Central Beauty: Short Essays on How Lipstick, Pantyhose, Corsets, High Heels, Bras, and Botox Help and Hurt
Let’s just say your first interaction with the concept of contouring came with the arrival of the jelly bean-like four cylinder Japanese autos of the ‘90s, known to local intellectuals as “rice burners,” and thought to be the perfect monthly payment to nationalist disloyalty. See, to not buy American was not only un-American—perhaps a layer atop your amassing ultra-hipness—it was also sportier, smoother, more sleek, and easier on the wallet: the long game. To contour was to defy convention. To contour was to reshape.
Later, criss-crossing your maroon Honda Accord across the country, at the peak of its goodness to you the most stolen car in America—twice, later, boosted, from the same block at the geographic conclusion of this wily zig zag: say, LA’s Koreatown or New York’s Bed-Stuy—contouring was about breaking away. Later, having much earlier discovered the breaking away sensation of a woman’s unwrapped body a-wrap in yours, but not before perhaps watching pubescent opponents in Madden NFL break away for touchdowns, you’d discover the architecture of famed Brazilian visionary Oscar Niemeyer during a letdown of a trip to Brasilia, undertaken with a woman who’d actually broken away on the sly… with a guy called Raul.
Niemeyer claimed the contours of his silken, mixed-use builds mimicked that of the female form, and you agreed as Raul remarked on said woman’s unexpected lipstick choice.Nowadays, although less about steel shaping or flag planting but equally about performance and allure, to contour is still, in its essence, about reshaping that which lies ahead. That which greets the wind. That which blabbers out an assigned name at cocktail parties: the face. The mug with which we’re dealt.
And so you see contour pencils, and contour color palettes, and #sponsored tips, to jelly-bean like your otherwise “rigid” or “flat” or “uninteresting” face into a kind of curvaceous Pritzker Prize winner. Add Facetune and you’re out the door. Er, of perception.The movement, if we can call it that, is one of many ancillary qualifiers atop the endless, painful pile of beauty myth-building. It starts in the fashion campaigns that proceed these editorial pages, then fans outward, amidst cyberbullying, under eating disorders, alongside ass injections, inside whitening creams, and across Bellyband adverts on the back of LA’s buses. Some, of course, more harmful than others.
And so, if contouring is one of many of today’s overwrought beauty regimes—fun for a date or a party perhaps but not to accessorize a bathrobe ahead of a Postmates sushi burrito drop—where do the tireless objects of subjugated female beauty land? Exceedingly off the scale of ridiculous? Inarguably essential? Oppressive? Emancipating? A safety blanket (made of wire and lace)? It really depends on who you talk to. Shit is complex!
And so we’ve cobbled together six impressionistic takes on some contraptions that have proven inextricable (albeit some more symbolically than others) from the Eternal Beauty pursuit and/or demise: Lipstick, Pantyhose, Corsets, High Heels, Bras, and Botox. For without beauty, as Faust, or Faulkner, or someone said, we haven’t any purpose. And without Eternity, we haven’t any sleep.
Forward by Matthew Bedard
Written by Ellen O'Connell Whittet
My grandmother bought me my first bra on the last day of 6th grade, a white training bra from the Junior’s department of Robinsons-May. I didn’t know what I was training for, exactly—womanhood, maybe, the secrets of what we kept under our clothes to appear modest and feminine—but I wore that bra until the fabric frayed. I certainly didn’t need it, but my grandmother knew that while all my friends were blooming small tender breasts, I felt left out, a child in some ways but not in others. That bra allowed me to fit in and taught me that what it took to be liked was often just wearing the right thing at the right time. My first bra taught me about the appearances of womanhood, even when my body was far from the processes.
The first bra I ever bought myself was purple with white lace. I got it the year I studied abroad in Paris, after I saw French women’s bras peeking from underneath their shirts in warmer months. I remember every bra I have ever loved—the black one I wore until it lost its elasticity, the strapless one I ripped the tags off the morning of my wedding, the sports bras that criss-cross my back. I still love the way they all look on a drying line in my back yard, or on the shower curtain rod, alongside faded socks or well-worn t-shirts. They have all felt like beautiful secrets I keep to myself, against my skin, under my clothes. I still have that purple one somewhere, a talisman of beauty left by a version of me that seems distant and young.
