Glow Magazine, May 2012, Ready or Naught

Dr. Diane Wong comforts me, answering me, "The first (Botox) treatment is the hardest because you have to get over your anxiety," and any subsequent ones will be a walk in the park.

 

I have an overactive forehead. It cheats the cultural clichés that plague my Italian heritage because instead of gesticulating wildly with my hands when I talk, I use my face. Left in the wake of any given conversation are indelible expression lines that reveal what a pontificating loudmouth I can be (while also hinting at a weakness for wine and sunshine).

Last spring I interviewed a cosmetic dermatologist who told me, in not so many words, that my forehead was screaming for Botox. I suggested we rectify it right then and there, and after a lengthy consultation, he turned to ready the needles. As I sat back and closed my eyes in preparation, a scene flashed through my mind similar to the moment in Little Shop of Horrors when Steve Martin stands over Rick Moranis, pointing a rusty drill in his face. Before the derm had a chance to lock and load a syringe, I jerked upright, mumbled something about leaving the stove on and ran out. Did I mention that I have a paralyzing fear of needles?

I’ve been toying with the idea of injections for almost a year now. In my mid-30s and still boasting decent collagen reserves, I feel like I was 21 only yesterday. It stands to reason that 40 will creep up on me any minute now—and I want to be prepared. The subtext is that I totally buy the Botox as a prevention thing, but the needle part is, er, a prickly matter. A friend who’s been doing injectables for years dismissively tells me to pop a Xanax and get over myself.

Dr. Diane Wong, medical director of Toronto’s Glow Medi Spa, comforts me too, assuring me, “The first treatment is the hardest one because you have to get over your anxiety,” and any subsequent ones will be a walk in the park. When I solicit Dr. Wong’s opinion, I hear the aforementioned dermatologist echoed; my overly animated forehead needs to chill out. She also notes the lack of volume in my cheeks and says the droopy marionette lines at the corners of my mouth are making me look sad. The good news is that I still have “great architecture,” specifically my nose and full lips, but it would have been ideal if I had started injections five years ago, she says. Dr. Wong’s plan of attack would be Botox for my wrinkly forehead and a hyaluronic acid filler, such as Juvéderm, to plump up my cheeks and the lines around my nose and mouth.

But there’s another psychological hurdle I need to clear before I can calmly—or at least civilly—submit to the needle, and it relates to messing with Mother Nature and bowing down to societal pressures. As a beauty industry insider (with definite feminist leanings), shouldn’t I rise above the clichéd trappings of age and take the natural passage of time like a grown woman? More importantly, do I really want to risk ending up with a face so frozen it looks like Renée Zellweger’s? “Many women still remember Goldie Hawn from The First Wives Club and her rather large lips,” says Dr. Earl Minuk, a cosmetic dermatologist at Dr. Minuk’s Skin Clinic & Laser Centre, which has two locations in Winnipeg. “When it comes to lips, I’d rather have a patient come back to my office for more injections than return unhappy and unsatisfied.”

The problem is it’s hard to know what a 40-year-old woman is expected to look like these days. Most Hollywood actresses— regardless of age—share a smoothed, plumped uniformity, and the ones who don’t look markedly older by comparison. No one wants to emulate Nicole Kidman or Lindsay Lohan, but are we really expected to believe that Cate Blanchett looks that radiantly flawless naturally?

