The Eyebrow-Raising Truth
I was sitting in a chic Manhattan restaurant enjoying a bottle of wine with my boyfriend and another couple when the conversation turned to Botox. After a heavy dose of ridicule was heaped on women who "go in for that sort of thing," the other woman, Nina, looked around the table and, with a mischievous glint, asked, "Who here can’t raise her eyebrows?" As the three of them wriggled their brows, I tried to do the same — but frankly, I had no reason to be optimistic. My boyfriend took one look and was shocked. "You get Botox?" (He is an ex-boyfriend now, though my penchant for injectables had nothing to do with it. We won’t even mention Nina.)
It is curious that at a time when people spill every unsavory detail about their sex lives on television and when fessing up to a stint in rehab is becoming de rigueur, so many women remain deeply embarrassed and secretive when it comes to talking about relatively harmless beauty treatments. And yet, despite the rapidly increasing popularity of new procedures, this conspiracy of silence shows every sign of enduring. "There’s a tremendous taboo against appearing too vain," says LeslieBeth Wish, EdD, a psychologist based in Florida. "Combine that with the emphasis our society places on self-acceptance, and women don’t want to own up." Instead, she says, we often feel "shame and fear of being taken for a lightweight." In a culture that puts a great premium on youthful beauty, we are somehow not supposed to care too much about it.
Unlike the more extensive plastic surgery of the past, which required a couple of weeks of recovery time — during which women basically disappeared — it is now possible to zip out at lunch for a quick pick-me-up and then head back to the office. In 2007 alone, 4.3 million women got Botox, and more than a million others tried a different injectable or a chemical peel. With no downtime for healing, we’re left with the question of how to explain the bruises to coworkers, friends, and spouses. Honesty, it seems, is rarely an option. Pat Wexler, MD, a top New York City dermatologist with a large celebrity clientele, marvels at the stories some of her patients tell. "Their children hit them in the face with a toy; they banged into the kitchen cabinet; they bumped their face into the SUV. One woman I know let someone believe that her boyfriend hit her rather than admit she got a cosmetic procedure. I try to tell people to be brave and open, but there’s a confidence factor. Women are afraid of being ridiculed," Wexler says. Fear of being trivialized, she points out, is a large part of that. As we accomplish more and stay longer in the workforce, the last thing we want is to give people reason not to take us seriously. Think of all the female politicians who have had to endure endless scrutiny of their hairstyles and wardrobe choices. It doesn’t take a think tank to know that Nancy Pelosi would rather have people debating her view on NAFTA than what she might have done in the dermatologist’s office.
In one crucial way, treatments that target wrinkles and sagging skin are different from, say, a nose job or breast implants. "If you come out and say, ‘I’m having Botox or Restylane,’ people start to think about your age," says Jacque Lynn Foltyn, PhD, associate professor of sociology at National University in La Jolla, California, and author of the doctoral study "The Importance of Being Beautiful." "It brings up a larger issue of mortality, the realization that one is growing older and the bloom will disappear. That can be difficult to accept gracefully, and it’s not something women want to draw attention to. There’s a fear of not being loved, admired, or even hired. But as long as women lie about these things, they will continue to perpetuate the system."
Lying to Ourselves?
For a generation that has always felt somehow uniquely exempt from the aging process, seeing a reminder of it in the mirror every day can be particularly daunting, leading some to practice a form of self-delusion. "Admitting even to themselves how much they are having done reminds women they are getting older," says Fredric Brandt, MD, a dermatologist with practices in Miami and New York, and one of the nation’s experts on fillers. "Instead, they prefer to fool themselves. Women will come in and say, ‘I don’t really need much, do I?’ They want me to agree, no matter what I actually end up doing." Foltyn, too, has seen women cling to an unrealistic self-image. "Having work done and denying it is a way of denying death," she says.
Hollywood, where youth reigns supreme, certainly isn’t helping to make the case for honesty. Although there are exceptions, such as Vanessa Williams, who recently told MORE she uses Botox, and Virginia Madsen, who is a spokeswoman for Allergan’s Juvederm and Botox campaign, the vast majority of celebrities continue to deny getting any cosmetic procedures despite all the evidence — and lack of facial movement — to the contrary. Stars well into their 70s with preternaturally wrinkle-free faces insist that they simply have good genes. "These celebrities are raising the ante for everyone else," Foltyn says. "They’re reinforcing the idea that beauty is supposed to be effortless and that it’s better not to tell if you’ve had work done because it will date you, make you sound inauthentic and desperate."
The idea that natural is always better is deeply rooted in our society. Risi-Leanne Baranja, editor-in-chief of the beauty review Web site palacinka.com, says, "Whether it’s blond hair or plump lips, if you were born with certain attributes, you are considered a bit superior."
