May 2006

The Nation Reviewed

More than a little bit wrong

By Kaz Cooke

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

If I had woken up fifteen years ago with the face I have now, I would have screamed the house down. Not even with the filthiest of hangovers would my eyelids have been this droopy, the lines between my eyebrows so deep, the bags under my eyes such a precise storm-cloud grey.

You know what’s happened, don’t you? It’s the fifteen years: I’m 43. The same age as Catherine Zeta Jones. Five years younger than Sharon Stone, who looks 24 – admittedly, a 24-year-old whose face was taken off in a wheat-threshing accident and then sewn back on, higher and tighter. She looks odd, but she doesn’t look 48. Paying to look strangely alien is now preferable to looking older and real for free.

If one more man says something like, “Oh, has Sharon Stone had some work done?” I will slap. Here’s a hint: if a woman was starring in movies fifteen years ago and she’s still in movies, she hasn’t so much “had work done” as had her entire head reconstructed.

The question becomes not “Have they had work done?” but “Is it good work, or bad?” Why do Madonna and Nicole Kidman have skin that looks like a peeled boiled egg? Why don’t their foreheads move? Somebody who has had their face altered, either permanently or temporarily, always looks wrong. Sometimes they look a lot wrong (Mary Tyler Moore, Melanie Griffith), sometimes they look expressionless, and sometimes they seem sort of fine – except there’s something just wrong with a face that seems to bear no relation to the person’s neck, hands, age or life experience.

Some of the chaps are getting it done, but usually later than the women. Blokes are allowed to look ‘hardened’, ‘grizzled’, ‘rugged’ and ‘tough’ for longer. Apply those words to an older woman and see how far you get. There’s a squad of older actors with ruched faces, such as Bob Hoskins, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood (actually, I think he’s finally succumbed), Michael Douglas (sorry, how did his name get in?) and Burt Reynolds (OK, stopping now). But representing the ladies of an ineluctable age we have … oh. Bear with me. Um … Dame Judi Dench. And Dame Maggie Smith.

Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, goes around shooting people in the face, yet he’s allowed to look like a walrus in formaldehyde. Senator Hillary Clinton – and every other senior female politician in America – already has a face that’s a-little-bit-wrong-but-at-least-not-actually-old. And if you don’t think the cosmetic-fiddling phase has reached Australia yet, get an eyeful of some of our newsreaders, current-affairs presenters and other telly spokesfaffers.

Even in their twenties, women are having injections of collagen, other lip-plumping treatments and Botox (a poison that the body slowly absorbs). Botox temporarily paralyses muscles, which prevents facial expressions and the lines they cause. It comes in standard units, each of which is enough to kill a mouse. A cosmetic dose is anything from twenty-five to sixty units.

An Australian ‘cosmetic physician’ told a newspaper’s weekend magazine recently that he regularly injects his wife’s face with Botox. “I use it in the vertical creases between her eyebrows, in her crow’s-feet and to sculpt her brow … if anything I’d say giving her Botox has prevented arguments. We get on better because she doesn’t have that frown that makes her look angry and unapproachable.” What will the man do when his wife shows signs of real ageing or annoyance? Remove her head? And this woman has two small daughters. Why they’re not all chasing him from the house with flaming torches and unapproachable expressions is beyond me.

All the women’s magazines, from the glossy imports to the local gossip-tabloids, regard cosmetic surgery and more temporary procedures (of the Spakfilla and rigid-muscle variety) as par for the course. Side effects are almost never enumerated. Even, with its freak-show before-and-after pictures of celebrities, is accompanied by ads for cosmetic surgery.

Of course, being skinny with big bazoombas – rarely achieved without brutal dieting and exercise, and saline-filled implants – is considered necessary for today’s Hollywood actress, who may at any moment have to pout and pose almost entirely in the nuddy for Vanity Fair’s celebrity photographers, even if, as in the case of Desperate Housewives star Teri Hatcher, the interview is about being sexually abused as a child.

But what of ordinary us? What leads normal folk down this drastic path, now so well trodden it has become humdrum? A friend recently asked for guidance: a woman at work turned up after a holiday with new, gigantic breasts. “What’s the protocol?” he wondered. “Don’t say anything and don’t look at them,” I advised. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s what I thought.” Well, you can’t say “Phwoarr,” because it would be rude and unprofessional, and you can’t say, “Did you hate yourself so much that you paid people to mutilate you? You were beautiful enough before, and I’m sorry you couldn’t see that,” because that would hurt her feelings. Instead, everyone will feel weird and pretend not to notice.

A friend of a friend was shocked at a post-injections photo of herself. “I have got trout-pout,” she observed. Her girlfriends don’t want to tell her how much food and drink she dribbled from her desensitised mouth in the week after her injections, either. Anyway, then she went off for the next lot.

Perhaps we’d be happier if we adopted the approach of yet another dame, romance authoress Barbara Cartland, who sank into her lolly-pink, chiffon-swathed, chintz-addled elderly years with a platinum coiffure that made every individual hair count, peering through squished-spider mascara. In each set of talons (tipped with duco-strength nail polish) she clutched a Pekingese dyed the colour of fairy floss, as she happily dictated dreadful piffle to a minion. Dame Barbara had taken to rubbing extract of honey on her ancient face and was pleasantly astonished that it erased wrinkles. “After one application,” she said, “I found my skin was softer and much less lined.” The fact that this happened at the same time as she was losing her sight never occurred to her.

It’s a faultless strategy and one I commend to all as we sag gracelessly into a future where we look old and tired but refuse to acknowledge it. Although I don’t want to bother with the Pekingese.

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