When youth starts to fade, is plastic surgery the answer?

BY Cathy Gildiner

28th Jul 2023 Life

When youth starts to fade, is plastic surgery the answer?

As she faces up to the big 5-0, one writer contemplates trying out cosmetic surgery for the first time—but at what cost?

Not long ago I hit the high-water mark: 50. I was having breakfast with my rowing team at 6.30am after a tough training session on the river. We were sprawled in the cafe in Lycra sports gear designed for 18-year-olds, when an old friend sauntered by looking like Kate Moss on the catwalk.

Naturally we grilled Nicole about her gym, her masseuse, her skin cream. She dismissed all with a flick of her false nails. "I had my eyes done," she whispered.

Impressed, I booked an appointment with Nicole's plastic surgeon. I was told I'd have to wait three months to see him, but as Nicole said, I'd need it more by then, anyway.

Tempted by youth eternal

Before and after photo of plastic surgeryCould plastic surgery uphold its promise to restore the appearance of youth and beauty?

On a summer's day when everything except me was in bloom, I trooped through an upmarket district—which should have been my first financial tip-off—to a door (aptly located near an antique shop) that simply said "cosmetic surgery".

I was greeted by four very thin assistants in taupe Armani outfits. One of them asked if I needed water, another brought Swiss decaf in a gold pot and one handed over a clipboard that asked my age and "how I wanted to see myself".

The last one told me I had to pay £100 for the consultation before I saw the doctor.

"Was it better to look 35, tired and anorexic, or 50, happy and rested?"

The office was decorated entirely in taupe. In fact, the assistants were detectable only when they moved.

Every one of the other clients looked about 35, yet somehow exhausted. All had deep tans, small black T-shirts and sandals with huge platform soles.

Their hair was tousled, looking as though they had just stepped out of a Mercedes convertible, and highlighted with various shades of blonde. Most wore a size eight, and no one was larger than a ten. I felt like a sumo wrestler in my size 12.

Later when I told Nicole of these 30-something, fatigued women, she said, "They looked strained because they're in their fifties and they've been done—stretched to the limit."

I was facing an aesthetic dilemma. Was it better to look 35, tired and anorexic, or 50, happy and rested? To put this in some perspective: I could still look really young and spry at a senior citizens' yoga class.

Finding new faultlines

Woman looking in mirror and finding wrinklesOnce you start looking, you'll find no end of signs of ageing

I was soon called in to meet The Doctor. Deposited in one of a labyrinth of consulting rooms, I gazed round at walls covered in gold-filigreed mirrors.

The light was unflattering; I found wrinkles I'd never noticed, even in sunlight. Naturally I did what any woman my age would do: I pulled back my skin at the hairline to see how a facelift would help.

Finally the doctor entered, jauntily. He was trim and wore a raw-silk pastel jacket. "I don't think I really need to be here," I said. "I just came for a consultation."

He glanced at my chart and looked intently at my face. He then uttered his first bit of insight in what turned out to be a seven-minute con- sultation. "Mrs Gildiner," he said, "let me assure you you look every one of your 50 years." (For this I'm paying £15 a minute!)

Trying to scrape my face off the floor, I replied, "I thought I might just get my eyes done—very subtly of course."

"The light was unflattering; I found wrinkles I'd never noticed, even in sunlight"

"Look." He held up a magnifying mirror and asked, "What could be improved?" As I gazed, the mirror began announcing, actually screaming, all kinds of new faults.

I hesitated, mesmerised by the Medusa before me. The doctor leaped into the pause.

"I'll tell you what I see. The eyes are a given; I won't even go there. What about the bags underneath, and the puffiness? Of course, the brow would have to be tightened."

He tapped my chin and all along my jawbone. "What are we to do with this Elizabethan collar? This all needs tightening." Staring at my face dead-on, he said, "Then, of course, there are the jowls..."

I managed to whimper, "Nicole only had her eyes done."

"Well," he said, "you're not Nicole." He pulled my cheeks out until they almost hit the opposite walls, and added, "Nicole doesn't have that kind of elasticity."

Concluding his consultation, he announced, "Whatever you have done will have to be repeated in five years' time."

As he breezed out of the door, he called: "The girls will tell you all you need to know."

Maintenance costs

One of the taupe four came in and took me to a wood-panelled room, dimly lit by a green-shaded desk lamp. In this light, she showed me a scrapbook of miracle lifts. A few of the women really looked a lot younger, but most looked like Zsa Zsa Gabor—before and after.

No one had mentioned price. At the risk of sounding crass, I asked what the cost would be for eyes and the tiniest of tucks, say two or three stitches. She slid an envelope that said "Personal and Confidential" in tiny taupe letters across the table.

I opened it. In my head I heard the ka-ching! of a till. The cost was more than £12,000 payable by guaranteed cheque.

"Wow, that seems like a lot," I squeaked. The assistant replied: "It beats the £23,500 you'd pay for the work that was suggested. Remember, it's an investment. Do you ever take your car in for a service and an oil change?" I nodded my corrugated face. "Well, that's only a car."

Later that day I went for my annual dermatologist's appointment, to find out if any of my thousands of freckles had turned into melanomas.

When I told the doctor about my morning sojourn, he asked one question—the price. When I told him, he chirped like a bird on speed: "Cheap, cheap, cheap. Go for it!"

Looking closely at my forehead, he added, "But for God's sake, don't let them inject Botox into those worry lines in your forehead. Tell them just to cut that muscle or they'll grow back."

"What's Botox?"

"It's a poison from the same family as botulism toxin. The plastic surgeon injects Botox to paralyse your muscles so you can't pull your eyes together or furrow your brow and make those lines again."

I wondered aloud, "If you can't furrow your brow, does that mean you aren't worried anymore?"

The dermatologist rolled his eyes.

Staring death in the face

Older woman stood outside and smilingInstead of turning to plastic surgery, acceptance of middle age could be the key to contentedness

When I finally staggered up my street feeling like the Elephant Man, my neighbour Helen, who is over 70 and still looks beautiful and vibrant in every light, was out tending her nasturtiums.

As I regaled her with the day's events, she furrowed her non-Botoxed brow and said, "I'll give you a free bibliographic consultation."

She went into the house and came back with a book: The Denial of Death by philosopher Ernest Becker. Handing it to me, she said, "I'll bet that doctor doesn't have this in his waiting room."

"Once you realise that the fear of dying is the hub of the midlife crisis and deal with that, the rest is just details"

Samuel Johnson was right when he suggested that the prospect of death wonderfully concentrates the mind. Once you realise that the fear of dying is the hub of the midlife crisis and deal with that, the rest is just details.

I now tuck my Elizabethan collar into my polo neck and fold my jowls under my balaclava in winter. I have begun to realise that I earned these lines.

And on the odd day when I want to deny the inevitability of death, I simply wear a tight hairband.

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