Man in the Mirror

It’s easy to slide down the slippery slope of cosmetic improvement, as I learned from experience

No one prepared me for F’s transformation. Before the shock of his sixtieth birthday, no one had warned me about the procedures he had done to prepare for this milestone: the face-lift, hair plugs, eye job, wattle tuck, silicone implants and movie-star teeth. When I saw him, he'd gone from being a nondescript, middle-age corporate VP to a mature Ken doll with biscuit cheeks, plasticized skin and a scalp machine-gunned with follicle-size bullet holes.

“Happy birthday, brother,” I said, attempting to look straight into his eyes — which were more or less the same, only smaller.

“So?” F asked, “Whad’ya think?” He turned his face from side to side to show off his doctor’s handiwork, which he seemed to think was masterful.

“Wow,” I said.

“Rio,” F said.

We dropped it at that and I moved away quickly. The thing about surgical accidents — unlike actual traffic disasters — is these folks deliberately kissed the bus. Condolences are never an option, no matter how bad the damage is. What’s done is done, there’s no turning back, the best you can do is pretend it looks normal. F had become a Franken-face, but what good would it do to let him know I knew that? I’d just have to act like it never happened.

Men fare worse than women under the knife. With careful sculpting, a woman’s face can be made more beautiful, where a man’s only loses appeal with refinement. If Daniel Craig didn’t look so haggard in photos grabbed by the paparazzi, he’d just be another pretty boy star with an eight-pack and far less character. Surgery robs a man’s face of animal vigor. Tinkering only makes him effete.

Our downfall began with eyebrow utensils. Around the time of Ziggy Stardust (followed by “Saturday Night Fever”), men got the news that their unibrow could be disappeared with a good set of tweezers. Plucking was the gateway drug; soon eyelash dying, eyebrow arching and hair gel as a competitive sport slipped into the masculine ethos. There was no turning back from here.

Action stars became surgical icons. Stallone led the way in facial castration with the The Arnold lumbering right behind him, a Maybelline ad for the steroid set. Michael Jackson’s Peter Pan gelding came next, which the public watched and, somehow, accepted. The plasticized man was here to stay. The man in the mirror was Dorian Gray.

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Women mostly hated it. I’m told that women like their men raw; at the very worst, al dente. They like a man who looks like a man; the fair sex is happy for us to be gnarly. Unless she’s a dominatrix or gay, few women are looking for pretty (they’d rather keep that role for themselves); nor do they pine for pillowy lips or men who can’t leave the house without lip gloss. (Gay men feel the same way, only more so.) And yet, it’s easy to slide down the slippery slope of cosmetic improvement. I know this from experience.

A few years back, I went to my dermatologist to have an ugly wart removed. After it was clipped and bagged, my doctor, Lance (no pun intended), asked if I’d thought of having Botox. “You’re kidding,” I said, thinking he was. I’m right behind Tommy Lee Jones in the wrinkle department and fast approaching my neighbor’s Shar-pei.

“You know, it could really make a difference,” Lance said, with a straight face. He offered to give me a trial injection. He assured me that it was temporary, gone in three months if I didn’t like it. Nobody will ever notice. Why should I do it then, I might have said, but difference sounded pretty appealing. What would it be like to be different? I wondered. Who was I to turn down a free gift horse? I stood at an aesthetic crossroads, not knowing which way to turn. I could choose door number one and do nothing. Or I could choose door number two and see what all the fuss was about.

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I told Lance to shoot me up. I offered my face to his beckoning needle; he loaded up the ravines in my forehead. I didn’t feel paralyzed facially, nor was the sticking especially painful. Lance sent me on my way with a promise that it would kick in very soon after.

An hour later, I stood by the mirror, very pleased with the change in my face. I appeared to have gone on a three-week vacation. The tormented worry was suddenly gone! I didn’t look younger, but I did look better. It wasn’t dramatic and Lance was right, nobody seemed to notice except to say that I looked relaxed, well-slept, “in a good place.” Every time I passed a mirror, I felt a secret satisfaction at who was staring back at me. Until then, I hadn’t noticed how stressed I looked. I liked this new forehead. I liked this new me.

Three months later, I went back for more, only this time the injections were costly. Like a newborn crack addict, I spent the money with a mixture of glee and disbelief. It felt so wrong and yet so right. I didn’t tell a soul about it. Three months after that, I did it again and although the results were consistently good, I began to feel some anxiety, knowing that this couldn’t go on forever. Much as I liked not having stress face, I couldn’t keep spending this kind of cash. I really didn’t want to, in fact. On principle, I wanted to kick this.

I knew that this was the wrong path for me, a contradiction of what I believed in. Not that cosmetic help is a moral issue. It isn’t. But when I lost my hair in my early 30s, I’d made the decision to let it go. I’d decided back then not to be defined by my lack of follicular excellence.

This was a losing battle, a recipe for graceless aging. I shaved my head and never looked back. With Lance, I’d been tempted to hold on — again; to stay hooked on what was already gone; to cling to the prow of a sinking ship, instead of sailing away on a new one. But life’s too short for moving backward.

We all get the face we deserve at 50. Scary? Sometimes. Tragedy? Definitely not.