How Do You Know When It's Time to Change Your Looks?

There comes a moment in life when many of us realize our outside no longer matches what’s inside. But what we may not expect is that improving how we look—our hair, our fitness, even our smile—can reverberate in profound ways

by Susan Gregory Thomas
woman looking in mirror image
Photograph: Geof Kern

It happened to me in the fall of 2010, when I was 41. The economy had pummeled my professional field, razed my husband’s and left me a haggard, frantic, work- and money-obsessed mother of three. One morning, post-shower, I glanced in the bathroom’s foggy mirror and burst into tears. I felt chewed up and spit out, and I looked even worse, with anxiety lines between my eyes so deep, they could have held a pair of chopsticks. It hit me: I couldn’t control much about my life, but I couldn’t stand looking as if life had hammered me like a linebacker. I needed to put on a game face.

Brooding over my options, I had a thought: Earlier in the year, I’d read a study published by researchers at Columbia University reporting that paralyzing certain facial muscles can decrease the intensity of certain feelings. Now, I decided, if zapping my “worry” muscles can make me look and feel better, then sign me up immediately. That very day, I—who could not possibly justify any nonessential expense—took $400 from a book advance I’d recently received and spent it on Botox injections.

They changed my life. Within 36 hours, there was a softening of the “11” lines between my brows and along my “five-head” (derma-slang for a deeply grooved forehead). My best friend, without knowing about the shots, said earnestly, “I’m happy to see you finally looking so well rested. I can tell you’re finding your way to the light at the end of the tunnel.” My husband said, “Did you cut your hair? It looks great!” My children bubbled, “You seem happier, Mama!” Over the weeks to come, experiencing the continuous-positive-feedback loop and being incapable of furrowing or scowling, I did begin to feel calmer, less panicky and better able to think about how to dislodge my family from its financial rut and end the chronic fear that had come to shadow us.

As time went on, seeing a well-rested, lineless face in the mirror inspired me to ditch the self-pity and begin thinking of new ways to deploy my career skills. I could teach; I could develop websites (I’d done it in the mid-1990s—why not get up to speed again?). I felt lighter with my children, with my life. Change seemed possible. I grasped the old Buddhist adage: Sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. And I never wanted to go back. So the cosmetic surgeon and I shook hands on a barter deal, in which I’d redo her extensive but poorly executed website and she’d keep me Botoxed. Three years later, I fully accept the principle of cosmetic therapy: One small but good change, even a haircut, can trigger a seismic burst of confidence that can propel you to take positive action. On practically anything.

One small step for beauty, one giant step for life
For me, the motivation to reclaim my looks was a series of financial setbacks. For other women, it may be a divorce, a milestone birthday, a particularly rough patch at work. Whatever the genesis, the scenario is this: You realize your life has spun way off its axis. You look in the mirror and zero in on an aspect of your appearance that you’re not happy with: a snaggletooth, a Janet Reno haircut, the muffin top that has turned into a rubber tire. And that day, for some reason, you decide to take charge of your appearance. As if by magic, that seemingly minor tweak ends up jump-starting a new life direction or outlook. According to marketers, psychologists and medical professionals in the aesthetics business, many women have this kind of aha moment. “It used to be that we thought that kind of action was simply impulsive and the result of a midlife crisis. Think of the man who buys a red sports car so he can deny his mortality by having a hot young thing sitting beside him,” says Vivian Diller, a psychologist and author of Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change and What to Do About It. “There’s another dimension now, especially with women, when we begin to see the end, and instead of thinking our time is up, we focus on how to make the most of the years we have left. Part of this is evaluating how we look and feel.”

First published in the October 2013 issue

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