Earlier this year, a breast surgeon asked me to remove my bra so she could tell me whether I was a good candidate for a full mastectomy. The bra sat in my lap like a sign of surrender, its cups open to the ceiling. I had just found out I had the genetic mutation, which meant I had up to a 90% chance of getting breast cancer, just like my mom. “You could get implants,” the breast surgeon told me. “Go up a cup size since you’re petite?” We were talking in circles and euphemisms, about removing the small breasts I had always hated, the ones I tried to cover up with ornate bras.
“I think I’ll wait,” I told the surgeon, struck with the irony of having hated the part of my body I was most in danger of losing. When she left the room, I put my bra back on, realizing that while it doesn’t matter whether I wore one or not, I was glad for it, something that marked my body’s health while I still have it.
Women have burned bras in protest and bared them as symbols of empowerment. My relationship with my bras reflects my relationship with my own body. It’s moody and variable, hard to pin down. For now, while I have the choice, I’m glad to keep wearing them, and sorry for the time I spent using them to restrain or cover myself, as tools for anything other than support or decoration. A bra is more than an object for me. It’s carefully bound up in my notions of what makes me who I am, before surgical reconstruction, before children, before the probability of illness. They are for me, as I am now, as I hope to be for as long as possible.
Written by Kate Jackson Sabelhaus
I gripped the bedpost and pulled my body toward it, hugging the oak beam the way a small child might hold onto her mother’s leg in a state of fear. My breath became shallow; flashes of light emanated from the depths of my eye sockets. The steel bones closed in on me, and I let out a whimper.
Lucy pleaded with me, “Mrs. Archer, why do you insist that I do this to you?”
Lucy has been my lady’s maid for three years now. Initially, I was against the idea of having a personal attendant, but my husband insisted upon it. Though we live in New York, Edward is of British stock and said it was only proper. Besides, he argued, it’s not like she’s a servant; she’s an employee who’s being paid handsomely.
“Lucy, we’ve been through this. I consider you my friend, so please, call me Hadley.” Though reticent at first, I now considered Lucy my greatest confidant. Prior to this posting, she’d been a governess in London—it was my only requirement. The thought of having a meek woman wait on me all day was unsettling; I was afraid I’d see myself in her countenance. If I was going to take on an assistant, I told Edward she needed to be both clever and able-bodied. Someone who could teach me Italian and cinch a corset tight as a tourniquet. “Okay, now, give it another good yank.”
Lucy sighed and drew the laces toward her. She did it with an opposing force so strong, I lost possession of the bed frame and tumbled backwards. My body crashed into hers, driving us both downward with a smack. Splayed out on the floorboards, we were silent. But then, our eyes met—hers wide, mine narrow—and we burst into laughter. We couldn’t contain ourselves, it felt too good to roll around like that, uninhibited. The release was cleansing.
After a time, Lucy sat up and massaged the back of her head. “That bloody corset. Give it up already. I’m not cut out for this type of work. Latin, yes. Flagellation, no.”
I stopped laughing. Her word choice bothered me: flagellation. It brought today’s purpose back to the forefront of my mind. With a creased brow, I lay on the floor, arms outstretched. “Help me get up.”
She rose and motioned for me to sit up with her pointer finger. I dropped my arms, placed my palms on the floor, and pushed myself into a seated position, crying out: “My tailbone.” A blunt pain radiated from the center of my buttocks up through my spine.
A worried look flashed across Lucy’s face. “What is Mr. Edward going to say about this?”
“Mister Edward will be happy to know I gave the old corset another try after all this time.” I looked out the window and saw my husband in the distance, walking through the garden. I wondered: How long has it been since he and I last laughed together?
