BY CLAIRE RUDY FOSTER
In my 33rd year, I finally started noticing the fine lines on my face. Like some kind of wrinkle numerology, I had three permanent wrinkles across my forehead, and another three that made vertical tally marks between my eyebrows. All of a sudden, I looked my age.
The rays around my eyes have always been there. And the brackets forming on the outside of my smile. They’re deeper this year, though. I search the faces of people in their 20s, wondering what happened to me. How quickly this changed. Is it because I stopped wearing sunscreen? Do I look old? Do I look old to people who are younger than me?
I remember being in my 20s and immediately noticing how tired people looked once they hit 27 or 28. The way you could tell the subtle change between 17 and 18, even, by the transformation of someone’s face. I scrutinized people, cataloguing the little marks and lines that accumulated on their skin. They never looked bad to me. They simply looked old.
My obsession with my skin was not new. When I was younger, I had acne. The cystic kind that bubbles under your skin like acid swamp gas. I endured three courses of Accutane. The miracle drug made my skin poreless, dry as paper, and sensitive to the sun. It was a megadose of Vitamin A. I needed monthly blood tests to make sure I wasn’t hurting my liver too much. The packs of pills had horrific illustrations inside them of fetuses conceived while on this medication. Their deformed faces slumped like collapsing souffles. Nobody wanted to have sex with me, so I wasn’t worried about that. I rubbed thick creams into my face and smoothed ointment into the ridges of my nose. The medicine made my skin crack open at the corners of my mouth. Even my ear piercings bled, my skin was so dry. I was relieved when my acne was gone.
I believed that, thanks to Accutane, I’d have perfect skin forever. The first few months off the medication were incredible. All I needed was sunscreen. My skin was downright dewy for the first time. The cracked, dry areas flaked off. I had magazine skin. Neutrogena ad skin. I didn’t need to wash my face with anything but water. It was wonderful. And I learned that, for every problem, there was a pill.
My face, after all, is the first thing you see when you meet me. It’s my calling card. My face and its expressions tell you how you’re going to feel about me, and how I feel about you. I see myself in the mirror every morning. When I like who I see, I know it will be a good day.
Although I would never, ever admit it, I am vain about my skin. It was worse when I was younger. Beauty was a trade off for everything I felt I missed. I had my son young, giving birth shortly after my 24th birthday. I was shunned as a too-young mother: often, people assumed I was his nanny. I changed diapers while the girls I knew went on to graduate programs and moved to exotic places. My only consolation was that I looked better than they did. My skin was great. I lost weight. Within a year of my son’s birth, I was as thin as ever. I glowed. In the changing room at the pool, a woman told me that, if I hadn’t mentioned my son, she’d have no idea that he existed. There were no physical traces of pregnancy left on my body. Not a single stretch mark.
To achieve this, I ruled my body like a tyrant.
I quit cigarettes right before I got pregnant. Drinking and drugs, too. To this day, I wonder if those three chemical bombs I dropped on my liver pushed me into alcoholism faster. After less than ten years of drinking, I couldn’t process alcohol anymore. The day I quit, I noticed that a fine web of tiny, red blood vessels had burst in the skin under my eyes. For the next thirty days, while the poisons I’d ingested drained slowly from my body, I watched my skin fade to normal. Then, paler than normal, until I turned the limpid green of an eel that lives in sunless caves, deep underground.
I didn’t mind avoiding things. Sun, people, smoke. In recovery, my body was a temple. I did yoga daily, counting my breaths in the inversions as I felt the blood rush into my face. I ate a vegan diet, no processed foods, and put suspicious roots and powders into my green smoothies. My life, in spite of this self care, was excruciating. I was stressed to my bones. My diet was the only thing I could control, and I comforted myself with it. At least I’m not fat. At least my skin is good.
