Friday, July 19, 2013

(wrinkles) on my face

I've always been fascinated by changes that occur as a result of ageing.  I like to listen to people speak when they are out of sight, and from the quality of their voice have a ballpark guess of their age.  Singers' voices changes over time too - Kate Miller-Heidke made reference to this in an interview of hers I read.  As her voice matures she creates different sounds and effects that wouldn't have previously been possible.

And then there are faces.  Ah yes, those ageing faces.  Laughter lines, crows feet, furrows... the sands of time make their mark.  Not that I don't like it.  As the somewhat unwanted lines set up home around my eyes I've been making sneaky observations of women around me, sort of measuring up their lines against mine and figuring out who might be older or younger, or who looks older or younger.  For all my obsessive checking, I'm yet to see a woman's face I don't find attractive. Their lines are beautiful, whether contained around their eyes, or extending to their whole face.  Ageing adds a depth and beauty I like very much.  Which isn't to say the smooth, young faces aren't beautiful - they are dewy and lovely - rather that beauty comes in many lines and forms and ages.  Maybe I could add a caveat or two, but there seems no limit to where beauty can be found in a human face - which might explain why 'In Your Face' by Dr Bryan Mendelson (2013 Hardie Grant) stuck in my craw.

'In Your Face' caught my eye on the library because it sounded like other books I've read in the 'investigative journalism' vein.  Books like 'Breasts. A natural and unnatural history' by Florence Williams (2012, Text Publishing), or 'Swindled. The dark history of food fraud, from poisoned candy to counterfeit coffee' by Bee Wilson (2008, Princeton), both fabulous books.  Perhaps if I had noticed 'In Your Face' was written by a plastic surgeon, I might have realised it was no plastic surgery expose.  Instead I waded into what turned out to be a 221 page defence of the humble facelift.

Not that the book was all bad.  I found the history of plastic surgery presented by Mendelson quite fascinating, if fairly one sided.   None of the gruesome failures so vividly described in the history of breast augmentation detailed by Florence Williams here.  Or tales of death by lead white make up as recorded in 'Colour: Travels through the paintbox' by Victoria Finlay (2003, Sceptre).  Mendelson traced a safe history of plastic surgery from its ancient, humble beginnings in India, to the duelling days of the 1500s and facial reconstruction in the era of post WW1, before describing the plastic surgery of today.  What began as the relatively simple creation of skin flaps from the cheek being placed over the nose, developed into the use of skin flaps from the arm.  In this case, during the time it took for the skin to develop a blood supply at its new location, the flap remained connected to its old site by a thin strip of skin.  This required wearing a rather uncomfortable looking contraption designed to hold the arm next to the face for several weeks.  These days plastic surgery on the face is highly sophisticated indeed.  Gone are the super tight face lifts of the seventies and eighties created by firmly pulling the skin back over the face.  Today surgeons mine under the skin and fascia of the face, working their way around sagging ligaments and into structural spaces hidden far below the surface.  In these deep spaces, they fix tight sutures that lift the face where it needs it most.  By Mendelson's account, observing the changing face mid-surgery is a beautiful thing.

And this is where, in my view, 'In Your Face' fails - it is based on a narrow vision of beauty.  Dr Mendelson admires beauty and it is a recurring theme of his book. Chapter 4 begins with a lovely quote from Christopher Morley, "In every man's heart there is a secret nerve that answers to the vibrations of beauty." While reading this, I found myself caught up in Mendelson's treatise.  He argues hard for the importance of beauty, citing research and statistics on just how miserable life is for those who society doesn't count as beautiful due to facial disfigurement or unusual features.  Frankly, they have a tough time of it - they earn less, have less friends, and are generally discriminated against.  They stand out in a crowd, and feel constantly conspicuous.  For many, the endless torment leads them to withdraw from life.

I certainly can't argue with anything Mendelson said there.  I've been blessed with pretty good looks, and at times I have felt this working in my favour.  I've also wondered what it is like to not be considered beautiful by society, and occasionally (evolutionary theories aside) I've mused on the silliness of judging people based on appearance - as pretty as some of us might be, we can not take a whole lot of credit for it.  We did well in the genetic lottery of appearances and we should be humble about it.

It seems to me, Mendelson and I look at the same faces and reach completely different conclusions.  He sees a case for plastic surgery and I see the need for society to re-examine and deepen its value base, although in reality, Mendelson's surgical solutions seem more achievable than a recalibration of society's beauty values, given our current obsession with external appearances.

Beauty values.  That brings me right back to my disagreement with Dr Mendelson.  While I see beauty in faces of any age, 'In Your Face' is laced with emotive value judgements about ageing.  Take this example, "An ugly neck, and there are surprisingly a lot of them about, can completely detract from an otherwise attractive face.  This happens at any age, but for most people the neck is associated with ageing" (p164).  Wrinkles on your neck? Ugly.  "In a young person there is a smooth expanse of skin that flows evenly from the lower eyelid across to the cheekbone.  In an older person the segments of the junction are revealed, with a drooping bulge below the eye and the loss of the attractive smoothness" (p160).  Attractive smoothness?  Really?  A young person has attractive smoothness while the older person has a drooping bulge?  Value judgement.

Mendelson seems particularly concerned with the way ageing makes a person look tired.  Very tired.  All the time.  Of course, it couldn't be that they simply are tired.  No.  A tired appearance is the result of the deep facial ligaments sagging, and that drooping bulge below the eye.  Looking tired is apparently one of the inevitable effects of ageing.  Here more emotive language sneaks its way into Mendelson's descriptions of the experience of ageing.  It is 'bewildering' (p60), 'frightening' (p61), a 'frustration' (p61) and 'continues unabated' (p69).

Mendelson is well prepared for those who argue that aging can be graceful and beautiful - only younger people who have not experienced ageing make these claims, he says.  Those caught in the throws of an exponentially ageing face are too busy looking in the mirror in shock, facing the reality that they no longer look tidy or like their real selves (I kid you not - an ageing face looks untidy according to page 60).  Older people never argue one can age gracefully because they simply cannot reconcile their own tired looking faces with the young person they know still lives inside them.

I'm glad I read 'In Your Face'.  It was interesting and informative.  However, it was also biased and one sided, filled with value laden judgements from one perspective. (According to Dr Mendelson he wrote with a necessary bias in response to the constant bad rap plastic surgery receives in the media)

I have talked about ageing with a number of older friends and relatives.  Several of them told me they used to worry about the effects of ageing on their looks, now they think more about its implications for their health.  From where I stand, they seem to have made a successful, graceful transition into looking older with style.  And without plastic surgery.

And me?  Sometimes I catch myself looking in the mirror and wondering if I'm looking more tired than normal.  Then I remind myself that I am what I am.  I still observe the faces of people of all different ages, noticing the impact of ageing, the drooping skin and stretching ligaments... and I still find beauty there. Put the two together and I guess that means my tired look is quite beautiful. Mendelson can write what he likes - beauty is so much bigger than anything he thinks.