“I’m going to get you some tea and a cold compress for your coccyx. Please, get back in bed and rest.”
A faint smile returned to my lips as Lucy walked out of the room. Coccyx. I asked for an intelligent woman, and I got one. Loyal, too. When I stopped wearing a corset—one year ago today—she did the same in an act of solidarity.
Today marks the one year anniversary of the death of my child—unborn child, that is. Though I didn’t know the sex of the baby, I imagined her to be a girl. I would’ve named her Yuri, Russian for George, shorthand for my favorite writer, George Eliot. But it didn’t happen that way. Edward never knew about Yuri. I miscarried her before they had the chance to meet.
Edward and I had only been married a year when I realized that what he said and what he did were alien to one another. His supportive chatter about the women’s suffrage movement turned out to be idle. Sex with him was brutish and violent, despite an outward appearance of civility. He insisted I wear the latest fashions—steel-boned corsets and crinolines—and discouraged my growing interest in dress reform. It was clear, if I were to become pregnant, I would need to uphold societal standards and maintain my figure by wearing a corset to term. When my stomach became obvious, I would be forced into confinement to hide the pregnancy, like other women of my social set. He once said to me that bearing physical evidence of having had sexual intercourse is tasteless; it makes people uncomfortable in public.
Two years into our marriage, in 1882, I became pregnant. The fear of house arrest and bringing a child into this prison was imminent. Rather than adapting my wardrobe to include a custom maternity corset, I wore increasingly smaller training corsets, asking Lucy to lace them tighter each day. This emotional and physical stress suffocated Yuri. My pregnancy ended in miscarriage due to a practice called tightlacing.
Though I stopped wearing a corset the day I lost Yuri, I vowed to wear the undergarment on the anniversary of her death as form of self-flagellation. The discomfort inflicted upon me this day will serve as penance for the pain she endured, for a life terminated. Today, I remember that it is always fatal to have music or poetry interrupted.
Written by Augustus Britton
Elderberries. The coffee place. They don’t know how to make what I ordered. I hear them talking about it in the plein air kitchen. I wanted to tell them to skip it, “I’ll take an almond latte…No, wait…Just an espresso.”
“Never mind,” I think. I don’t tell them. I’ll take my chances. I’ll wait and see what the ‘teaccino’ tastes like.
I’m waiting for a date to arrive. Internet date. Bumble. I feel sick. Stupid. Funny. Ultimately hilarious.
My heart is beating. By the grace of God. Thank you. I’m sweating out the joint I smoked this morning. About an hour ago. Not sweating, actually. Lightly perspiring. Back-of-the-neck-type-mist. Maybe I’ll die.
I’m writing. Waiting. Waiting for the girl. Antsy as fuck.
She told me she was conservative. I wondered what that could mean. I’m not really conservative. I dance and wear my mother’s gold high heels on occasion and smoke joints and sing in a jazz band called Eunuch.
I look at the floor. The sun is on it. There are pennies all over the floor. It’s dirty.
Then I slowly pan my eyes upward. I catch some legs. A pair. Heels. Black heels. Then legs. Then the hem of a dark skirt.
“Conservative…” I whisper to myself.
Black legs. I mean, tan legs with black, thin pantyhose on them. It’s her. The girl off the Internet.
I stand up. Awkward. I scrape my shoulder against a bookshelf. I feel it. There might be blood. All in a span of about two minutes: blood, fear, horniness, music.
She looks down at my shoes. She stands there. Five feet away.
“Hey…” I say.
“Hey…” she says.
I stare at her legs. That’s about the best I can do.
The pantyhose. Glistening. Summer light. Water lilies. It all smells good. Roses. Lilies. Lilacs. Night blooming jasmine. Take your pick.
I say something to myself, between breaths, quietly, “You know those legs smell good, don’t you? Goddamit…beneath that fabric…she wants to be demure. Prude. A churchgoer, but I know you. WASPPP. I know you…because I know me…if I was a woman I’d wear those too…”
What is that? That fabric that gets to touch the skin…?