"Everyone wants to feel they were born perfect," Brandt says. Admitting that your slim hips have been helped along by lipo or that your face is smooth thanks to injectables rather than genetic destiny diminishes the advantage.
Sharon Schoenberg, 42, a public relations executive in New York City, has a don’t ask, don’t tell policy about getting Botox. "I think that if you are in your 40s and want to look good, more power to you. To me, it’s like covering my gray," she says. "Still, I guess I want people to think I look good without having to work at it. There’s a certain competitiveness, especially with my single friends. In a way, I’m saying, ‘I’m a mom, I’m running a business, and I can still look as good as you, even though my plate is full.’" Schoenberg doesn’t tell her sisters either: "They would think I was completely frivolous."
One of the more depressing aspects of this silent competition is that it belies the notion of female solidarity. "It’s a way of saying, ‘My beauty is ageless and better than yours,’" Foltyn says. "It’s like women who compete over weight and claim they don’t diet."
The Consequences of Coming Clean
Lynn Schnurnberger, coauthor of the novel The Botox Diaries, readily shares the details of her injections with other women, though she is often surprised by their reaction. "I was at a lunch recently, and when I told the other women that I used injectables, their forks dropped, even though a few of them were clearly doing the same thing," she says.
Linda Franklin, author of 12 Best Kept Beauty Secrets of the Real Cougar Woman, also practices full beauty disclosure. "Some women feel that by sharing, they will lose their edge. They think, if I can look better than the next gal when I walk into a room, that makes me feel great, and I’m not about to expose my secrets," Franklin says. "But I tell my friends everything I have done, including Botox, and they love it. Women are more responsive when you admit your flaws."
Even when women say they’re talking freely, however, they often hold something back. "I’ve seen a lot of pseudo-intimacy and pseudo-honesty," Wish says. "One friend might say to another, ‘Oh, I use Botox,’ but she forgets to mention that she also uses Juvederm, Perlane, and Restylane."
An ironic by-product of this atmosphere of deception is that the better — that is, the less obvious — the doctor’s work, the fewer referrals he or she will get. After all, if you’re busy telling friends that you are aging well naturally, the last thing you want is to run into one of them in the waiting room.
To Tell or Not to Tell Your Man?
Some women don’t mind if their friends or colleagues know what they’ve had done, but telling the men in their lives is another story.
"I’d been getting Botox for four years before I told my husband," Schnurnberger says. "The first time I came home with black-and-blue marks, I was prepared for him to say something, but he didn’t even notice. Then a couple of weeks later, he told me how pretty I looked, so I slipped into a sin of omission. Part of that comes from wanting to keep a sense of mystery alive, like not greeting your husband with a mudpack on." She was finally forced to tell him before The Botox Diaries came out. "He didn’t say anything at first, but a few days later he jokingly asked whether this was why we couldn’t afford a new sprinkler system." (Not surprisingly, money is one of the main reasons wives lie.)
Although there is the chance that men simply don’t notice, it is just as likely that they prefer you spare them the details. "Most men are just happy if you look good," Baranja says. "They don’t want to know how you get there." Wexler agrees: "They don’t want their illusion spoiled." She’s amazed at some of the willful ignorance she observes. "One woman was having numbing injections before electrolysis on her bikini line," Wexler says. "After a couple of months I asked her, ‘What does your husband say when you come home with massive bruising on your groin?’ She replied, ‘He never says a word. He’s English.’ If my husband didn’t say a word about bruises on my groin, I’d leave him."
Wish points out a compelling reason why men might prefer to be kept in the dark. "They would like to think that their woman is not so vain, trivial, or obsessed, because if she is that way, it might mean they are too. Not knowing protects men’s self-esteem." (This, despite the fact that Botox use rose four percent among men in 2007.)
But Schoenberg favors full disclosure at home: "I told my husband I wanted Botox, and we did the research together. It was a good experience. When you are that close to somebody, mystery is kind of silly. I tell him about my diet and the gym and wanting to lose weight; why wouldn’t I tell him about this?"
Franklin agrees. "Why not be honest? I am a strong, financially independent, confident, sexy woman. If I need a little filler, so what?" she says. "If you are secure in who you are, who cares how you got there? Lying is always harmful. It leaves you waiting for the day when someone finds out the truth. I really believe it would help if women were more open."
But for now, no one, not even the doctor, is immune to being hoodwinked. "A woman came in and told me about this new diet she was on," Wexler recalls. "She looked so good that I bought the book and went on the diet. When my office manager noticed, she asked what I was doing, and I said, ‘Didn’t you see how fantastic that woman looked?’ She replied, ‘Schmuck — you did lipo on her six weeks ago!’"
Emily Listfield’s most recent novel, Waiting to Surface, will be published in paperback by Washington Square Press in August.
Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2008.