How many times have you heard, or thought, or uttered this question: “What has she had done?” At this point, the phrase is so pervasive as it relates to a woman's looks, it's become part of our vernacular. Several times a week I find myself Googling a celebrity’s name followed by “age” or “neck lift.” I frequently have this very conversation with my girlfriends (or more accurately, my “women friends of a certain age”).
Why do we care so much?
With each passing year, I’m reminded of Bette Davis’s famous quote about getting up there: “Old age ain’t for sissies.” How right you were, Bette. When I turned 50, something shifted: Everyone suddenly seemed so much younger than me. That newscaster on TV? Practically pubescent. The kid fronting my new favorite band: He could be my son. And worst of all, that cashier at Whole Foods just called me ma'am. I had become middle-aged, and I wasn't sure how to process that.
Some women feel defiant. Justine Bateman (famous for playing Mallory on Family Ties back in the '80s) is one of them. She wrote a book, Face: One Square Foot of Skin, about women, aging, and why she’ll never get plastic surgery or any kind of cosmetic procedure.
It captured my attention as I was sitting in my dermatologist’s office waiting to get Botox.
I’m about the same age as fifty-something Bateman, and I am her total flipside. Bateman’s philosophy is a call to arms: There’s nothing wrong with your older face, and it doesn’t need fixing. So why is there such negativity—hatred, horror even—directed at aging female faces? The answer, according to Face, is that we live in a sexist and ageist society in which media and beauty companies hammer us with “anti-aging” BS. I couldn’t agree more.
Bateman also writes about the infuriating double standard of how men don’t experience these same pressures, and have innate confidence as they age. There’s so much judgement aimed at older women, while the weathered visages of leathery old geezers like Clint Eastwood, Sam Elliott, Keith Richards, and every one of the Rolling Stones are not only okay, they’re considered sexy. Preach, Justine!
Face is comprised of 47 fictional vignettes that seek to explore this issue. Like Bateman herself, the women in these “snapshots” wear their cosmetically untouched faces like wrinkled badges of honor. Very cool. Almost all of them consider that getting something done (even using pricey anti-aging creams) is an anti-feminist betrayal. One protagonist ends a relationship with a friend who had a face lift.
Because on top of all the important questions that Bateman poses, I’d add another: When it comes to our personal decisions about injections, why do we judge each other so much? In turning on each other, aren't we submitting to the most insidious part of the cultural convention that Bateman rails against in her book?
We can act like Mean Girls writ large, and famous people are fair game for all kinds of criticism, even vitriol. When Jennifer Lopez recently said she’d never had Botox or cosmetic surgery, social media trolls went on the attack, insisting the secret to the star's glowing skin had to be cosmetic enhancement. Is it so unbelievable that she's just blessed with really good DNA and an extensive skin care regimen? And ultimately, and more importantly, who cares? As Joan Rivers would say, “Oh, grow up!”
While I respect a woman’s choice to not have anything done, and applaud those who love the lines on their lived-in faces, the reality for many women is far more complex. Take me for instance.
I’m a beauty writer and editor in a youth-centric, selfie-obsessed media universe where millennial editors write earnest first-person essays about how they're aging when they turn 30. It gets to you. But that’s not why I get Botox and filler. Neither is it insecurity, self-hatred, people pleasing (especially men), age shame, or wanting to look young. I’m old enough to know that cosmetic tweaks don't impart self-worth. But they sure make me feel better when I look in the mirror—these little modifications improve my mood and outlook. Does that mean on some level I'm succumbing to a definition of beauty defined by centuries of sexism? That's Bateman's thesis. Not mine.
During COVID lockdown, I was stuck in my apartment alone for months and got pretty depressed. I considered going to therapy or moving back to Los Angeles. It was bad. One day I decided to finally give my gray roots a desperately-needed touch up with DIY dye. When I was done, voila! A whole new me! I hadn’t realized just how transformative fresh hair color could be. I felt more like myself, rejuvenated, pulled together—game on! I had the same feeling when I was safely able to have my Shar-Pei-like forehead smoothed with Botox.
This is the therapeutic power of beauty for me. We all want to feel confident and strong, to be our best selves. If coloring your hair helps you to do that, great. If it’s getting some Botox or filler, also great. Dermatologic touch-ups and my over-the-top skin care regimen are proactive ways of caring for myself. For me, it’s empowering. It’s taken me all of these years to finally accept myself, to like how I look (most days), and to come into my own power. Botox and filler didn’t do that. I did that. And just because I have some “work done” doesn’t make me superficial or less authentic.
Reading the stories in Bateman's book, I felt like a vegan was giving me the side-eye as I ate a bacon cheeseburger. Let me enjoy my burger. I hope you enjoy your salad. No big deal. In yoga class, you hear the expression “stay on your mat,” which means you should try not to compare your practice to others. Basically, you do you. It’s a good life lesson. Not everyone’s goals or journey will be the same. Life can get challenging as we get older, especially as women. Society judges us. Men judge us. Let's not judge each other.
The women that I admire, that inspire me as I get older, embrace their age in their own way. Jane Fonda. Patti Smith. Catherine O’Hara. Tina Turner. Angela Bassett. Some have had work, some haven’t, and honestly, what does it matter? The common denominator in all of them is supreme individuality. They're strong, confident, and seemingly happy in their own skin—whether it’s lined, lifted, filled, or totally natural.
I’m fully here for Bateman’s viewpoint and I think she’s a badass woman who doesn’t need any damn fixing. I also think I’m pretty badass, even though I get cosmetic touch-ups and revel in a beauty routine that can easily take most of a Law & Order SVU episode. So thank you, Justine, for starting this important discussion. Let’s talk about it, ladies—about aging, and empowerment—without judgement.
There’s room for all of us in this conversation.
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