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Essay: When Things Fall Apart

I’m a huge fan of looking younger/brighter/better through chemistry and surgery, but Botox has up and quit on me. Now all it does is raise my eyebrows like I’m Jack Nicholson or like I’m perpetually shocked (which I’m sure I would be if I were suddenly Jack Nicholson).
I’m not happy about it, which you can clearly see on my face, because in its current state I have – if you’re being nice – what is called “an expressive forehead.” This basically means that even the well-meaning nurse at my orthopedist’s office says I look tired.

“I’m not tired; I just need Botox,” I say, and she laughs and says “Oh, you do not,” but I notice her brow is completely unfurrowed when she says it. Clearly it’s still working for her, because she’s got to be pushing 50. I’m trying not to hate her, really.

This was supposed to be my facelift year, but at this point it’s not looking very probable. Because ugh. The rest of me. Everything else seems to be falling apart on me at once, and I’m reluctantly giving precedence to my failing knees. What good is having a taut and youthful face if you’ve got to walk with a cane to go anywhere to show it off?

This shouldn’t be happening to me at the relatively young age of 52, but I haven’t been very kind to my body over the years. When I was 15, I remember having a screaming match with my (mostly absentee) father, who was upset about I-can’t-remember-what-now, something relatively banal, like my eye makeup or my hemline or something, and he said, “You’ll understand when you’re my age,” to which I replied, as teenage girls do, “I will be dead long before I’m your age!”

At the time he was … wait for it … 48.

It never occurred to me when I was a teenager that I would still be using this body in my 50s, and that’s the way I treated it. And now, as my father would have said, the chickens are coming home to roost. I’ve put my body through the gamut: obsessive exercise followed by long periods of sloth; starvation diets followed by gluttony and you-name-it. In my defense, I was all rock ’n’ roll, Hollywood glamour back in the day. Gilded excess and not thinking about tomorrow were cultural values for kids like me growing up in Southern California. And it didn’t help that I was raised by a single mother with her own deep-seated body issues; then, once I’d reached an age when I could make my own decisions about my body, I created a similar prison of my own design.

I remember lying down on a friend’s waterbed to tug the zipper of my skintight Guess – or were they Jordache? – jeans up with the hook end of a wire hanger (c’mon, I can’t have been the only one). Then, just a few short months later, I’d grapefruit-dieted to the point I was lamenting that I couldn’t keep those same jeans on my hips without a belt. And so it went. Lather, rinse, repeat – well into my 30s, when I lost 80 pounds, kept it off for a couple of years (thanks to caffeine, nicotine and twice-daily hikes at Runyon Canyon) and had my first surgical procedure, the unfortunately nicknamed “mommy makeover,” consisting of a tummy tuck and breast lift, a brutal moniker for a 35-year-old woman with no children. But the result was amazing. For the first time that I could remember, I didn’t have to tuck extra skin into my bra or my waistband – although, truthfully, I still didn’t feel “skinny” or “fit,” even though people would stop me in the grocery store to admire my biceps and I was teaching cooking classes to bodybuilders at Gold’s Gym on the weekends.

I’m fat again, but that’s another story, or maybe it really isn’t. I was thrilled with the outcome of that first surgery, but it didn’t solve any of my personal problems, and I still dealt with them in the same ways. I still didn’t feel beautiful most of the time, and I still obsessed about food, starved myself until I broke down and overate. Only now my skin was taut and uncomfortable, and I gained weight in places I’d never carried it before. My stomach ballooned in the middle and I went from originally being a plus-size hourglass to a lumpy apple shape with strong hints of pear. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should probably flip to another story, possibly one about cars or great restaurants.) I’ve tried to make peace with my body and appreciate it for its power and strength, but it’s a work in progress. The empowering lectures from my 30-year-old yoga teacher with the Lululemon-ed butt that defied gravity weren’t helping, so I did what any sane person should do. I stopped going to yoga.

Somewhere along the line, probably in my mid-40s, my concerns shifted from my dress size to the unfortunate situation with my neck and above. It seems like one morning I just woke up with an extra fold of skin between my chin and my clavicle, and a feathery spray of wrinkles across my forehead and around my eyes. How did this happen? It was like a really evil fairy had arrived during the night and waved a magic wand that showered me with resting-bitch-face dust. As a grown woman, I’ve always taken good care of my skin. I never leave the house without wearing sunscreen, never go to bed without washing my face and moisturizing (I could retire on what I’ve spent on La Mer, thank you very much), and I’ve been getting judicious Botox and fillers since I was in my mid-30s. And still, resting bitch face.

That’s when I decided I needed a facelift fund, squirreling away some money here, some there, plotting what it would take for Newport plastic surgeon Terry Dubrow to please, God, please, give me the diamond-sharp jawline and that I-just-woke-up-this-beautiful look he’s given half the women you see at any given red-carpet event.

My mother was a child actress who had her chin done when she was a teenager, which was way back in the ’40s, when there wasn’t a plastic surgeon on every other billboard and anesthesia was an iffy and sometimes fatal process. She was ashamed of it, and I didn’t know the truth about the jagged scar under her chin for a long time. Whenever I asked, she’d allude to a fall from a horse or sometimes a car accident. Consistency wasn’t her strong suit. One day, her little sister, my Aunt Sharley, let it slip in the snippiest of ways that my mother’s face was augmented. I can still hear Sharley’s judgmental tone when she said it, a word I didn’t understand but knew better than to ask about in the moment. The almost imperceptible flare of my mother’s nostrils and her brittle smile told me it wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have.

Today I’m glad much of that stigma has dried up (ugh, such an unfortunate word choice at my age, which is a whole different Oprah). Men and women can make whatever changes they want to their appearance if it serves them, and no one really blinks a blepharoplasty-ed eyelid. It’s not a source of shame or some indicator of inferiority, but more a source of personal empowerment. Or it can be. That is the promise, at least. And I believe it. (See above re: my fandom.)

So, yeah, I’ll be back to dreaming of Terry Dubrow as soon as I get my knees replaced. Assuming, of course, nothing else falls apart first … .

A former celebrity assistant for people she can’t name but that you know, Shanna Mahin is the author of “Oh! You Pretty Things” (Dutton).

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