Was it a privilege to think only of the food I put in my mouth or the tone of my skin? Maybe. To me, this fixation was not a function of privilege. It is an indicator of how overwhelmed I was. Too many things were changing at once. I had a lot to worry about, then. I was preparing to leave my son’s father, for good this time. He was emotionally and sexually abusive: leaving frightened me, for a number of reasons. I had no money of my own. I searched for work, without success. I was caring for my son almost entirely by myself. For a while, I was homeless, either sleeping in my car or couch surfing with my 2-year-old. It was much easier, at 25, to gaze at my reflection and wonder if I should be exfoliating more often than to examine the frightening wreckage of my life.
Beauty, I’ve read, bestows privilege. Cultivating physical beauty, whatever that signifies for your particular culture in your particular time and place, is a shortcut to power. It is a means for people at the fringes to enjoy the benefits usually reserved for the people in the center. Beauty can bypass the privilege imparted by rank, class, status, wealth, gender, and race. Beauty has its own currency. After all, someone may accrue money until they become the wealthiest person in the nation, but if they have a face like a slice of stewed Spam, there isn’t a lot they can do about that. In holding on to my beauty, I believe that I am protecting my capital. At that time in my life, it was crucial to use every asset I had to find work, make money, pay rent, pay the lawyer, make people like me, make people want to look at me, make people want to listen. Birds do this same thing. So do sex workers. Beauty catches the eye: money follows.
I survived that period in part because I was beautiful.
And now I am 33, and my life is the opposite of what it was. My divorce is seven years behind me. My son, who is nine, has no recollection of the places we slept while we were waiting for things to get better. I’m getting ready to try marriage again, this time with someone who adores me and trusts me and doesn’t know me as an insecure child. I go to the gym but put on weight anyway. I still haven’t picked up a drink or a drug to deal with the fear that battered me for years. I’m older. I have some miles on me.I like the way my body has aged: I like that I look like a grownup. I am astounded at the person who I have turned out to be.
But the cost of growth is that time passes. And I cannot stop thinking about the wrinkles on my forehead. I look at pictures of female movie actors and performers who have allegedly Had Work Done and consider what they paid to have their faces shaped and refined. The expense is probably worth it, for them. They do their work with their faces. If they cease to be beautiful, they won’t be hired. For a price, they can age gracefully, wrinkles drifting into their skins as gently as snowflakes.
I clicked on a picture of Robin Wright and enlarged it so that the fine, parallel wrinkles on her forehead filled the screen of my phone. She only has two. I have three. Hers are deeper than mine. Wider. She gets 1 unit of Botox a year, "sprinkled" throughout her face, just to slow things down a little bit. Her smile is lovely as ever.
I pushed a friend’s bangs off her forehead to inspect her for wrinkles. She’s in her 50s. Her skin was smooth as a horse’s flank. She whisked my hand away, laughing.
Why would someone like me, whose work is antisocial, who is not beholden to anyone’s opinion of my appearance, whose success is in no way reliant on how well I conform to the beauty standard, care about how I look? And how is it that someone like me, who preached an anti-beauty gospel for so many years and said diets were stupid even while dieting and sneered at anyone who was trying too hard even while trying too hard, is suddenly in possession of such information as, how long does a Juvederm injection last if it’s placed close to the bone?
For the longest time, my need to be beautiful came out of my fear of what might happen to me if I was not. Now, I feel that the necessity has passed. Instead I am dealing with plain old vanity. The kind everyone has. And the hypocrisy inside it, a crab in a pretty shell.
Every day, I wash my face with cool water and a stinging lytic cleanser, then apply sunscreen with alpha-hydroxy acids in it. The chemicals burn the bald cells, but I’ve learned to ignore the sensation. That probably just means it’s working, right? I also started getting silk peels a few months ago, after an aesthetician suggested that the microdermabrasion I loved wasn’t that great for my skin. The magic aftereffect of the Accutane has long faded, but I’m trying to hold the line. I get at least two facials a year, and make up the neglect in between with organic scrubs, expensive under-eye products, and anti-aging care. Everything I read suggests how important prevention is.
