Somewhere between 27 and 28, I started getting gray hairs, and noticing new lines on my face. I'm still sometimes mistaken for 18, usually by the same types of oblivious older men who think calling someone "babydoll" and otherwise acting like a pedophile is charming; but it happens less and less, because there is officially no universe in which I could be 18 ... unless that 18 year old started smoking at 11. I can see the creases in my forehead when I raise an eyebrow, where the laugh lines are forming, even — and this is the one that scares me — where my chin might one day begin to disappear into my neck.
As someone who was routinely asked to fake being five years younger as a kid so my parents could get the children's discount well into my adolescence, this seemingly sudden jump into looking more mature has been confusing. I'm still young, but with the appearance of some lines and grays, I've found myself wondering if there's something I'm supposed to be doing besides wearing sunscreen to protect my skin. I've also found myself wonder what "protecting it" really even means for me, as a feminist who is also relatively vain.
So when I got an email from yet another plastic surgeon's PR rep, this time offering me a "Signature Custom Hydration Peel" to moisturize and prevent aging, I decided it would "make a good story" and booked my appointment on Park Avenue with Dr. Scott Wells of "Beauty For Life™".
The office was exactly what you'd expect. Fancy plush furniture, Fox News on the TV, a client of indeterminate age but much determinate work sitting next to me, ordering a cappuccino from the hot receptionist with a truly enviable ass.
Dr. Wells turned out to be more than generous with his time, answering all my questions thoughtfully. I asked him whether women in their 20s should do anything to prevent aging. He nodded knowingly.
"I call it beauty and age management. What we’re doing is we’re talking to a patient the way a financial advisor would take your assets and tell you how to manage them so you build on them and have more assets, rather than squandering them," Dr. Wells told me.
"People say they age like their mother, they 'woke up one day and they looked like their mother.' That’s because they make the same expressions," Dr. Wells continued. "So a very big part of the anti-aging regimen is to look at the particular expressions a patient makes, and look in particular at those muscles that tend to move the face in ways we don’t want. We used to think gravity is what caused brows to drop, but since the age of Botox, we noticed that aging is not happening anywhere near as quickly in those patients who are really using Botox effectively." Preventatively, he means.
I admitted I was tempted by his pitch, but asked him point-blank how I could justify getting preventative Botox or laser treatments as a feminist.
Dr. Wells suggested that a regiment of "beauty asset management" for women in their 20s might include slight "unnoticeable" Botox twice a year, occasional laser and facial treatments, a low-dose Retin-A cream, sunscreen, and of course, his custom skin products. I saw then how a plastic surgeon's skill is as much in sales as with the knife. The more leading questions I asked, the more I was becoming persuaded by his logic. If all I had to do was get Botox twice a year and the occasional laser treatment to prevent my neck and chin from sacking up, maybe I was being naive not to. I asked how much it would cost me — you know, for the story.
He told me roughly $1,000 to $1,500 a year. "That sounds like a lot of money, but you spend that annually if you belong to gym that $100 a month. What I always tell people it it’s much more efficient to keep what you have than to fix what you lost. It’s the kind of thing that you can never get back — what you lose from not starting off the right way at the right time."
As I contemplated this, he exclaimed, "There! you just did it!" Did what? I asked.
"You have a little in between the brows," he said. He then asked me to frown and handed me a mirror.
He also pointed out my neck, and the bands that have started to emerge with certain expressions. I was officially scared. It was time to bring in some moral backup. I admitted I was tempted by his pitch, but asked him point-blank how I could justify getting preventative Botox or laser treatments as a feminist. He regarded my question like a diplomat, which is to say skillfully and indirectly.
"It is very typical for everyone when they’re young to believe they are immortal," Dr. Wells told me. "But the smart people realize they need to be proactive ... For example, if you never clean your house, it will continue to get dirtier and messier and more unkempt — and that is the aging process. So this is housekeeping for your body. And if you’re seeing it as being too vain, then you’re looking at it from the wrong angle."
Sitting there, being persuaded by Dr. Wells for nearly 45 minutes, I have to admit, I was abstractly tempted. Maybe I was just being proud, judging this stuff. If I could budget the occasional preventative Botox or laser and really no one would be able to tell, could I really prevent the dreaded jowls from ever emerging? Could I stay relevant in my field and desirable to my partner for even longer? Maybe I was just being stubborn by refusing to "protect" my skin, the same way I'd delayed setting up an IRA until this year, or still hadn't figured out what to do about my newly-aching knees after a run.
Dr. Wells led me into a room for the peel, where a beautiful, porcelain-skinned Ukrainian aesthetician gave me the nicest facial massage of my life.
