Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Don't Let the New New Be Normal

A few months ago, I was on set with nothing to do, as I often am when I'm employed. Whereas when I'm unemployed, I seem to have too much to do. Like recently, when I sit at home and work on grant applications and e-mails and Facebook -- but no, I know, not blogs, I've been bad, I admit this. (But have I mentioned that I've recently been UNEMPLOYED??? IN JULY??? When I need to be earning my health insurance hours so I won't have to rely on Congress to pass a health insurance bill that would actually help freelancers like me, instead of leaving us to twist in the wind with the rest of the uninsured who show up in emergency rooms every day when their common cold or swine flu turns into pneumonia???)

Anyway, I was looking for reading material. I always have a couple of New Yorkers with me on set for such occasions, but sometimes, I just don't want to get sucked into reading about how all the bats in the world are dying off due to killer fungus, or children growing up in an immigrant detention camp. When you're trying to boom someone talking about how all they need to make their day is a Pepperidge Farm biscuit, having more weighty matters on your mind that really drive home the fact that the work you're doing is pointless and idiotic can be a bit distracting.

So at times like these, I often look to see what pointless and idiotic crap I can steal to read from the client coffee table. Generally, I'll go for the lowest level of brain candy, People or Us Magazine, because I know I'd never buy it and because I know that the comparison of Who Wore It Better, Mary Kate Olsen or Kim Kardashian (who IS Kim Kardashian??? Did I mention that I'm UNEMPLOYED???) won't even make a dent in my psyche.

So one day, I decided to go highbrow and read New York Magazine, having been drawn in, like all good cash register impulse buyers, by the cover. The title of the cover article was "The New New Face," and it showed a close-up of the face of a woman who, based on the dotted lines and circles and arrows drawn all over her countenance, had probably had plastic surgery. She also happened to be Madonna, which made it even harder to resist. What woman who came of age in the 80s can not want to be dished dirt about the Material Girl?

The article detailed how new innovations in plastic surgery had been based on a revised concept. Rather than face "lifting," the new new surgery required face "volumizing." No more tightening of skin that pulled it into a reptilian, cheekbone-bearing death grimace and put women's eyes practically on the sides of their heads, yet with incongruous, anaphylactic lips (examples pictured included Faye Dunaway, who already had cheekbones the size of Kansas to begin with, Cher, and Melanie Griffith). Now, based on the success of Botox, the new design concept was to make the face look fuller by restoring the dewy plumpness of youth. In other words, not changing your face but putting back what you'd lost so you truly looked like you used to look -- examples, aside from Madonna, being Demi Moore, Elizabeth Hurley & Michelle Pfieffer.

The odd thing about this "new you = old you" thing is that this surgery is actually more invasive. Rather than simply making tiny incisions by your ears and pulling the skin back, this surgery is real surgery, involving basically going under your cheek skin and fat to the layer of muscle that holds together and lets you move the lower half of your face, disconnecting that layer, pulling it higher and stitching it in so it stays there. Then you add the Botox or collagen or butt fat (yes, butt fat -- but at least it's generally yours) to sculpt and plump everything else to match.

I have never had elective surgery, but, as those of you who follow this blog already know something about, I have had some minor health problems leading to a few non-elective procedures. Some of the side effects/results of these have been pain, swelling (once to chipmunk proportions), headaches, leaky wounds, absolutely unbearable itchiness, fainting, all-night diarrhea, and having people stare at me on the subway, probably thinking that I was a victim of domestic abuse. I've even had kids point and laugh. It's not much, really, but it's certainly been enough for me to ask, Why would anyone choose to go through that?

Plus, I know stories of people who have gotten talked into elective procedures that were, let's say, un-fun. Like the friend of a friend whose husband did a favor for a plastic surgeon and got offered a free boob job, only to be told that she "had" to get liposuction as well to make her figure "proportional" (and explain that to me: bigger breasts mean you need a smaller ass?). She was in pain and draining through tubes for months. Then I have a friend whose dermatologist said that, to deal with her sun damage -- aka freckles -- she had to get a chemical peel that left her skin carnation red and burning for days.

Of course, both these people lived in L.A., where everyone always wants the new new everything, but here as well, Botox brochures can now be found in nearly every GP and dermatologist's office. And when I went to my dermatologist recently, while sitting by the receptionist waiting for them to bring me in and cut into my nose, I was forced to watch a series of videos on a giant flat screen TV. These alternated between infomercial-style frozen-smiled spokespersoning by the doctor himself and videos showing giant animated flowers blooming and bees buzzing, while the soothing woman's voice of a tampon commercials told me this:

"Life is Beautiful, Chapter One: The Ageless Face. Nature is beautiful. But like nature, your skin can have elements that break down over time, reducing its youth and freshness. Reducing the inner beauty you feel inside. But what time takes away, your dermatologist can restore. Microabrasion and chemical peels, dermal fillers and botulimotoxin are now available to make your skin reflect your beauty to the world. In fact, these treatments are often used in combination! So talk to your doctor about how you look and feel. We can make your outer appearance reflect your inner beauty. After all, life is beautiful!"

