several months, I myself suffered through this crisis, living in a wattle-pinching, should-I-get-a-face-lift purgatory. I knew that I looked grumpy even when I was happy, largely because of a sagging forehead and terrier-like jowls. My neck flaps didn't help, either.

I wanted a face-lift and felt guilty about it because I was, after all, a hippie chick.

My husband, who is too old to be a baby boomer and does not understand hippie chick sensibilities, bore the brunt of my angst. He listened to my jeremiads about how aging women should not cave to a youth-oriented society. Five minutes later he'd watch me pinch my wrinkles in front of the mirror. What harm, I'd ask him, would come from a natural, organic, hippie chick kind of face-lift, one that would preserve my smile lines and the crow's-feet while nuking the wattles and jowls?

"It's your decision," he would say. "I think you look just fine the way you are."

My hippie chick friends agreed with my husband. But I could tell they mostly disapproved of the surgery. Of all my hippie chick friends, not a single woman has had cosmetic surgery.

"With all of the awful things that we have to go through in life," one hippie chick girlfriend finally said, "I don't understand why you would volunteer to put yourself through another awful experience just to look younger."

She had me there. And she tweaked another nerve: I did not trust doctors. As a journalist, I'd written several investigative stories about medical malpractice cases. I couldn't forget the case of a woman who woke up from a tummy tuck with pubic hair covering her belly button.

Last December, a checkout clerk at the natural foods store asked me for my senior card. To qualify as senior in this particular establishment, one has to 60 years and older.

I was 52.

That did it. I vowed to find a good board-certified plastic surgeon and get on with it. I figured finding a doctor sensitive to hippie chicks would be a snap. If there are 9 million aging hippie chicks in America, we must have influence in the plastic surgery market, dramatically changing the aesthetic toward a more organic, natural outcome.

I figured wrong.

In the first place, although 6.5 million women of all ages had cosmetic plastic surgery in 2001, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons only a scant 112,609 women of all ages had face-lifts. About half as many had brow lifts. (Breast augmentation, eye jobs, nose jobs and liposuction were the most popular procedures.)

What's more, judging from the before and after pictures of face-lift patients on the Web site of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, it seemed to me that a lot of the women who did have face-lifts came out looking like Beverly Hills real estate agents.

No self-respecting hippie chick would ever want to look like a Beverly Hills real estate agent. Obviously, hippie chicks weren't getting face-lifts in the numbers I had suspected.

And interviews with doctors across the country bore this out. Harlan Pollock, a longtime Dallas plastic surgeon who teaches at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, told me what most often drives women to plastic surgery is "movies and advertising that put a premium on beauty and youth."

Alan Gold, a Long Island plastic surgeon who serves as a spokesman for the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, was more blunt: "I do not live in an area where there is peace, love and granola."

Before I visited a doctor, I made sure he was board certified by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, because such certification ensures more training and the passing of a rigorous exam. Next, I checked court records and medical board files for malpractice cases.

I consulted with several male doctors who passed all these tests. But I wasn't comfortable with them. They were cheesy. And their female staff members and patients in their waiting rooms made me squirm in my Birkenstocks. With frosted hair and wrinkle-free faces, they reminded me of the trophy wives of oil company executives. I did not want to emerge from the operating room looking like that.

I decided a woman doctor might understand me better. But it took a while to find one. Although more than 91 percent of cosmetic surgery patients are female, only one in nine plastic surgeons is a woman. Plastic surgery is still very much a male-dominated profession.

A non-hippie chick friend recommended Dr. B., a board-certified plastic surgeon at the Phoenix Mayo Clinic. During the consultation, I nervously explained that I wanted a 52-year-old face to match my 52-year-old body.

"You earned those wrinkles," she told me. "Let's keep some of them." She was warm and honest. She recommended a face-lift, eye job and a brow lift so that everything would match. If I chose just one procedure, she said, I wouldn't look right.

"No one will know you've had a face-lift, it will be that natural," she said. Then she gave me a hug.

I knew the woman understood my concept of a natural face-lift, possibly because she once lived in New Mexico, a hippie chick stronghold. But I was terrified of the pain, and opted to test the waters with an eye job in the late fall of 2001. After surviving that surgery with the aid of Mother's Little Helpers, in this case Vicodin and Valium, I scheduled the face-lift and brow lift for Jan. 15, 2002.

Psychologically, having the eyes done first gave me the confidence to continue with the more severe surgery. But it was expensive. I had to pay anesthesia and operating room fees twice. Dr. B's fees were right in line with the national averages reported by the American Society of Plastic Surgery, but I still ended up paying a total of about $15,000 for the two procedures.

What can I say about cosmetic surgery beyond the fact that it is expensive?

It hurts. They pull your skin off your face and snip your muscles and suck out your fat and when it's all over they staple and glue and stitch you shut.

Even so, recovery time is not all that long if you take the right drugs. I stayed home for two weeks with a bag of frozen peas on my forehead and the Vicodin conveniently nearby. A week later, I went skiing.

Dr. B was right. No one can tell I've had a face-lift. The scarring is not evident and I still look like a natural hippie chick, with my smile lines and crow's-feet. The wattles and jowls are gone, but even my hippie chick friends concede I look more refreshed and happy -- as if I've had a good night's sleep.

And the checkout clerk no longer asks me for my senior card.

By Terry Greene Sterling

Terry Greene Sterling has written for Phoenix New Times since 1984, when Deborah Laake edited her first piece. Sterling has been named Arizona's top journalist three times and has won more than 40 national and state journalism awards. She left the paper in June to pursue other writing projects.

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