Leslie on Silence, Shame and Botox

Why do some women hate others who use Botox and other ‘'liquid’‘ facelift techniques but give men who use the stuff a free pass?

We like to think of ourselves as individuals and the decisions we make about how we keep our skin, hair and body as based on personal preferences but the truth is more complex than that. In fact, what an individual comes to consider de rigueur on her personal grooming ‘'to do’‘ list is the outcome of complex social processes taking place in the wider society and her personal social group.

Take body weight. Studies show that women judge their body weight by reference to cultural and fashion models with whom they identify and – more importantly – by the immediate social group. If the icons and peers with whom they identify are larger women, then they deem a larger body to be ‘'normal’‘ and feel fine about it.

In the same way, the collective influences the judgments individuals make about what constitutes ‘'ageing gracefully’‘ and ’‘letting oneself go’‘. Nearly all the middle-class, educated women I know dye their hair, apply face cream and wear make-up. The mantra is that 50 is the new 40 and, from what I observe, this means that women broaching 50 don’t just want to feel 10 years younger – they want to look it, too.

Some find this easier to achieve than others. For those without genetics on their side, cosmetic interventions such as Botox and injectable skin fillers can help.

But while women in my social milieu speak openly about their next root-dyeing appointment, few admit to getting their Botox topped up. Indeed, as one cosmetic nurse told me, gift certificates that her surgery donated to a private school charity auction for facial fillers were passed in without a single bid, despite many women in the room being clients of the practice.

Where’s there’s silence, you’ll often find shame and the shame surrounding surgical and liquid cosmetic interventions in Australia is legion.

But who’s peddling it, and why?

Radical feminists – and their Christian pseudo-feminist cousins – blame men. As one angry young woman put it in response to a piece I wrote on the issue several years ago: ‘'Women get plastic surgery, as well as spend endless time and money on all of the other beauty practices listed, because men require us to … Men invent new and higher standards of beauty for us to live up to because they need new and different ways of knowing that we’re still playing the game.’'

My experience is that the shaming and silencing around Botox has nothing to do with men and everything to do with other women. Not the vast majority of women – who are lovely to one another and respectful of each other’s hang-ups, shortcomings and choices – but two sub-groups of the pursed-lipped I’ll call ‘’‘the holier-than-thou’‘ and ’‘the controlling wenches’‘.

The holier-than-thou It’s hard to take this subspecies seriously. First, because the ‘'men make us do it’‘ argument is so factually flawed. It is estimated that one-third of wrinkle-reduction procedures are done on men, which suggests that consumerism – not sexism – is a key driver of demand.

Second, because holier-than-thou politics are so hopelessly … unpolitical. If it is true that social forces – not individual choices – are piloting women’s decisions to undertake cosmetic surgery, then it seems hopelessly regressive to shame individual women from abstaining as a means of effecting global changes to female behaviour.

The controlling wenches Despite the name, I have a fair bit of sympathy for this lot. As the use of cosmetic surgical interventions becomes the norm, expectations of what a ‘'typical’‘ 50-year-old looks like are changing, too.

From a situation where a woman who chooses to use cosmetic interventions may be lauded for looking ‘'great for her age’‘, we may be arriving at a place where a more youthful appearance is expected. Women who choose not to intervene may no longer be seen as ’‘ageing gracefully’‘ but instead be viewed as looking ’‘old’‘, or even judged for ’‘letting themselves go’‘.

This is why the wench snaps at the heels of women who admit to using injectables in an attempt to slow or halt the changes to social norms resulting from the collective consequences of individual decisions that increasingly ‘'normalise’‘ such use.

So why do some women have a problem with others who use Botox, but no issues with men? Because we are social creatures and compare ourselves to other women, not men.

And – as is the way with social phenomenon – it is the decisions some women are making to add liquid facelift procedures to their grooming regime that is changing the nature and types of choices available to others.

Publication history

Beauty Cuts More Than Skin Deep  The Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)