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On the Contrary: The Lure of Pretty Poison

June 30, 2002
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You grew up fervently believing the feminist manifesto that women are so muchmore than their looks. That beauty is on the inside. That everyone should justchill out and be comfortable with her God-given body, thank you very much.Breast implants? Not for you. Face lift? Please. You’ve always planned to agepeacefully and let the gradual accumulation of wrinkles serve as testimony tothe vitality of your life.

Then tragedy befell you. You aged, and the highly elastic, devil-may-carecomplexion you once possessed has started to droop like wet panties on the line.In particular, you’ve been preoccupied by the deepening of a frown line carvedby years of glacial concentration at the computer. Even when you’re happy you’rescowling, and you think you’re starting to frighten the children on yourblock.

Then you read about Botox, a purified form of botulinum toxin, one of themost poisonous substances on earth, which can be used to paralyze the musclesthat cause wrinkles. Your first thought? Sign me up! Your second? Don’t besilly, you’re not that kind of person. You value brains and ambition, notbeauty.

With a trill of gay laughter, you admit your near miss with Botox to afriend, who confesses she’s been thinking about the same thing. A week later,the two of you are dining with others and she mentions to the group that she’sbeen thinking of getting a teeny hit of Botox injected into her frown line.

"You’re going to do what?" asks one woman, as if she’d just heardabout a scheme involving convicts and methamphetamines. You silently note thatthe speaker has painted nails and dyed blond hair.

"Why can’t you just age gracefully?" asks another woman, who at 32 hasyet to fully understand the meaning of the term.

As the group condemns your friend’s plan, you sheepishly manage to affect apolite disinterest, as if they were talking about a TV show you’ve never seen.The message they’re sending is clear: Botox is bad, which only confirms yourown original beliefs about appearance-altering procedures.

Still, you obsess about the glowering image in the mirror every morning. Youknow it’s irrational, but you believe that life would be so much better ifonly you could chase away this one itsy-bitsy wrinkle.

Before you know what’s happened, you’re sitting in a dermatologist’soffice surrounded by six women in bright sleeveless shirts who’ve gathered forwhat the doctor cheerfully calls her "monthly Botox party." This is sooo notyou, you think as you frown into an issue of Architectural Digest and try topretend you’re seeing the doctor for something more dermatologicallysignificant, like herpes.

Your name is called, the shots are injected into your "glabella" -- amedical term you find hilarious for some odd reason -- and five minutes lateryou’re back in your car peering into the rear-view mirror for any signs ofyouthful paralysis. You feel giddy as you exit the parking lot. You’ve doneit! However, by the time you get home, a weighty mantle of guilt has descended.You feel like you’ve betrayed some fundamental part of yourself.

You pick up the newspaper on the way into the house, open it, and read thatBotox has just been approved for cosmetic treatment (that’s a relief!) andthat procedures involving the drug have increased 46 percent in the last 12months. Furthermore, Botox injections were rated number one among the 8.5million cosmetic procedures performed last year. Phew! At least you’re notalone.

As you scan the newspaper, you start to notice ads for some of those othercosmetic procedures. You see seductive pronouncements for tummy tucks, eyelifts,hair removal, laser skin resurfacing, Viagra, and treatments for male patternbaldness. These are surrounded by articles on teeth whitening, buying theperfect pair of jeans, and how to spruce up your skin for the summer.

Wait just a gosh-darned minute, you say, with dawning awareness. Why shouldyou feel guilty for trying to improve your appearance when you live in a culturethat reinforces the importance of youthful good looks at every turn? In fact,research by social psychologists confirms that we collectively believe insomething called the physical-attractiveness stereotype. We believe thatbeautiful people are happier, warmer, and more sociable, intelligent, andsuccessful. Let’s face it: that’s an awful lot of social pressure to resist.

(It occurs to you that you may be getting a bit defensive about all this, butyou ignore it.)

After looking at your frozen glabella in the mirror for the 28th time, youcome to the conclusion that when external forces are strong enough, everybodyhas a tendency to act in ways they originally thought impossible. It’s likethe person who says he’d never betray a coworker, until that coworker’sirrational behavior starts eroding morale and threatening profitability. Makingdecisions in the abstract is one thing. Being tested on those decisions isanother.

Realizing all of this, you silently promise not to judge others who do thingsyou would never consider doing, and to lighten up on yourself for doing thingsyou never thought you could. You were 20 when you vowed never to alter yourappearance. Now that you’re 42 and your appearance has gone along and altereditself without your help, you have no choice but to beat it back intosubmission.

Even if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for the kids in theneighborhood.

Workforce, June 2002, pp. 20-22 -- Subscribe Now!


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