Gwyneth Paltrow’s Painful Take on Beauty

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

If someone told you that you could conquer wrinkles and age spots with a quick, non-invasive procedure that was “quite painful, like having your face smacked with a rubber band that has an electric shock in it,” would you? That’s how Gwyneth Paltrow describes Thermage, a laser treatment that tightens and smooths skin, without breaking it, keeping it firmly outside the realm of plastic surgery. On top of the initial pain, Thermage and other lasers cause side effects like redness, swelling, and blistering; some patients can actually get burned. Which brings up the question, why do women continue to endure such pain in the name of beauty? Is it really worth it?

Suffering in the name of beauty isn’t new. In the Middle Ages aristocratic women would bleed for short periods of time to make their skin more pale and look less like the tan commoners who worked outdoors. Starting in the 10th through this last century, many Chinese women endured the painful practice of foot binding. They would suffer through broken toes and bones in pursuit of smaller feet (larger tootsies were better for working in the field—not marrying up). In Roman times, white lead was used in face creams and hair dye despite brutal side effects like infertility and mental health issues.

Today, painful beauty treatments—ripping your hair out from the root, peeling off your top layer of skin, and injecting yourself— are just one more step in many women’s regular routine. Waxing and tweezing are standard, with the torture factor amped up if you go Brazilian. Chemical peels casually remove the top layer of skin to reveal softer baby-like skin—after a few days of redness and burning. Facials involve harrowing extractions and women line up to have doctor’s inject them with fillers to eliminate wrinkles. That it’s a neurotoxin doesn’t seem to get in the way of Botox’s popularity.

Where do we draw the line? Of course, the answer is so personal. For Paltrow, the hour or so of torture is worth it to reverse the clock—and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone to say she looks anything less than amazing. For others, the idea of subjecting yourself to anything masochistic is inconceivable. What would you do in the name of beauty?