At the same time, nobody else seems to care as much as I do. My mother is anti-makeup. Her generation of feminism was about not conforming to commercialized beauty. Makeup, shaving, dieting, were all ways of silencing women and controlling their bodies. She told me once that she didn’t like how avidly some women embrace makeup, body modification, and high-femme style. "We worked so hard to make it so that women would be judged by their character," she told me.
It never occurred to me that it was once considered a privilege not to wear makeup in public. I grew up thinking that true beauty was something that appeared naturally but improbably, like a black swan. I woke up like this, Beyonce sang. The point was to be beautiful without effort, without interventions, and without ornamentation.
My mother said, "This focus on appearance takes all of that away. They’re undoing so much progress."
I tried to explain, but I don’t think she understood. Why would we fight for makeup, she wondered. Why would we embrace the slavery inflicted on us by beauty?
I live in Portland, Oregon, where a lot of people seem to agree with her. Most white people take a laissez-faire approach to beauty here. Women rarely wear makeup, especially not a full face. Natural beauty, a fresh-from-yoga glow, is the thing. Outsiders, visitors, and new transplants are easy to spot. They have spidery lashes, wear stripes of blush or bronzer, and cake thick layers of pigment around their eyes. They look like they come from another country, where beauty is hunted, not carefully cultivated. Even the resurgence of vogue hasn’t converted the mainstream. I see more contour than I used to, but on younger people. Girls. I see makeup used as a flag. It is still uncommon enough to be striking.
I’ve noticed that eyelash extensions are getting popular, though. Makeup-that-isn’t-makeup. I once paid $300 for a woman to glue fragments of mink fur to my eyelashes. I see the appeal. I also tried tinting and waxing my brows. Nudging my natural features just a hair, here and there. I fear that I am becoming the person who will spend hundreds of dollars to look like nothing has been done to her hair or face; whose clothes come from Eileen Fisher. I know women like this. They wear elegant, shapeless, natural fiber wraps. Their faces are as still and impassive as a dancer’s. If they had wrinkles, I did not notice.
Today, in my morning examination, I raised my eyebrows. My wrinkles quadrupled. I made faces of anger, disbelief, and grief. I smiled, and the whiskers around my eyes materialized. I am starting to see the places where my skin slips over my skull, growing loose or rough in places.
Elsewhere, a series of hurricanes has demolished thousands of homes. People wade through the street like misshaped storks, carrying their possessions on their heads. A family might divide a loaf of flimsy white bread among them and wash their faces with rainwater, collected in buckets. They’re getting cholera. There’s no ice. In comparison, the worry lines pooling between my eyebrows are nothing. I know that. It is self indulgence in the extreme. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling them on me, a delicate spiderweb constructed of skin and time.
When I go down the road of intervention, my face will lose its malleability. This is not an if. I’d hoped that, at some point, I would attain a style of life that simply didn’t cause me to worry. Or that I’d mature, and become so serene that nothing could faze me. I’d just look calm all the time, because I was calm. It seems unfair that many of the things that gave me anxiety have faded, but my face hasn’t followed suit. Worrying is second nature now. Undoing that muscle memory will take more than silk peels and mindfulness.
I notice now that I wiggle my eyebrows when I’m excited. And that, when I’m thinking, my forehead moves right along with my train of thought. I look angry when I’m working hard: glancing in the reflective window near me, I see that I look ferocious, as though worrying a bone. Resting bitch face is not in my repertoire.
I made the appointment the day that I looked in my rear view mirror and realized that my face had been contorted into a worried-listening expression for more than half an hour. Brows twisted, forehead maximally wrinkled, mouth pulled to one side. Nothing was wrong, but I looked worried. It is now my habit to look worried. In repose, this had become my default expression.
I drove home with my hand over my forehead, trying to keep myself from raising my eyebrows involuntarily. (Just remembering this makes my facial muscles twitch.)