I think about tattoos. “Why are tattoos so tempting? So provocative?”
“Because they’re on the skin,” I answer myself. “They turn your imagination on. They turn you inside out. They make you seethe. They make you lust.”
They go right there. Onto the thighs. The calves. The delicate balance of the ankles. Then the feet. Then the toes. Painted. Splayed.
I suppose these pantyhose that the girl from the Internet wore—maybe they were Wolford’s—I suppose they’re about as close as you’re gonna get to the eroticism of a tattoo without actually touching a needle.
Where are they heading? The legs…? Where?
I think Bukowski said something about it somewhere in an interview, “The legs…yeh.” he said, “They’re my favorite part. You know why? Cause you don’t know what’s going on there. It’s a mystery. God, maybe it leads to a cunt…or maybe it leads to a nest full of butterflies.”
The girl and I sit down. We talk politics. We’re on different sides of the world. However, when we left we kissed.
It was those pantyhose. They did it.
Build a wall around me. Put up rings of fire. But you can’t deny me the wonder. The dream. The hope. All incited by that breath of air, that very impactful sartorial decision.
It plays with my heart…
Written by Melanie Jane Parker
Last week I left lipstick stains on a cheap white hotel towel in Florence. The shade, Trans Siberian Semi Matte by NARS, is not unlike the color of the filling in an Entenmann’s raspberry danish. Rubbed into the coarse fabric, it looked like the trace of a nosebleed.
It wasn’t until I had boarded a train to Rome that I realized the lipstick was gone. I mentally traced my steps: I woke up, bathed, dressed, packed, took my medication, drank one-and-a-half glasses of cold water. I put on lipstick last thing. I wiped the outer edges of my mouth on the dirty towel one last time. I went down to the lobby and checked out. I walked across the river to the train station, where I sat in a noisy, brightly lit cafe and drank a cappuccino. My lipstick left striated smudges on the rim. I paid. I found the station bathroom. I peed. I applied another coat at the bathroom mirror. It was here that I must have left it, a lonely black tube on a faux marble countertop, next to a shallow sink and a sodden roll of paper towels.
I replaced my lipstick on my second day in Rome. The Sephora, like every other Sephora I’ve ever seen, was on the way to the Borghese. I tried on five different lipsticks before settling on Rimmel’s The Only 1 Matte in Take the Stage. It cost me €15. I cannot afford €15 lipstick but lipstick is the only cosmetic indulgence I allow myself, and so I resolve to eat street fruit for dinner.
If Take the Stage were an artificial fruit-flavored gelatinous substance, it would be cherry. The abundant elegance of the Borghese exhausted me. I am always depressed when I manage to continue thinking completely ordinary thoughts while in the presence of profound beauty. Before I leave the museum I visit its pristine bathroom and apply another coat of lipstick. I use my finger to smooth out my upper and lower lips, the corners of my mouth.
Have you ever been a teenage girl? If you have, perhaps you know that peculiar feeling of being terrified, disgusted, and thrilled all at once. This is how I felt when a group of boys in my 7th grade class told I had dick-sucking lips (DSL). At thirteen I had already picked up on the universal principle that the imaginary weighs more than reality, so I resolved my anxiety about what having dick-sucking lips might mean by focusing on appearing to have something they wanted, rather than giving it to them.
Appearances take a lot of time to manage. Every morning of early adolescence I woke up extra early, having slept with one textbook or another underneath my pillow with the hope that I would absorb its contents through osmosis. It took me between thirty and forty-five minutes to work on my makeup, and most of that time was spent on my lips. First, I applied a base layer of a condensed milk-colored paste, the purpose of which was to fill in every crease in my lips, creating an illusion of enhanced plumpness.
