Illustration of woman with bandages
Illustration: Vivienne Flesher
What woman over, say, 40 hasn't at least entertained the idea? But when her good friend went in for a total overhaul—eyes, lips, chin, neck, the works—a 53-year-old we'll call Susan Logan wasn't prepared for a confusing case of facelift envy.
My dear friend, whom I'll call Beth, and I have shopped together for cosmetics ever since we met in college, but our perspectives couldn't be more different. In the fancy Fifth Avenue department store where we found ourselves one morning, she headed directly to the La Prairie counter and began talking to the young saleswoman about eyeliners with the precision of a chemist, which she was. My own approach was much less focused: I wandered until something caught my fancy. "Freeze your wrinkles away," intoned one of the vendors, who looked a good deal older than most of her colleagues. "Try it," she wheedled, catching my eye, "you'll love how cold it is." "Why not?" I thought. Who knew; maybe the cold would counteract my hot flashes.

"So," said the woman, as I settled myself on the stool, "what line do you want to erase?"

I sighed. Where to begin? "I guess these," I said, pointing to the parentheses framing my mouth.

"Oh, honey," she said, laughing, "you'll never get rid of those. Nothing will. But how about this—" indicating a furrow over my left eyebrow I'd never noticed or cared about...until right now.

As promised, the cream was cold, almost too cold, the sensation vaguely medicinal, and in the end I didn't buy it. I didn't buy anything that day. And Beth, who usually drops hundreds of dollars, left after 90 minutes with only a lip gloss. "What's up?" I asked her. "Where's your stash?"

"I'll tell you," she said, taking my arm as we walked south on Fifth Avenue, "but only if you promise not to say a word to anyone."

"What are we, back in junior high school?"

"Promise," she insisted. So I did.

"I'm having my face done," she said.

Forget the freeze cream: This was a shock to my system.

"I thought I'd have just eye work," she continued, talking rapidly, as if hoping her explanation would outpace my surprise and whatever other feelings I might be harboring. "But the doctor, well, she was so persuasive. She kept gently showing me all these flaws." In the end, Beth was having almost everything tucked, plumped, firmed, and sculpted—her eyes, mouth, lips, chin, even her neck.

"So you don't think I'm awful and vain?" she asked.

"No, not at all," I said, though in fact I did, at least in part. As I heard myself say all the right things (how good it is to do something positive for yourself, why shouldn't she?), I was aware of suppressing a decidedly mixed cocktail of feelings I couldn't possibly have articulated.

"I just looked around my lab one day," she explained—she worked for a pharmaceutical company—"and I realized I was the oldest person there. And I couldn't stand to think of myself as matronly, especially when I don't feel old inside. Bert"—her husband—"understood instantly. Actually, he's completely psyched. Once I had his support, it was an easy decision." She paused. "What about you? Do you ever think about it?"

"Sure," I said. Every middle-aged woman puts in time before the mirror, pulling back the sagging skin around her mouth and eyes. "But I'm too afraid. Surgery scares me."

We left it at that, colluding in the fantasy that I was being honest, that I'd hit some kind of bedrock truth that obviated the need for further discussion.

At home I couldn't stop thinking about it—both Beth's decision and my declaration that I'd never take the plunge. Since she'd sworn me to secrecy, there was no one I could confide in. Except, of course, my husband, who fell under the spousal privilege clause.

Predictably, he wasn't much help. "You want one?" he asked. "Do it."

"It's so expensive. And what if the scalpel slips? I'll be disfigured for life and it will be my own damn fault."

"So don't," he said. "It's not as if you need it."

That was the most confounding thing he could have said. Was he being kind, pretending not to notice what was happening to my 53-year-old face? Or was he really that oblivious? And if he was, giving him a reality tour was the last thing I wanted to do. Once I pointed out the tracks of time, he'd never not notice them.

Beth would be the perfect person to talk to about this, but in the month leading up to her procedure, she needed nothing but unmitigated support. I reassured her endlessly about her highly recommended surgeon who wouldn't make a mistake, about the anesthesia she'd easily tolerate, about the pain and sleep medication she'd have available. We even agreed on the alibi she'd circulate among our friends to explain her sudden absence: an unexpected two-week business trip with a two-week vacation tacked on. But as she grew calmer, I became more uneasy.

It isn't as if I'm some kind of purist. I cling to the illusion of youth as stubbornly as anyone: I color my hair, wear makeup, and throw my money away on ridiculously expensive eye gel and face cream. In one sense, having a facelift could be seen as simply the next step along the continuum.

