The author with her son.
Among the many things to love about Joan Rivers, here’s one: she opened up the conversation about a topic a lot of women feel uncomfortable discussing: cosmetic surgery. By standing out on stage recounting the stories of her procedures (too many of them, in my opinion, but I’ll never argue with any woman’s right to make that choice), she gave women permission to acknowledge an experience so many of us either undergo, or think about, in secret—going under the knife.
I haven’t had a facelift, but I understand the impulse to do it. If you’d asked me about this twenty years ago, or even ten, I would have told you, “Never.”
Then somewhere around the time I turned fifty, which sounds young to me now, I started seeing an unfamiliar face in the mirror. Mine. I don’t need to go into the details, but lines showed up around my mouth and my cheeks seemed to be slipping. (Not a whole lot, but enough to give new meaning to the phrase “her face fell”.) I was never a big eye shadow user, but it occurred to me one day that if I were, there wouldn’t be much point to putting it on because my eyelids were now largely obscured by the skin above them.
None of it was that dramatic, but if you’ve gotten to know your face pretty well over the course of a few decades, it feels like you’re losing an old friend when it starts changing—except you’re the friend.
Around this time, I found myself engaging in a new ritual in the mornings. I’d stand in front of the mirror with my hands on either side of my cheeks (like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone) and slide them up towards the ceiling, trying to catch a glimpse of my old familiar self. She was there in the mirror, but only as long as I kept my hands in position. And that’s when the facelift fantasy started creeping into my brain.
I fought it. I wasn’t ever a beauty, or someone who made her living by her looks. What does it matter if a writer gives the appearance of having a few miles on her? It worked OK for Lillian Hellman.
Except that it wasn’t beauty I missed, or even youth, it’s that I was having a hard time looking tired, cross, even. I still had plenty of energy and new ideas, and passion to implement them, but you wouldn’t have thought that to look at me. My face didn’t match my spirit.
Botox opened the door. Getting a couple of quick pin pricks in my forehead and watching the frown lines smooth out and disappear—all for a couple hundred bucks—allowed me to start thinking about other places that could use some attention. I started noticing ads for products like Restylane, fillers you could have injected into the sagging parts of your face to lift them to their former heights. I went for a consultation.
“You’ve lost a lot of elasticity,” the doctor told me, surveying the skin around my neck. “You have a thin face to begin with. The older you get, the more fat loss occurs under the surface. And menopause just robs the skin of collagen; it’s done a job on you.”
I opted for the needle instead of the knife, and I steered clear of any injection that could rob my face of expression or mobility. I wasn’t interested in plumping up my lips or stretching my skin so tight that it looked like you could bounce a quarter off my cheek. Just a gentle nudge in a northerly direction of what was relentlessly heading south—like giving your panty hose a tug when they start sagging at the knees.
The problem with the injections (other than cost), was how I looked for the first seven days after getting them. I never knew whether I’d have one or two faint yellow patches or giant purple splotches that would last for days. Even with more than usual makeup covering my face, people would ask me what happened.
They get you coming and going here. First you spend your childhood and adolescence learning how important it is to look a certain way. If you achieve this, people give you compliments and tell you how good you look. Then you start looking less good, or less the way you’re supposed to, and you feel badly about that. Even, oddly, ashamed—as if it’s your fault that you don’t look as youthful any more. Then if you actually do something about this—like sign up for Restylane injections or cosmetic surgery—there’s a whole new round of shame attached, for having now openly acknowledged that you care about your looks. As if the whole of our culture hasn’t been telling you since childhood that you should!
I know a number of smart, strong, independent women who have chosen to check into a hotel for five days after getting a facelift. They don’t want to deal with all the judgment surrounding their decision, and I understand. Once, after getting injections, when the bruises looked particularly bad and I didn’t feel like explaining, I told the person who commented that I’d fallen off my bike. Now I wasn’t just vain, I was a liar. That was the moment I decided that if I got injections I wasn’t going to make excuses, I was going to tell the truth.
Joan Rivers did that. About her cosmetic surgery and just about every other aspect of her hugely flawed and totally human life. Maybe some of us thought she had more surgery than made sense, or ended up looking less like a younger version of herself than a weirder one, but I’d never argue her right, or that of any other woman (or man), to choose their course of aging.
About a year ago, I gave up the injections, by the way. All but Botox, I’ll never go back to that old, mad-looking forehead. I decided the Restylane had started to make me look less like a younger version of myself than like myself-on-Restylane. (Giving up wine for a month, by the way, had a pretty dramatic effect on my face. The only problem was how much I missed wine.)
I don’t say I’ll never go under the knife. I tell myself, I’m taking this aging thing one day at a time. I don’t pretend it isn’t happening, but I’m not about to throw in the towel and let gravity have its way with me either, not without putting up a fight.
There is a lot of comfort in knowing I’m not alone in this one. Every man and woman alive has to deal with what happens to our faces as we age (if we live long enough to get there, anyway). And that makes us the lucky ones.