Then lip liner, blended to the point of being undetectable, followed by lipstick (my favorite shades were of the nude or viscera-pink variety). The filler, liner, and lipstick were then spackled with toner, just in case the filler hadn’t done its job, topped off by a swipe or six of clear gloss. The result was a feeling of carrying a precious and painstakingly tended flesh-sculpture on my face. To preserve its integrity, I refrained from eating or drinking until lunchtime when, dehydrated and fatigued, I sat alone with a small cup of tomato soup concentrate, a piece of dry white toast, and a diet Snapple, trying very carefully not to close my lips on the bottle or spoon. Eating the toast, I was all teeth.
My DSL didn’t earn me exalted social status. It took me years to unlearn the provocative pout I had perfected for photographs. I do not speak Italian, but while in Italy I tried my best to communicate. I had purchased a small dictionary and phrasebook, and used it at every opportunity. My twin preoccupations, in recent years, have been those of listening closely and being understood. I worry about what’s in my mind being articulated clearly.
I worry about hearing others properly, and doing the work to understand. On my last night in Rome, I order a plate of pasta and a half liter of house wine. For dessert I eat tiramisu. I arrive back at my hotel room rather drunk and fall asleep without washing my face or brushing my teeth. In the morning I wake up to see a pale print of my lips on the pillow next to me. The window is open and the air is cool, people and vehicles clatter down the street. Inside the room all is still. It is a moment of profound beauty.
Written by Alison Green
One blindingly hot day during a scorching summer in which I am very broke and very uncertain, I walk down the main street of my neighborhood to get tacos with quarters scrounged from the bottom of my purse. I pause in front of a kitschy vintage store, and a faded green t-shirt emblazoned with white script catches my eye: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.”
This quote, often wrongly attributed to Ann Richards—the second female governor of Texas who was known for delivering crackling one-liners in a buttery Southern drawl, and prefaced the quote in her 1988 Democratic National Convention speech by saying, “If you just give us a chance, we can perform,” referring to the lack of women in politics—originated in a 1982 cartoon and quickly became emblematic for a generation of women coming of age in the late 20th century, when the reverberations of women’s liberation could be seen in theory but rarely felt in practice.
Adopted as a sort of rallying cry of the grace-under-pressure and boundless balancing act of being a woman (we can do it all, and in heels!), the saying cuts an interesting dichotomy, belying a tough-skinned truth beneath its saccharine surface. No matter how many times women prove themselves the world is not ready or willing or able to recognize it, even as it tap dances right beneath their noses.
My sophomore year of high school, I get asked to prom by a popular senior who I had never spoken to before. He is cute and stoic and perennially in detention, slouching stoned through the hallways of our small Catholic school with a pack of his friends, a five ‘o clock shadow crawling across his jawbone, hinting enticingly at manhood. Our lone connection was that his friend was dating my friend. When he asked me, his monotone voice was already thick with anticipated boredom, but still I blushed furiously and choked on the word yes.
The next time we speak we are posing for prom photos, squinting and sweaty in someone’s parents’ backyard with all his friends and their dates, who are continually re-applying lipstick and adjusting their jewel-toned dresses. I am teetering in six-inch stilettos from a sketchy shoe store on Telegraph Avenue called Sheik, the kind of place that exhausts you before you even enter, loud rap spilling out onto the sidewalk as soon as you open the door. But I am a good foot shorter than my date, so here I am, trying to gracefully dislodge my heels as they slice into the damp grass with each step.
At prom, he stands in a huddled cluster with his friends and I do the same with mine, sneaking nervous glances in his direction. He finally asks me to dance, so I take off my shoes and stash them behind a potted plant. When the song ends (it was Ms. New Booty by Bubba Sparxxx, which will forever bring me right back to this moment), he looks me up and down and says, “Damn, you’re short,” before ambling back towards his friends. I shove my shoes back on my aching feet. I do not see him again until the after party, where I watch from across the room as he takes a huge bong rip. Hours later, I coax the cheap black stilettos off my feet, pressing my index finger against a ripe row of blisters on my heel. Their throb feels distinctly feminine, which sends a secret thrill rippling through me.
