It all began with a little black spot on my lower lip. “You should get that looked at,” said the woman at the Aveda store, handing me the rhubarb lipstick I had picked out to cover it. As she stared at my face, I felt panic rising. I was fair skinned and blue-eyed and of the generation that had coated our teenage bodies in baby oil while roasting in the sun. Although I knew to wear sunscreen now, I often didn’t. “I don’t have a dermatologist,” I blurted out. She quickly wrote down the name of a doctor she recommended highly.
Two weeks later, after my HMO cleared the visit, I was sitting in the doctor’s office, wondering just how many hours of unprotected sun exposure it took to get skin cancer.
“Come this way,” a bright voice said. “The doctor will see you now.” I followed a glamorous nurse into a well-appointed pink room. The doctor hurried in. She was a lithe woman with fair hair and blue eyes like me. She looked intelligent in her slightly Bolshevik wireless glasses that accentuated the gentle rise of her cheekbones. Although she must have been sixty, her skin gleamed. “Hello,” she said, taking a seat on the stool opposite me, “you are here because of a spot on your lip.” I nodded. She looked at my lip then scanned my face. “I’d say that dark spot is a venous lake,” she said easily, “just a vein. We can laser it out, but you should see a dermatologist first.”
“Oh,” I said, somewhat confused, “I thought you were a dermatologist.”
“Oh no, I’m a cosmetic surgeon,” she said confidently. “Take off your glasses so I can get a better look.”
I removed my glasses, full of relief at her diagnosis, but feeling perplexed. How in the world did my HMO approve a visit to a plastic surgeon?
“You’ve got lots of sun damage,” she began, examining my face, “but we can bleach that out. You’re in pretty good shape for your age. Good structure. A bit of droop in your eyes but we can do a tuck right here.” She touched the corner of my right eye. “Of course, we don’t want to do too much, or you will end up looking startled.” She sat up then, diagnosis complete. She looked so relaxed and competent, not my stereotype of a money grubbing plastic surgeon who preyed on female insecurities. I stared back at her bright face. Before I could help myself, I asked her what she would recommend.
“Welcome to the candy store!” she said, smiling broadly and handed me my glasses. She pointed to a wall of brochures and pulled out two. “I’d recommend Sculptura. In four to six treatments, we can replace the fat you have lost in your face. That will make the wrinkles that have started go away. We can of course do more if you like, we can take fat from somewhere else and use that.” She touched the crease in the center of my forehead above my brow. “You worry. Probably you tighten your forehead when you concentrate, which you have to stop, but we can soften that line.” She smoothed out the crow’s-feet by my eyes with her thumb. I felt the muscles in my face relax. “Every time you smile you create wrinkles. That is why you’ve got all these little lines starting to show by your eyes. But don’t worry. We can fix you up. I just finished my own treatment. I had to ice for a few days to help bruising. Now it’s fine.”
As she continued, it began to seem as if looking youthful was as simple as going to the hairdresser and finally getting a few highlights. I felt myself becoming bewitched by her can-do attitude. I made a mental note to stop worrying and concentrating so hard. It was wrinkling my brow. Also, stop smiling. She pointed to one of the pamphlets and showed me a face that she said mine resembled. The face was peaked and strained, with lines around the mouth and eyes. But in the “after” version, treatment complete, that same face looked at least ten years younger.
“Men look good with wrinkles and gray hair,” she said as she watched me take in the photograph of my before and after self. “They look rugged and handsome, but women need to look soft.” I looked up. Normally I’d be railing about such a sexist comment, but here in this pink room she seemed to be just stating facts. I felt strangely disembodied. Was I finally outgrowing my extended tomboy years, becoming a mature, sensible adult woman? The cool confidence of the doctor made it seem crazy not to take advantage of all these opportunities to look my best. I wore lipstick on occasion, why draw the line there?
Driving home I wondered how much of a fool I had been, as if all these years I’d been wearing granny underwear. Looking more youthful was so accessible and most of all, everyone seemed to be doing it. What else was I completely naïve about? I had lived my life trying not to use my femininity and looks as a means to advancement or popularity, opting for directness and honesty. But I was fifty now and counting. My face was beginning to sag. I had this wicked crease in my forehead from thinking too hard and God knows how many crow’s-feet from smiling. In other words, I looked like a crone and what was worse; people were probably judging me as stupid for not knowing better than to take action. I was suddenly insecure in the realization that my emotions had carved a map on my face. Being a thinker was wrong. Smiling too much was wrong. Having wrinkles was wrong. But there was hope and to pay for it all, I could always take out a loan.
Three weeks later I was walking down Broadway, and my visit to the cosmetic surgeon felt like a crazy dream. I had just come from a day of drawing the female nude at the New York Studio School where I was enrolled in the infamous drawing marathon, a rigorous two-week course in which students draw the nude model from nine to six with daily critiques after. Day after day, I struggled to capture what I was seeing on paper, studying every inch of the three female models posed in the center of the room. One model was fashionably androgynous with a thin, angular body. One was as voluptuous as a Gauguin nude, her large stomach nestled under rolls of fat, her face a beautiful round moon. The third was somewhere in the middle, long legged and slim but with a hint of roundness.
After two weeks of working hard to see what was actual before me, then carry these observations to the paper, I began to make drawings that captured the models not as idealized female figures but as forms in space, interconnected by all that was around them. I become amazed at the beauty of the human body, its crazy geometry, its idiosyncrasies. I no longer saw these women as thin or fat, pretty or plain, but as a series of lines and triangles, organic shapes of all kinds. Each day, walking home, I saw women on the street as if seeing them for the first time. A slim girl rode a scooter, her long black skirt waving like a flag, a shape which echoed her sweep of brown hair. An older woman sashayed along in tight Capri pants, her rear an enormous pear, gorgeous in its lines and swells. I no longer saw only svelte and angular as beautiful and recognized with a start, that it had taken two weeks of intensive drawing for me to even begin to recognize how deeply and narrowly even I, a self-avowed feminist, had been conditioned by society and fashion and commerce to judge so strictly what constituted female beauty.
Back at home I threw away the pamphlets on collagen injections. Other Americans spent over twelve billion dollars yearly on cosmetic surgery, but I didn’t want to lose my emerging wrinkles, those hard earned worry lines, that particular geometry of crow’s-feet shaped by years of smiling. My aging, weathered face is a map of who I am, just like my unfashionably thick swimmer’s arms and runner’s calves. No, I’d take those beautiful wrinkles that I knew even as I write this were becoming etched into my face.
Leila Philip is the author of four books, including The Road through Miyama (Random House), which received the 1990 / PEN Martha Albrand Special Citation for Nonfiction; and A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family (Viking). Philip has received numerous awards for her writing, including from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her most recent book is Water Rising (poetry and watercolors, New Rivers Press, 2015) with Garth Evans.
Leila teaches at the College of the Holy Cross where she is a Professor of literature and Creative Writing in the English Department and an active member of the Environmental Studies Program.