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Does Botox Equal Vanity?

For me, appearances have always been important.

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animation of lady getting botox
Kelly Abeln
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My face costs me money. I’ve bought gels and lotions for my face that I would never dream of buying for the rest of my body. My feet, I barely notice. My butt? I can’t see it, so who cares? But my face gets my attention.

I come from a long line of vain women. My mother resembled Jackie Kennedy Onassis. My great-aunt Florence looked like Sophia Loren if Sophia Loren were Jewish and lived in Queens. My great-aunt Sophie had apricot-colored hair and looked like a tiny version of Zsa Zsa Gabor. These were my grandfather’s sisters. My grandma Miriam wasn’t as beautiful as her sisters-in-law, but wanted to be. Grandma was one of nine children. Her father left the family, and her mother made all her clothes. “I was a poor girl from a poor family,” Grandma said.

Appearances were important. Grandma never bought retail, but looked as if she did, in silk blouses, tailored blazers and “important” pins on her lapels. Her skirts were freshly pressed, her drugstore lipstick bright and her white hair sprayed into place. Grandma wore mesh metallic belts that looked like jewelry and gold bracelets molded into the shapes of snakes. She swam laps every day with her hair in a shower cap, had her hair done once a week and didn’t wash it in between.

You see where I come from. If you were a woman in my family, you didn’t dare step out of the house looking anything less than done. I was the first grandchild and the only granddaughter, and my appearance was constantly under scrutiny. Grandma loved me fiercely, but when she saw me, she stroked my cheek and said, “Darling, don’t you want to put on lipstick?” No, I did not.

After college, I became a journalist. My appearance didn’t matter. But in my early 30s, I tried out for an on-air correspondent job at CNBC. I spent months reporting a story, but knew the job would ultimately depend on how I looked and sounded on camera. Then I got pregnant. My face got puffy, my body bloated. I did not get the job. I had one healthy baby and then another. I went back to writing and teaching writing workshops. Nobody cared what I looked like because writers and teachers aren’t supposed to be pretty or glamorous — and who cares if they wear lipstick or comb their hair?

But I was raised to be pretty, or to want to be. All of this caught up with me when my older son had his bar mitzvah. I went all out. Dress from Bergdorf Goodman. Hair cut in Manhattan. Injections of Botox and Restylane. Yes, I gave into it. Yes, please judge.

My vanity journey began. Every six months, I get Botox. Every couple of years, I get Restylane. My sons are 22 and 18 now, so you do the math. My dermatologist and I went to high school together. I call her Dr. Debbie. She is super smart, and her soft skin looks like a baby’s belly. We laugh, trade recipes and talk about people we haven’t seen in 40 years. Then she says, “Are you ready?” She draws dots on my face, fills her syringe and whispers, “Here’s a little pinch.” The nurse offers instructions: Don’t shower for the next few hours (you don’t want water pounding your face after Botox); raise and lower your eyebrows as much as you can. No exercise right after, either — sweating causes swelling.

Last week, I went for a tune-up. Botox for the top half of my face, Restylane for the bottom. How much did it cost? A week of teaching writing workshops, and then some. How did I look afterward? That is harder to discuss. Since I was at the dermatologist, I asked her to check out the two pimples festering on my chin. She injected them. The nurse handed me arnica to help with the bruising from the Restylane. I put the arnica in my bag, and forgot about it.

The next day no one saw me, except my husband, who mostly doesn’t notice what I look like. I once had a boyfriend who noted my hips were getting wider, and another boyfriend who said I looked better with my clothes on than with them off. It’s liberating to be with someone who doesn’t care. Until he does. Two days later, I had black and blue marks on my chin from the Restylane. The pimples had decided to stay a while, too. It was Memorial Day weekend. We were going to the beach. I picked my husband up from a meeting. Since I was driving, he only saw the right side of my face.

“What happened? You’re bruised.”

“You don’t want to know.”

“You look like you had sex with someone and they bit you.”

Rather than dismiss this as ridiculous, I told him: “I got fillers.”

“How much?”

“You don’t want to know.”

My husband decided it was time to read all 600 of his unread emails. Several days later, I met a friend at Barneys for lunch. Barneys is a sea of unlined faces. It is Botox central. My friend is one of the most beautiful women I know. Her father is a plastic surgeon. She
understands what can be done. She looked at my face.

“Have you been pricked lately? You look good.”

I nodded, muttering, “The fluorescent light in our bathroom is so bad, I can’t tell what I look like … blah blah blah.”

My friend shrugged. “You look great.”

Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t. I think of my grandmother who worked so hard for so long to look her best, and probably only stopped thinking about her looks right before she died at 98. I’m the age now that she was when she became a grandmother. I don’t iron clothes or collect jewelry and belts the way she did. But when it comes to keeping up appearances, I’ve decided: I have to try.