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On Vanity and Growing Old

The Daily Telegraph, 22nd July 2000


In middle age I have started to side with witches - in particular, the one in 'Snow White' who terrified me as a child. Poor, glamorous wicked stepmother, doomed to survey her face in a recalcitrant mirror, not hearing what she wants to hear, and condemned to the knowledge that the young girl with the silly name is, unarguably, 'the fairest of them all'. Demented with jealousy, refusing to accept her own inevitable displacement in the aesthetic heirarchy of the universe, she externalises her inner fears - transforming herself prematurely into an ugly hag, to poison the girl with an apple. As always, fairy story acts as metaphor. Within the classic framework of the struggle between women young and old, the moral is clear: vanity is a sin which will be punished.

The witch-queen couldn't help it - no more than I can. My own image smiles at me from my husband's windowsill: full-faced at thirty, and beaming at forty, and I yearn to look like that again. It is as futile as Canute instructing the waves. Each day my unfriendly glass displays 'the skull beneath the skin', and no narcissistic efforts will change that truth. Even more hostile is the unexpected mirror in the shop, where you suddenly glimpse a thin-faced hag with a lined, set mouth - then realise with horror who it is. I started to hate the the deep furrows from my nose to my mouth - even though I should rejoice that good humour, not bad, carved character into my face. In fact, the smile lines have been there for years, 53 to be exact, because I'm told I was a grinning baby. They are a part of me, but I don't want them.

I know it ought not to matter. My wrinkles makes no difference to those who love me, and my career does not depend on looks. Hardly. More confident that I have ever been, I know I will turn into a glamous, outrageous old biddy in purple, as in the popular poem by Jenny Joseph. Yet a part of me grieves for the face I have lost, and I admit that failing - just as I confess a frivolous addiction to cosmetics and colourants - even though it may diminish me in the eyes of those who think the only dignified option is to grow old gracefully.

Women have always been conditioned to think that appearance will dictate their success or failure in the world. Ancient burials contain male skeletons sent to the afterlife with weapons, females with domestic items - but also cosmetic containers and polished mirrors. The 1963 Hal David song instructs: Hey little girl , comb your hair ,f ix your makeup / Soon he will open the door. / Don't think because there's a ring on your finger / You needn't try any more....' Irritating though the sentiments are, the stupid song also reflects the 'truth' of the so-called 'Jackie-Ari' syndrome: younger, beautiful woman with older, powerful but unattractive man. Bertrand Russell (greatly experienced in such matters) wrote: 'on the whole, women tend to love men for their character, while men tend to love women for their appearance'. Simone de Beauvoir puts it like this: 'The individual life history of woman...depends in much greater degree than that of man upon her physiological destiny'. The message is that men do not need to be goodlooking to be sexually appealing, but women do. In Darwinian terms, attractiveness is a means of survival.

It isn't surprising, therefore, that militant feminism eschews all interest in personal appearance. Frequently this goes with a rejection of the family. Fine, I say - for I do admire women who are wholly unconcerned, like the wonderful Germaine Greer. But the rest of us, including the most independent women (like myself) who proudly embraced women's liberation, find it hard to break free of the binding chains of beauty. In complicit, smiling whispers we exchange the names of face creams which promise 'recovery' and 'renewal' - a vocabulary of longing: Stop Signs; Visible Difference; Capture; Night Repair; Plenitude, and so on. Agreeing we would never resort to plastic surgery, we confess that in private we tweak our sagging cheeks in the mirror, thinking, 'If only....'

It's hard to be honest, because you are seen as letting the side down - and vanity is traditionally held in such contempt. The skulls on ancient tombs chatter their hollow chorus against it: 'Fine lady, you may powder and paint all you will, but soon you too will come to this'. Medieval misogynists warned against beauty as a snare: the legacy of Eve. The stereotypes of tabloid journalism are well known: you are a model or a mum, and many an attractive, highly intelligent woman has been taken less seriously than she should be because of her looks. On the one side you have the virtuous wife walking sedately beside the scrubbed bluestocking and the nun. On the other, the painted floosie teeters along arm in arm with that grotesque travesty known as the Bride of Wildenstein - whilst Death with his scythe leers over them in mockery.

So intelligent women scorn intervention, in public at least. It's one thing to apply expensive moisturising cream, quite another to pay for (say) collagen implants, let alone submit to the knife. Once I saw Cindy Jackson, an extraordinarily beautiful product of the plastic surgeon's art, attacked on televisionmarriage by a well-known woman writer and broadcaster. To my surprise I realised I was on Jackson's side, thinking - why shouldn't she spend her money recreating herself if that's what she wants? Although sympathetic to the argument that spending on plastic surgery is pandering to male fantasies, I disliked the puritanical tone which harangued her. You hear it all the time, in the nudges about Cher, or the patronising wink that such-and-such a thespian must have had a nip and a tuck. It is one thing properly to object to the peddling of images of perfection in this society which lead young girls into an unhealthy, often dangerous obsession with body image. It is another to reject on moral grounds a perfectly natural desire, and free choice, to fight the ravages of time. Is it foolish vanity to refuse to consent to age? Well, yes....but so what? My mother brought me up to take a pride in appearance, and instructed me in the mysteries of make-up. I don't recall her telling me that this was the way to catch a man; perhaps that's why I wear eyeliner and mascara at home alone, when no husband is going to cross the threshold, nor any hapless visitor be snared by this painted, middle-aged trollop. No - my mother's 'teaching' was about looking after yourself. It was about (to borrow from T.S.Eliot) preparing a face to meet the faces that you meet, and 'taking a pride'. If you were plain you could still 'make the best of yourself'. You 'keep up appearances' in every way. Aging, there is no need to 'let yourself go'. For me, the verbs in those cliches imply more than passive acceptance of conditioning; they speak positively of choice, even control.

