Why you should care
Cosmetic surgery that aims to preserve youth contributes to the damaging myth that old is ugly.
“I’m considering getting Botox,” a friend told me recently — just the latest woman I know who’s nearing 30 and wants to freeze her face in time. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have given this much thought. After all, as women age, they’re expected to alter their faces, bodies and hair to look younger. For all the progress we’ve made, women’s value too often comes down to “hot or not,” with youth supposedly equaling beauty.
Last year, more than 7.2 million people got Botox in the United States, compared with just 786,911 in 2000, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. That’s an 819 percent increase in less than two decades, and 1.4 million of last year’s Botox recipients were under age 40. Internationally, the U.S. has the highest number of cosmetic surgeries each year — nearly double that of Brazil, the country with the second-highest total — according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
But it’s time to grow up and see these for the pathetic attempts they are to prevent the inevitable. Women in their 30s and 40s shouldn’t have to constantly poke, prod and tuck to look like fresh-faced teens. In fact, we should ban any and all cosmetic surgery procedures that aim to reverse aging or preserve youth.
Most of us are accidental ageists — by using the world “old” to mean gross, boring or uncool, or complimenting others by saying they look great for their age, we’re constantly reaffirming the notion that youth is good and age is bad. And it’s no wonder we feel this way — that message is constantly drilled into our brains by skin care companies. “The beauty industry makes us feel like we’re failing at something, so we buy their products,” says Kyrié Carpenter, age-positive speaker and activist.
When Carpenter was just 22, her dermatologist suggested she get Botox before the wrinkles started to form. At that age, you’re just learning to think for yourself, Carpenter says, and you’re forming ideas around what’s normal and acceptable. A licensed medical professional telling you to fix your face so you don’t look old doesn’t bode well for adolescent self-confidence.
Aging is the one thing that affects us all, if we’re lucky enough to have a long life. For some people, and white men in particular, old age will be their first time experiencing “otherness,” which often leads to loneliness and isolation. This is why depression is one of the most prevalent mental diseases among adults over 60, according to a 2012 study in the journal Aging and Disease. But if we change our perception about getting old, elders will no longer be discriminated against by society. If we didn’t think of wrinkles as ugly, saggy skin as gross or gray hair as revealing, we could look at our aging reflections with pride rather than dismay.
Legislation preventing cosmetic surgery for the purpose of looking younger is the answer, enforced with fines for those who violate the law. During the Great Recession, the number of plastic surgeries in the U.S. dropped by 18 percent in 2009, The Guardian reported. The recession affected other cosmetic surgery hubs like South Korea too, to the tune of 40 percent fewer patients between September 2008 and January 2009. Cosmetic surgery is a luxury for most, and when it’s completely unaffordable, it loses its appeal. If we charge patients and clinics high fees for involvement in anti-aging cosmetic surgeries, the practice would inevitably fade away.
To be clear, cosmetic surgery should still be permitted for gender reassignment. The opportunity for our physical appearance to match our gender identity is important. But continuing to alter our faces and bodies to look younger is a fool’s errand. “All you’re doing is postponing a reckoning and increasing your fear about when that reckoning will come,” says Ashton Applewhite, pro-aging writer, activist and author of This Chair Rocks, a book on the history of ageism and how we can create an age-positive future. By hiding our wrinkles and gray hair, we make ourselves invisible, Applewhite says, and the issues that affect us become invisible too.
Changing our perceptions about aging starts with visibility. Wrinkles are beautiful, because “they tell the stories of our life,” Applewhite says. Getting cosmetic surgery to look younger says that “looks matter most.” So let’s flip the script. Let’s embrace our wrinkles, like we embrace life stories, and all look older together.