And then there would be a fade to black, followed, after a brief pause, by,

"Life is Beautiful, Chapter Two: Dermal Fillers..."

Heck, who needs therapy, when you can talk to your dermatologist about how you look and feel and just get him to inject cow toxins, originally called "fatty poison" by the German man who discovered them making people sick in 1817, into my facial muscles, so that they can't contract for three to four months -- at which point, I'll get him to do it again!

Think about it: if you'll consider that, where will you be willing to go next? Which brings us to the stories of faces gone truly, horribly wrong. Like the Lion Lady, New York socialite and commonly known plastic surgery addict Jocelyn Wildenstein. Can she really think she looks attractive, or even human? Or Jennifer Grey and Meg Ryan, who got surgery that made them look so little like themselves that it effectively ended their careers. Or Diane Hershey, whose face shriveled around her collagened lips to form a grotesque and permanent pucker. Or Michael Cimino, who looks like he's in the witness protection program (though, thanks to Heaven's Gate, maybe he is). I won't even go into the Jackson family, because that just seems wrong at this point in time, but God knows I see someone on set or on television or in the style pages (although then it's more like ten people) every day who has definitely had work done.

Of course, once you start to see the work, then you see it everywhere. I went to a party soon after reading the article and could hardly talk to a woman I met because I was so focused on her oversized lips and sumptuous babycheeks. Ever since a friend told me she'd gotten a nose job for her 15th birthday "because that's what Jewish girls in Westchester do," I can't help seeing when someone has the nose, that perfect little ski slope that every mediocre nose job results in, that makes all of its wearers look like members of the Von Trapp family.

That's one major scary thing about all this: all these women, who are supposed to look so much like the way they picture themselves looking at their best, now look alike. That's how you can tell they all have the New New Face, they all look like they're part of the Cabbage Patch Family. Same thing with Botox, everyone has the same, immobile, expressionless expression. The nose, the lips, the cheeks, the chin (oh yes, the chin), the straight blond hair that all actresses have to get at least for a phase early in their careers -- it's all about sameness. There is a type that, once it becomes beautiful, is what everyone wants to be. And it's not exactly like a supermodel, because supermodels actually look like freaks. Have you ever seen one up close? Boney Amazon super tall twig people, with giant eyes and cheekbones that could give you a paper cut. But what they share are big eyes, big lips, heart-shaped faces with wide foreheads and narrow chins, small noses, and most of all, thinness, and youth.

You might say, What's the big deal? If these women want to go under the knife, that's their business, what's it matter to me? And in general, I agree. It's their bodies, their faces, they can refigure or disfigure them as they see fit.

But, there's more to it than that. The fact is, the way these women look matters, because it becomes the way everyone expects us to look. We see them on TV, on the big screen, on every billboard and in every magazine, and if they don't age, we're all expected not to age. If they have phenomenally thin and muscular bodies with enormous breasts, we're expected to have all that too. Even though it's not normal -- unless you have a personal trainer you work out with 4 hours a day and a team of stylists and make-up and hair people and a good, expensive plastic surgeon and dermatologist at your beck and call -- it becomes the norm. And in an age when we are constantly confusing reality with unreality, when airbrushing and soft focus are everywhere, when we believe that anyone can become an American Idol and Jon and Kate get more tabloid time than Brad and Angelina, it becomes easier and easier to see the people we see on TV and in magazines and think, That's what 40 is supposed to look like -- so why do I have wrinkles, cellulite, a belly, graying hair and bags under my eyes if there's not something wrong with me? If you're a woman, you may say you don't do that, and if you're a man, you may say you don't care, but that's all bullshit. If those are the images out there, it's also in there: inside your head.

I'm not saying don't dye your hair. I used to say that, but now that I have gray hair, I get it. And I'm not saying don't use moisturizer or night cream or toner or Retin-A, even if nobody knows if those things really work. But know that it's a slippery slope. How many steps is it from facials and chemical peels to Botox, from Botox to collagen, from collagen to an eye lift, and from an eye lift to a tummy tuck to some neck tightening to the New New Face? I mean, once you start seeing the things happening in the mirror as flaws rather than the natural effects of age, you're never going to stop seeing the flaws.

Because you're not going to stop getting older. And why should you? Life is getting older and changing and becoming a different person over time. If you want to look like yourself, then look like yourself. It's hard to resist the pressure, I know. When a woman gets to that age when her age is not just a fact but an impediment, one that means people won't date you or hire you or sometimes even talk to you because it suddenly seems to make you invisible, how do you not want to fight it?

But I believe the only way to fight it is to not fight it. It's to get old and still know you're beautiful, and make sure everybody knows it, and that that kind of beautiful is normal. You think Madonna is the norm? I mean, the woman has been more people over the years than Sybil, including the one who adopted a British accent to move to London and marry a film director, who she's now divorcing because she slept with a man who makes something like $10,000 every time he swats at a ball with a piece of wood. And even though she and Hollywood and fashion magazines and the Real Housewives of Anyplace are fighting for your subconscious, don't let them win.

We may not be perfect, we may not be famous, but WE are the norm. And we need to keep it that way.