“Turning 40 isn’t as visible as it once was because there’s an unwillingness to accept the aging process, and women are doing something about it,” says Dr. Wong. “At this age, they are more accomplished and successful and are proud of what they’ve done. They want to look as good as they feel.” She says a few Botox injections in the frown lines and around the eyes is enough to offer the “instant pick-me-up” these women seek. The “age is just a number” philosophy has long been disseminated in modern culture as consolation for getting older, but it’s just as important to face the reality of aging and accept it. “As you approach 40, you tend to think about what you’ve lost—vitality, energy, collagen—and it’s normal to miss those things and grieve them,” says Dr. Marilyn Fitzpatrick, psychologist and program director of the Counselling Psychology program at McGill University. “Being bombarded with notions that eternal youth is desirable makes us go to a painful place because we don’t have smooth, wrinkle-free skin. It’s normal to feel this sense of loss and move on to what you want your life to really be about.” Setting core values as a guideline for who you want to be is crucial for maintaining a healthy perspective, says Dr. Fitzpatrick. “I have a hard time imagining that there is any woman in this world who says that her core value is to never have a wrinkle. That’s a losing game.”

Most women fall into one of three distinctive camps when it comes to the topic of non-invasive anti-aging procedures: the ones who would never do it, the ones who dabble in it and the ones Dr. Minuk calls “cosmetic junkies or addicts.” Those women will go to see him every three to six months for additional injections or noninvasive procedures, and if he turns them down they’ll go in search of another doctor who won’t. “For them it’s an easy thing to do because these are so-called ‘lunchtime treatments,’” he says. “It’s become very mainstream and also more accessible.” Some women argue that the difficulty lies in determining how much is too much.

Thandie, 36, an elementary school teacher, says she would never inject a “foreign substance” into her body, pointing to a friend who gets regular Botox and hyaluronic acid injections as an example of someone who can’t stop. “She looks like a caricature,” she says. “Her forehead is too smooth and flat, and it’s really evident in her lips. You can tell something is off.” As a mother of two young daughters, Thandie is hyper-aware of the messages she sends them through her own decisions and her perception of her body. “Why pretend you’re something that you’re not? You can inject your face all you want, but you won’t be able to cheat age. A woman of 40 is far more beautiful and confident than a 20-year-old.” I’d be lying if I said her words didn’t sting and make me feel guilty. But Dr. Wong says that too is part of the process. “The average woman thinks about doing Botox for one to two years before coming in because there’s guilt attached to judgment from her friends, her family, her husband or her kids, or because of money. If a woman has a young family, she doesn’t want to be perceived as being vain.”

Of course, the rebuttal to that is simply: What’s so wrong with wanting to look good? “Looks are a component of who you are, and I believe in being well-rounded,” argues Sara, 39, a physiotherapist who has been getting injections of Botox since her early 30s and hyaluronic acid fillers since her mid-30s. “When I look back to how I was in my 20s, I was meticulous about always having my nails and hair done. And this isn’t much different,” she says.

Her sentiments are echoed by Ellie, a 30-year-old public relations professional who has been injecting her forehead with Botox for three years and recently started hyaluronic acid injections in her upper lip to better showcase spring’s popular pigmented lipsticks. “It makes you feel as confident as you do when you have really good makeup on, except it’s a more permanent fix,” she says. Both agree that women who spend hours sculpting their bodies at the gym or thousands of dollars on expensive clothing and accessories, yet blithely allow time to ravage their faces, are perplexing.

“There’s a disconnect,” Sara says. (Thankfully, I’m neither chiseled nor moneyed.) While Sara is reluctant to disclose how much money she spends on her injections annually, she assures me that her hair upkeep is a greater expense. Ellie says her Botox runs her about $1,500 per year and the fillers are $600. “I know it’s extraordinary,” she says. “But the way I see it, I could buy a Diane von Furstenberg dress and wear it once every two weeks, or I could get injections in my face, which you see every day.”

After weighing the various arguments, my mind (and my forehead) are leaning in favour of an aesthetic intervention. I know whatever I opt for will be subtle and barely noticeable to the naked second-party eye. And I really do want to ride the wave of youth for as long as I reasonably can. But a recent fainting spell in my doctor’s office after getting a vaccination shot leads me to believe I still need to wade through some psychological issues before voluntarily putting myself directly in a needle’s way. Meanwhile, as my conscious and subconscious minds duke it out, I’ve made a request for some Xanax, just in case.