Dialing the medical spa where a girlfriend of mine gets semi annual facial injections, I had the same sense of guilt I used to feel when I called my drug dealer. The receptionist offered me a discount for the spa’s Day of Eternal Beauty: $12 per unit of Botox, instead of the usual $14.
"We can bank the unused units for you, so you can use them anytime you want," she told me. The implication being, once I start, I’ll never want to quit. I’ll come back every three to six months to keep those muscles frozen in place. I grinned in the mirror while I was talking to the receptionist, and noticed that one of the wrinkles around my eyes, on the left side, was now as long as a lobster’s whisker, and went all the way down my face, through my cheek, practically to my chin. Age was dividing me into warring factions.
I made the appointment and did the math. How many units of Botox to stop the aging process? Should I do a laser treatment, too, and try to smooth the surface of my skin? Drink more water, eat more fruit, do headstands, and submit to the EpiLight pen to destroy dark spots before they blossomed? Stopping time is expensive. The average treatment, the receptionist told me, is 10 to 12 units. That’s about $130 per visit, a little more than $500 a year.
The price tag alone makes this kind of treatment prohibitive for me. It’s ironic that the women who have the most to worry about also have the least amount of wrinkle-erasing disposable income.
And the better the treatment, the more expensive it is. Botox is offered as one service in a whole palette of anti-aging options. Try one, and it opens the doors to the other. It’s easy to see myself starting with a few little injections, a little botulism extract, and then branching out into CoolSculpting, which eliminates fat and stretch marks, or Kybella, a shot that’s supposed to melt a double chin. I imagine myself peering anxiously at my selfies, wondering if I’m still the fairest. If I ever was. If I missed the moment when my beauty was at its peak.
I reread Sylvia Plath’s poem, "Mirror." A high school favorite, an ode to self fascination.
… A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Will my son know me as an old-faced mother? My partner? When I look into my future, all I have are questions. I think the fantasy is that freezing my expression at this age, this point in time, will put all the rest on hold, too. Botox, like the poisoned apple in the fairy tale, will not only sink me into a deep, placid sleep. It will sharpen my softnesses. My uncertainty, written in my wrinkles, will be dispelled. I will no longer harbor insecurity or ambiguity. I will be clearly defined. In a glass coffin, always on display. Ready for my close-up.
That’s not how life is, is it. If I learned anything in my 33 gnawed-up years, it’s that life must remain pliable in order to be beautiful.
Botox takes anywhere from 72 hours to a week to take effect. I would leave the medical spa, face freshly pricked, and wait for the toxin to infiltrate my facial muscles. Slowly, over the course of several days, I would feel the paralysis set, plastically, into my face. I wonder if it would feel rubbery. Tight. Not at all like a mother, or a hard thinker. Would I look like a sex doll, or like Cher? If I lost my temper, would anyone know? Or would I be trapped inside my beautiful, expressionless face, seething with rage?
It’s not a trade I’m willing to make. At this age, I have learned that my power can no longer come from the way I look. It is an ice pick: my anger is a ball peen hammer. My beauty, if I ever had it, was subjective. Although the world has been kinder to me, in some ways, because of my face, it never yielded to the way I look. No matter how I jammed my beauty into its lock and twisted and fidgeted in its inner workings, I never got more than a slightly bigger slice of cake.
It’s not worth it. Each wrinkle is a crack in the mask I’ve worn: the person underneath it has a hell of a temper. She gets harder to conceal every year. And I lose my desire to hide her.
If the world does not favor my loveliness, it will respect my strength.
It seems like a small, fair trade.
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Claire Rudy Foster's essays on addiction, queer issues, and writing are featured in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and Racked, among others. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her fiction can be found in McSweeney's, Thrice Fiction, and many other rad journals. She is a book reviewer and very gentle rabble-rouser. Claire lives in Portland, Oregon.