When she found out I was from Oakland, she told me her favorite writer was Jack London. We talked about my veganism and its affects on my skin. And then she put a plastic bag over my face, to seal in the custom hydrating treatment.
When she peeled it off 15 minutes later, I had to admit, my skin looked smooth and glowing. Maybe it was all the heated plastic I'd inhaled, but I felt great! I left with a bag of his custom skin products, which I used all week, and which made my skin feel absolutely lovely, if sort of newly tight.
But as the weeks following my hydrating facial wore on, a strange thing happened. I started suddenly feeling gravity's newfound pull on the muscles in my face when I frowned during the day. When I took pictures of myself for another article in some particularly florescent lighting, I was struck by how apparent my lines were. I looked good, I thought, but I also looked … older. When had this happened? It felt as if I'd jumped from looking "too young to be taken seriously," to "aging rapidly," and no one had even bothered to send me the change of Bullshit Beauty Standards address.
My mom, however, was happy to inform me. The next time I spoke to her on the phone, she mentioned my newest article, and how my uncle had commented that I looked "all grown up."
"Yes, you have that Krantz skin," she sighed, as if I'd just been diagnosed with a chronic and incurable condition. "I hardly have any wrinkles, just that area under my chin, but that's it. Too bad you didn't get my genes."
My mother uses Retin-A, and has never gone gray. I have touched up her roots many times. I don't begrudge her this decision, or think it makes her less of a feminist. I don't know how I'll feel when I get to her age or go all-gray, only that I know I fear the invisibility that might come with it.
As I furrowed and un-furrowed my brow trying to figure out my feelings on this, I spoke with my friend Mich, who'd once told me in college that she'd get her breasts lifted when she was older. The comment had always stuck with me, especially since she is the most outspoken feminist I know. Now 28, Mich told me she's since changed her mind. (I'm paraphrasing her words with her permission here.)
"I said that then because I was in school and didn't have bills yet and they were just starting to sag. Now that they've dropped, more or less, I know that's not going to make the difference of whether or not you want to f*ck me. Plus, now I know the reality of it — the time, the money — it would cost. It's just not worth it. Honestly, I just want aging to mean I give less and less of a sh*t about getting older and what other people think. I want to give less of a sh*t about everything."
I too want to give less and less of a sh*t as I get older. But while I also feel most scared about my body deteriorating on the inside, I admit to other fears. I told Mich how it was both exciting and scary for me to conceive of walking down the street and feeling invisible — that I would lose a certain understanding of my place and power in the world without being sure I was a desired sexual object. I imagine it will feel simultaneously liberating and disorienting, and it is my nature to want to be prepared for that which I have no control over.
I used Dr. Well's creams until they ran out. I feel gravity pulling on my face lightly as I type this, and I resent this newfound self-consciousness, though I don't blame anyone else for it. I don't think I'll be going back for Botox and laser treatments, and I know that if Dr. Wells is right (and he probably is), I may very well come to regret this decision, the same way I know I'll regret that it took me this long to open up a retirement account.
But I just can't bring myself to spend that money or time on my future wrinkles right now. I reserve the right to change my mind at any point, but for now, my peculiar brand of vanity dictates that I'd rather spend that money taking my friend out to dinner so that we can talk about feminism.
A few weeks back, I saw Gloria Steinem speak. She's 81 now, and as beautiful as everyone always mentions. Surprisingly, Steinem did once have some fat removed from under her eyelids — though she says she came to regret it. Now, she's against plastic surgery.
"I realize [now] that if I had plastic surgery, it would just distract people. It would be like having a bad toupee; they wouldn't listen," Steinem told the Guardian in 2011. Yet part of Steinem's power, as she's acknowledged throughout her career, lies in people's ongoing interest in her face, her beauty. She's aged gracefully, as we say, and that is rewarded in a very real way by society at large with our ongoing attention. She'll be the first to point that out, which is one of many reasons I admire her.
I used to like to think that what we call "aging gracefully" is simply the result of more smiles than frowns in a lifetime. That might be true, but it seems that I frown and furrow whenever I write or think deeply, which luckily, is much of the time. I also laugh a lot. If my face ends up showing more of a history of thinking and writing than laughing and lounging, and that ends up making me invisible in our society, I'd like to say I wouldn't care. But honestly, I suspect it's really going to suck.
As long as I get to be alive, I'm going to get older, and as a woman, that process will likely feel particularly cruel and unfair. All I can do is try to grapple with those feelings honestly, to forgive and understand any changes (mental or physical) as much as possible, as they come. I will also try to continue to value myself more for my heart and mind than for my face and body, though I happen to like both. Most of all, I would like to try to continue to give less and less of a f*ck. Because honestly, that's the direction things have been heading in so far, and it's given me much more time to enjoy where I am, rather than worrying about where I'll be.