Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Beauty Quandary

Last week I was having lunch with an old friend—Sara, I'll call her—who happens to be the beauty editor of a major magazine. As part of her job, she reviews all the latest "miracle" products, explores every new laser or chemical treatment and interviews all the most highly regarded dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons. So I couldn't resist asking her what, if anything, she considered worth doing. And, by implication of course, what, if anything, she had had done. Although she's over 50, her skin looked flawless.

Sara was generous about sharing her personal beautification resume. First, she uses Retin-A; she calls it the gold standard in skin treatment. This topical ointment, derived from vitamin A, reverses sun damage and improves the skin's texture.

She has avoided botox, wrinkle-fighting injections that she feels rob faces of expression. Botox supposedly works by paralyzing muscles in order to reduce lines. (I say "supposedly" because I once had botox to reduce the frown line between my eyes. It didn't work at all. My dermatologist was astonished, and concluded that I must have been frowning since birth to have developed such a strong frown muscle.)

Sara isn't interested in doing anything that involves needles, so this also rules out fillers that are injected to plump up wrinkles. And she avoids surgery and lasers. I asked about something called Intense Pulsed Light, a skin rejuvenation program that I'd heard worked wonders for a friend of a friend in Alabama. On the non-invasive end of the scale as skin treatments go, IPL is meant to even out skin tone and reverse sun damage. This Sara has tried, and she said it had made a noticeable difference in her complexion. Before lunch was over, I took down the name of her dermatologist.

My first reaction was to get on the doctor's waiting list. Then I did what I always do when I hear about a new cosmetic procedure. I went on Make Me Heal, a website where real people air their uncensored opinions about various treatments they have undergone. There I found a few endorsements from happy IPL consumers and more complaints. People had written that it hurt like hell, did little good, and, in one case, caused skin to look worse than before. Of course dissatisfied customers are much more likely to post on message boards, and the skill of doctors varies, as does individual reactions to treatments. Still, it gave me pause.

I've been discouraged over the years from pursuing any number of allegedly promising cosmetic treatments by the Make Me Heal message boards. I suppose on some level I want to be warned off; otherwise I'd have long since deleted the site from my Bookmark list.

I can't help noticing that my ratio of approach to avoidance is shifting toward approach. When I was younger I disdained the idea of major cosmetic interventions. Trying to combat aging was a losing proposition, I thought; the dignified option was to concede gracefully. I imagined, too, that the impending signs of age would confer an appearance of wisdom and nobility. Sadly I've now reached a different conclusion: my aging face is not destined to look anything like Vanessa Redgrave's. Frown-y and tired seems more probable.

So if some youth-giving remedy came along that had no negatives on the message board, required no down time, and was guaranteed to be an improvement, I believe I would consider it. Oh, yes, and it has to be painless.

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