Years ago, sitting at my daughter's bed in Great Ormond Street Hospital, exhausted and worried, I took out the makeup bag and mirror, and began to recreate my public face. Suddenly my eyes met those of a younger woman across the ward, doing the same thing. We laughed in mutual recognition; 'You gotta try!', she called. The point is, the mask was being applied not out of vanity but as a means of coping. It was a gesture of defiance against the suffering all around us, the aching vulnerability of the human body which made our own children so ill. Painting my eyes was a conscious assertion of self. My philosophy says: if you don't like something - act. So it was the same spirit of rebellion that took me, at last to Harley Street.

The waiting room was as perfect and impersonal as the faces on the magazine covers. On the table,Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Harpers showed the usual, infuriating airbrushed pictures of young models. But Tatler featured the actress Kristin Scott Thomas, whose clearly visible lines merely added to her beauty. At that point, nervous anyway, I nearly left. I was booked to have the Artecoll 'permanent' treatment, in which a mixture of collagen and acrylate (used in orthopaedics to cement bones) is injected into wrinkles to fill them out. But if Kristin Scott Thomas could be a cover-woman with smile lines, why should I submit my face to the needle? Suddenly, journalistic inquiry became my excuse. Then it was too late anyway, because I was called.

Jan Stanek has practised as a cosmetic surgeon for sixteen years and sees his calling as a combination of skill and aesthetics. Talking to him confirmed my preconceptions: only five per cent of his patients are men, so this is indeed a female 'need'. Most husbands do not want their wives to change their faces and bodies; on the other hand a small minority of men bring their wives along for treatment, which Mr Stanek finds 'weird'. Most of his patients are' balanced people who know what they want'. He sounded like the author of Ecclesiastes when he expostulated, 'All right, this is the vanity business, but what isn't vanity? Think of the amount of money women - and men too - spend on clothes and cosmetics! If you look in the mirror and think you look old, what do you do? Break the mirror and walk away? Put on more makeup? Or decide to have the right kind of cosmetic surgery - knowing you can put the clock back ten to fifteen years. What's wrong with that? It's a matter of choice'.

I sat there, face plastered in numbing cream, agreeing with him. Well, I would, wouldn't I? Yet he was absolutely honest with me. The Artecoll treatment would not remove my smile lines, just diminish them. Since it is a mistake to 'over-correct' first time, there would be a necessary 'top-up' in a couple of months to complete what I began to imagine as builders' filler. But he told me those lines had always been there, and I had to accept that having a thin face means they always show more. It was clear this was to be no miraculous transformation, simply a blurring of reality. I was almost disappointed.

At last I was lying on the couch, cream wiped off, antiseptic applied, and Mr Stanek directed the needle towards my face. I expected pain, and a part of me welcomed it, as a 'punishment' for what Socrates called 'the vain conceit of beauty'. Yet sinners get away with it ....I am pleased to report the treatment did not hurt at all. I have experienced worse pricks whilst sewing. He injected and massaged the stuff in, up and down the lines each side - and in less than fifteen moments I was sitting on a sofa pressing icepacks to my cheeks. It was done. I took a train back home to Bath, expecting people to stare. But, though slightly puffy, I did not look like a hamster, and the next day's slight bruising was easily covered with foundation. What's more, as the days passed nobody noticed any difference. The face they saw was still mine.

Ah, but the image I see in the mirror is different. It isn't that the change is significant, it's that I feel I've taken control once again. It may be fatuous, but I feel great pleasure that three wrinkles are a little less deep than they were. One of my heroines, Simone de Beauvoir, summed up women like me: 'She puts up a battle. But hair-dye, skin treatments, plastic surgery, will never do more than prolong her dying youth. Perhaps she can at least deceive her mirror. But when the first hints come of that fated and irreversible process which is to destroy the whole edifice built up during puberty, she feels the first fatal touch of death itself.' (The Second Sex)

The point is - I know all that. There are no illusions; I can still see the skull beneath this skin I try, so carefully, to preserve. No witchery can banish it. The Artecoll can no more be called 'permanent' than I can expect the summer to last. Intercepting a wrinkle for a while is as nothing in the face of the cycles of the natural world to which we are all subject. The seconds, the minutes, the hours; the turn of the seasons and the years - all unite in a vast, cosmic chorus which cries, 'You will die, as everything will die'. I can hear it now and I am not afraid. The mirror cracks from side to side.... But I will stride towards the shadows wearing my brightest warpaint, and when at last I confront that ugly old death's-head, I will allow my much-aided face to crack too - into a great, proud grin.




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