A memory: a middle-aged family friend at a dinner party, leery-eyed and laced with liquor, winking as he loudly tells the table that high heels were invented to keep women from running away from men. A memory: my AP Government teacher in high school, whom we all judged mercilessly for having a small tattoo of a flower that wrapped around her ankle, making an offhand comment about why it’s good to wear high heels when going out at night: “You can always use the heels as a weapon if you need to.” A memory: my mother sitting on the edge of my bed as I do my makeup before a party, saying that high heels are torture devices, a product of the patriarchy, designed by men to make women’s bodies look more sexual. My eyes rolling back into my head.
A photograph: my grandmother, who wore high heels every day of her life until my grandpa passed away, standing on her front lawn in suburbia, wearing pink wedge high heels with her bathing suit, a fat baby who will become my father balanced on her hip. Our small feet are the same size. I wear her heels now, even though they always give me blisters.
A memory: my high school best friend Leah and I wearing high heels to the movie theater to see the Sex and the City movie, even though it was a small theater in a sleepy section of town and we were the only ones there, aside from our moms, who we forced to sit a few aisles ahead of us. Many credit Sex and the City with glamorizing sky-high heels, and one of the actresses on the show even publically apologized for inadvertently encouraging women to wear shoes that damage their feet. Did we all just fall for it? Years later, a friend tells me I should always wear heels to a job interview.
“They don’t even have to be high. Just something to get you off the ground.” I take her advice and get the job. I file it away in the inexhaustible part of my brain that hordes knowledge like: you can use a matchbook as a nail file in a pinch and you can exfoliate your face with leftover coffee grounds and never forget to clutch your keys between your knuckles when you’re walking home alone at night.
Marilyn Monroe once said, “I don’t know who invented high heels, but all women sure owe him a lot.” Rumor has it she regularly shaved down one of her high heels, throwing herself slightly off balance in order to induce the infamous hip-swaying walk that mesmerized a nation. Every woman who has ever walked quickly down a sidewalk in high heels (preferably at dusk, kicking up a crisp breeze) knows what this walk feels like, the slow liquid stretch of your body moving like molten honey, heels snapping against the concrete like exclamation marks, like don’t you dare get in my way.
Marilyn Monroe’s shimmering brand of empowerment is easily digestible (her famous pout adorned the dorm room wall of every other girl I went to college with), yet there is a dark knot of sadness just behind her doe eyes, the flush of tragedy that only that hindsight provides (a product of the patriarchy, my mother would sigh).
The earliest depictions of high heels can be seen in ancient Egyptian murals dating back to 3500 B.C. They were worn mostly by nobility, to set themselves apart from the barefoot lower classes, and also by butchers, in order to walk through blood and guts and animal carcasses without staining their feet. In the middle ages, platform heels called Chopines rose to prominence in the wealthy European class. Towering almost 30 inches off the ground, it was common to see a woman wearing Chopines being helped down the road by a small group of male servants, which she used as human canes.
Movement was difficult and cumbersome in Chopines, rendering illicit liaisons all but impossible and allowing the paranoid husbands of yesteryear to rest easy. The evolution of high heels from utilitarian to aesthetic is largely credited to the Queen of France in 1547, Catherine de Medici, whose insecurity about her short stature ricocheted high heels to fashion’s forefront. But it wasn’t until the 1860’s that high heels became universally popular, although they were often referred to as “poisoned hooks” because they cut a hypnotic figure that “ensnared” unsuspecting men.
The history of high heels is both fraught and fascinating, riddled with sexual and gender politics, both a byproduct of the patriarchy and an accessory of female sexual empowerment. Despite Sex and the City, despite Marilyn Monroe, despite the hard line of my mother’s feminism, despite me knowing better, the first time I wore them I remember feeling a visceral flash of womanhood, armed with an ancient and resigned strength, balancing impossibly and taut-muscled on tiny stilts, gliding graceful as a butcher through all the blood and guts and shit the world would splay out in front of me.