But something stayed my hand from making an appointment. Although it wasn't fear, it was something equally powerful I couldn't name. By the time Beth went under the knife, I still hadn't figured it out.

Twenty-four hours post-op, home after spending the night at the doctor's facility, Beth phoned.

"Why didn't you stop me?" she cried.

"Does it hurt?"

"It hurts everywhere. You can't imagine what I look like—bruises, swelling. I can't eat, I can't sleep.... You should have talked me out of it," she trailed off.

She wouldn't let me come visit her. We spoke every day, though, and each conversation brought fresh complaints: Her face was so swollen she couldn't read or even watch TV, the bruises were turning brighter shades of purple rather than lessening, she had to sleep sitting up.

On the tenth day, she said I could come over. "The door's open," she yelled, when I rang the bell. I let myself in, and then I saw her.

"I look horrible, I know," she said as she heard me gasp. But I wasn't reacting to the purple bruises, bulges, and swelling. I gasped because I could see, through the god-awful mess that was her face, how the surgery had erased at least ten years. Maybe more. She looked closer in age to her 20-year-old daughter than to me. It had worked. She was transformed.

In her kitchen she talked about the special makeup she'd have to wear for at least a month when going out, about her follow-up appointments, about the fact that her face wouldn't be "set" for an entire year. I listened, but all I wanted to do was stare unabashedly at her, the way you do at a new baby, trying to take in all the available information, not miss a crease or an eyelash. The more closely I looked, the more depressed I became. We'd gone everywhere together, and now I couldn't see myself going anywhere with her. I'd be the matron, the invisible older sister. Maybe I'd be mistaken for her aunt.

Lost in these mortifying fantasies, I scarcely realized that Beth was directing a series of questions at me. What, she wanted to know, should she tell people who noticed that she looked different? Should she come out and say she'd had work done? Should she flat-out deny it?

"Didn't you think of this beforehand?" I asked.

"I should have, I know," she said, sounding embarrassed. "But getting through the surgery took so much energy I couldn't think beyond it." I understood. When I was pregnant, I could only read about its progression one month at a time; skipping ahead made me too anxious.

"I don't know," I stammered. "I guess you'll have to play it by ear."

"I can't do that," she said. "I need a prepared answer. People will ask."

"Maybe," I said, "but maybe they won't. Maybe they'll ask if you changed your haircolor. In fact, maybe that's the best outcome; people think you look good but they're not quite sure why...."

"Are you crazy?" she cried. "Do you have any idea how much this cost? Fourteen thousand dollars! After all that money and all this pain, I'd better look more than 'good.' I want people to notice that I look different. I didn't go through all this for nothing, did I?" She sounded panicky.

It was a question I pondered all the way home.

"Well, how does she look?" asked my husband the moment I walked in the door.

"I thought you didn't care about facelifts," I said.

"I don't," he replied. "I just want to know how she looks."

"Fabulous," I said. "It really worked."

"Really..." He sounded captivated. Who wouldn't?

In the bathroom, I plugged in the magnification mirror I use to put on makeup and tweeze my eyebrows. Placing my fingertips under my chin, I tugged at the skin around my mouth until those parentheses disappeared. It wasn't that I didn't want to lose them permanently. In fact, I was desperate to. But of what use was a young face attached to a lined neck, creping skin, and wrinkled knees? A new face demanded a new body. Otherwise that expanse of surgically smoothed skin would look nothing but incongruous, even ridiculous.

Only then did I let my longing wash over and through me, this impossible desire for that which could never be recaptured or re-created no matter how deft the surgeon's hands. For me to have a facelift, I slowly realized, was to broadcast the depth of my despair and grief for my lost looks. If it was successful, each time I peered in the mirror or heard a compliment I'd be reminded of the overriding vanity that drove me to so drastic a measure. Ironically, the only way not to be constantly reminded of how vain I really felt was to keep the old face, the one etched with time, the one about which I could no longer be vain.

Oh well, I shrugged, the anguish I'd felt since our shopping expedition finally lifting. We all have to make friends with our faces sooner or later. Even Beth. She'd bought herself some time, it was true. But reality would come calling; it always does. I'd rather deal with it now while I still had some energy. In fact, I felt energetic enough to take a drive to the department store. Maybe I'd buy myself a new lipstick, almost a gloss, in a light shade that flattered older faces. And a lipstick primer to fill in those tiny lines, the ones I'll never erase but can learn to live with.

The author has written for More and The New York Times.

As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.


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