When I hit my 50s, I decided that my Era of Personal Experimentation was over. Five decades of trying to figure out what style of dressing worked with my body, to say nothing of my personality. Five decades of growing, then chopping off, my hair; of looking for the skin cream that would bring out the essential me; of rising on stilettos, lowering into earth shoes, and generally contorting the way I hit the ground. Of fighting my inclination to be natural.
As a child reading fairy tales, I understood that the angry stepmother looked ugly because she was mean; if the evil witch looked hideous it was because she was nasty. No amount of disguising could hide the fact that beauty (or the lack thereof) begins on the inside. But then I grew up and forgot the important life lessons of those stories, giving in to the anxious feeling that I would be a better person if only I could lose ten (20) pounds or have a good haircut. That kind of self-improvement became my path.
The path I want is one on which I never pretend I'm other than who I am. My new motto: "Keep it real." This applies in all matters—of the heart, the mind, the wardrobe, and the face. And I'm not wasting too many brain cells fretting about what gravity is doing to my body.
On the other hand, I do fret about extreme enhancement and its potential side effects. I've spent my entire life showing my emotions on my face (I blush at the slightest mortification). And I love to read other people's faces. In fact, we all do: Reading faces is one of the ways humans make sense of the world. Spend time with a baby and watch how intensely she stares at you, learning who you are, taking her cue from your cooing laughter to respond likewise. Now think about how that works beyond infancy—as we observe the knowing frown of a teacher, the furtive glance of a friend, or a lover's deep gaze. Extreme enhancement—freezing the small muscles in the face, for example—gets in the way of these profoundly intimate observations. Recent research suggests that Botox can interfere with our ability to connect. When you frown, my forehead pulls in a sympathetic gesture, prompting neurons to send a message to my brain that helps me feel your worry. This is empathy. If my face can't move, can't mimic yours—in all the range of beautiful expressions that dance around your words—I will have a harder time empathizing with you.
I'm not categorically against all cosmetic interference. But I have a healthy respect for—no, fear of—surgery. Having once had to undergo surgery for a life-threatening reason, I avoid any encounter with a knife if I have a choice.
Don't get me wrong: The Keep It Real School of Beauty does not advocate Keep It Dirty, or even Keep It Messy. I recall the look of astonishment that crossed one man's face when he met me the second time (the first meeting having been harried) and said, "You certainly do polish up nicely." Which reminds me that old silver has a gorgeous patina.
But bright, shiny gold has a dazzling allure as well. And maybe the most beautiful thing of all is that we live in a time of incredible choices. We have the freedom to choose what we look like. My way of keeping it real doesn't have to be yours. Besides, I reserve the prerogative to change my mind—along with the right to be the first to laugh at myself. I'm keeping it real now because it feels good. But who knows? I might wake up one day and realize that, though I feel beautiful on the inside, my neck has slid rather unceremoniously onto my chest. I count myself lucky to have the right to choose the face I'm presenting to the world. Real, unreal, or surreal.
Dominique Browning's latest book is Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas, and Found Happiness (Plume).
More On The Power Of Being Yourself
From the November 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!