Written by Tate Dillow
I remember the first (and, so far, only) time I attended a charity art auction. It was in WeHo. There were many elegant and lovely people there, none of whom seemed to want in the least for money. As I knocked back the free booze I got a bit chatty. There was a particularly exuberant David Hockney receiving a lot of attention, and I wiggled into the cluster of viewers to get a closer look. I said something innocuous about the painting to a charming-looking lady to my right in an attempt to, I suppose, appear savvy and sensitive.
I don’t remember my words, but I do remember what happened next: she turned to me and attempted a smile, but her lips were paralyzed, and what emerged was more of a quivering grimace. Her eyes seemed to be striving to convey good will, but paired with her immobile lips and eyebrows they communicated something closer to the silent scream of someone trapped in their own face. I fear I visibly recoiled, though I tried my best not to show any alarm. It was deep uncanny valley territory. I remember thinking how unnecessary it seemed.
Here was an otherwise beautiful woman—maybe on the cusp of middle age, but what’s so wrong with that?—who marred her beauty in an attempt to augment it. If her aim was to override nature she succeeded, but in doing so she became something unnatural, and did more damage to her otherwise fine appearance than if she had simply embraced a slight frown line or crow’s foot.
They say that time is the only truly non-renewable resource: no amount of money or effort will allow you to reclaim it once it is lost. In the same vein, “beauty” (shorthand here for the narrow definition enforced by mass-media and prevailing social norms—young, thin, symmetrical, smooth-of-skin) and youth have a tremendous value in our society, and they are deeply tied to the preciousness of time. As time passes, so does youth—and with youth, beauty. But beauty is a bit more malleable.
By leveraging enough resources, one can unstick their external appearance, if temporarily, from the time-youth-beauty triad, recovering the façade of youth even if youth itself is gone, stemming for a bit the tide of time which leaves us all, in the eyes of society, visually undesirable—bereft of the asset that (if we were lucky enough to possess it in the first place) is correlated with all manner of preferential treatment and social liquidity.
We are certainly willing to leverage those resources. According to Forbes, the “Beauty Industry” rakes in 445 billion dollars annually around the world, and is expected to be worth 90 billion dollars annually in America alone by 2020. But among the countless products designed to smooth, conceal, lift, tighten, and enhance, one in particular has been enshrined in the cultural imagination as a symbol of the lengths we will go to reclaim beauty and youthfulness: Botox.
The name “Botox” is a trademark owned by the Allergan corporation. It’s a euphemistic contraction of “Botulinum toxin,” from which Botox is derived. Botulinum toxin is the most acutely lethal toxin known to science—the deadly dosage in humans is as low as 1.3–2.1 nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight, which means that one gram of the poison could theoretically kill up to 5.5 million adults. Used cosmetically, it is injected in minute quantities to paralyze muscles, usually in the face, which allows the skin to relax and smooth, eliminating wrinkles. The results are immediate but not permanent—those seeking to keep their wrinkles at bay permanently will need another injection in three to six months.
That’s not so good, is it? Three to six months? Are we supposed to refill on youth like we’re topping off a fuel tank, just to keep the illusion going a little bit longer? I don’t blame the woman at the art auction, or think less of her as a person. On the contrary, I felt sorry for her. It’s clear she felt enormous pressure from her milieu—especially as a woman—to maintain their ideals of beauty, even at great cost. I don’t believe that there is anything inherently wrong with getting Botox.
When done with sensitivity and care, Botox is effective at what it does, and relatively safe. If it provides someone with a bit of a confidence boost, what’s the harm? Maybe Botox isn’t so much a problem as a symptom of our culture’s larger pathologization of age. What does it say about our fear of aging that we are willing to undergo the injection of a poison and paralysis of our muscles to banish its signs?
We abhor aging in part because of the huge premium put on youth in our society, a premium we are therefore terrified of losing. Are we so repulsed by the natural signs of a lived life that we are willing to substitute them for an artificial youth? In the end, time will win, and youth—no matter how synthetically prolonged—will fade. Maybe instead of seeking to extend youth past the point that nature intended, we should look to extending our definition of beauty to encompass all of life’s stages.
Illustrations by Travis Farmen