If face lifts were like smart phones the price would keep coming down, there’d be a tempting new model every few years and people would line up for them in the mall. But so far they aren’t. They’re expensive and risky and most people don’t go around showing them off. That makes them fascinating, especially when it happens to a face you know.
I was surprised when a woman in yoga class announced, not whispered, that she was getting cosmetic surgery. There are certain things that women freely share. How much they paid for their shoes. The status of their sex lives. But cosmetic surgery has been a more private act, confided to only a few, leaving others to wonder “did she or didn’t she?”
But that is not the case with Ellen who openly discussed her plans to have cosmetic surgery. She even invited me to write about her although she didn’t want her real name published. No one has yet said “what a waste of money” or “how can you be so vain?” But she didn’t want to risk the judgment of strangers.
In March the week she turned 59 Ellen spent $11,000 and four hours in outpatient surgery to tighten the skin under her chin, smooth her forehead and minimize lines between her eyes and around her mouth. The money was part of an inheritance from her mother.
Ellen is an artist, swing dancer and kayaker. She’s happily married and lives in Sebastopol, Ca. where I live and where natural is the norm.
We tend not to use fertilizer on our tomatoes and we let ourselves ripen as nature intended.
That is, many do, or believe we should, or at least wouldn’t go as far as being surgically altered. I would probably have put Ellen in the same unprocessed category. I’ve never even seen her in makeup.
She said her goal was “not to look younger but to look better.” And she was doing this for herself. Her husband didn’t object to or encourage her decision. Like writer Nora Ephron, Ellen has long despaired of her neck. “I’ve always had a matronly neck, even when I was young.” The fleshy neck is a genetic trait shared by many of her mother’s side. She and her cousins even named the neck after her mother’s family. She knew she would never have an Audrey Hepburn profile but her goal was to lose “the jowly stuff,” which she’d been camouflaging with turtlenecks.
She also thought she’d begun to look “kind of tired. Gravity was happening.” And she had a sad look. “Sometimes people stop me on the street and say ‘oh, it’s not so bad.’”
She talked about her facelift dispassionately like she was rationalizing a makeover for the living room. Yet even though she grew up in Long Island where among her school friends “a nose job was a rite of passage,” she wasn’t cavalier about getting cut at 59. “Things can go wrong,” she said. “I could die.”
Her reason for telling people her intentions, she said, was so she wouldn’t back out. I told her to go for it; we all have our vanity. I color my hair and whiten my teeth. I’m not entirely wild about my neck either. But I’m pretty sure if I had an extra $11,000 I’d rather take my husband on a trip.
Ellen’s decision inspired that kind of reflection. She said several friends confessed they too might want a little remodeling and she suspected they were mostly stopped by money and courage. I think I’ve seen too many grim photos of botched plastic jobs on the internet. I’m still sad about Meg Ryan and Jessica Lange changing their faces. But after Ellen and I talked I’d go home and push my face around in the mirror. I used to have a sharper profile. One eye droops a little when I’m tired. There is a line between my eyes that is becoming a trench. I imagined Ellen studying me while I studied her and thinking “Good Lord, woman, what are you waiting for?”
Her surgery went fine; the recovery predictably uncomfortable. She was swollen, bruised and had to sleep sitting up for two nights. Her ears hurt where there was a lot of slicing and pulling. With her bandaged head she thought she looked like a nun and called herself Sister Moon Face.
After she healed she liked her face fine. It was a thinner more youthful looking Ellen. I told her I saw freckles which might have been hiding within wrinkles.
But, alas, it was not the neck of her dreams. Her doctor agreed to bring her back for a little more cutting but said the family neck grew outward and could never be tapered into a right angle. Much more surgery could damage her trachea and she said she had to agree “that breathing trumps vanity.”
Four months after surgery and her retouch, Ellen is content with a brighter face and a little less neck. If I didn’t know she had surgery I might notice that she looked refreshed and seems happier, but she’s not dramatically changed. Now she goes up to people who didn’t know in advance to ask, “Notice anything different?” One old acquaintance looked at her hard and said, “Your hair’s gone gray.”