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CUTS BOTH WAYS


Time magazine recently ran a feature on plastic surgery. Written by Joel Stein and entitled "Nip. Tuck. Or else." it discusses the prevalence of procedures that were once the exclusive domain of the rich and famous. Now everyone is getting work done, and choosing instead to age gracefully could actually work against you. People may take it as a sign that you don't care about your appearance, or about your job enough to maintain your appearance, and how could you let yourself go like that? These times in which we live. . . .

Stein quotes Abigail Brooks, a director of women's studies who has done extensive research comparing women who undergo anti-aging interventions and those termed "natural agers." She worries that the increasing pressure imposed by one's image-conscious peers in a society in which these procedures are so common is "not only exhausting but also keeps women forever 21 emotionally." I am of this opinion. My grandmother stopped being my grandmother when she started going under the knife. I was probably 8. Since then she has been a nice lady with a really smooth face, a euphemism for Stein's tiger lady with bolt on breasts.

I shared the article with my mother. Actually since it is her subscription, she could be said to have shared it with me, although she hardly ever reads magazines, or anything except what I write and share with her. So if you're reading this mom, thanks for letting me read your magazines, and I love you, and if I write anything that gives you wavy lines, I'm sorry in advance.

The top five procedures are breast augmentation*, nose reshaping, liposuction, eyelid surgery and face-lift. My mother has had every one of them. Though the breast augmentation was to cosmetically fix the deformity induced by the mastectomy performed to remove a malignant tumor, which is why there's an asterisk there. I don't think my mother would care about my sharing this with you. She compares getting work done to repainting or otherwise repairing the façade of your house, and since home-owners don't tend to conceal architectural renovations, then why should she be ashamed of what the various surgeons have done over decades to the temple that is her body?

I restated for my mother's benefit the concerns of Ms. Brooks, and said that with people trying to turn back the clock and look increasingly younger, the phrase "act your age" applies, yet not in the traditional sense of a child being urged to act more mature; rather, it is for adults who get stuck at the emotional level that matches their artificially-enhanced appearance. My mother's argument was that if getting work done makes a person happy, where is the harm, and live and let live. But if the fact of everyone else's going plastic makes you the object of concealed ridicule for electing otherwise (the case with "natural agers") then it's less live and let live and more live and judge others for not living the same way.

Recently mom came back from a nonsurgical cosmetic procedure - I think something was done to her skin, though not Botox, though she is no stranger to Botox either - saying the technician told her she looked 48. My mother just celebrated her 70th birthday. I laughed when she shared this with me, and was relieved that she recognized that the intention was to flatter her vanity in the hopes of getting her to come back for a touch-up real soon, rather than the technician's actual opinion. I brought up the compliment, modifying it by saying, "Mom, you don't look 48 - you look like a woman trying to look 48." Rather harsh? It's a sensitive subject, some may even say a sore one for me. I sometimes shy away from being seen with my mother in public, for fear others will think we're dating. I'm 42, and unlike my mother, I shun the surgeon's knife, so I look my age. But not entirely.

It was my mother's relentless influence that prompted me myself to undergo a surgical cosmetic procedure. I wondered only half-jokingly if she got a cut of the surgeon's hefty take, so assiduously did she endeavor to make me see the benefits of undergoing said surgery. What happened to live and let live, silly bitch? (I mean that endearingly.) I mean it's my body. On my own I'd never have sought out the procedure, much less submitted to it, and the results which I wear on my face for all to see are irreversible. It's not like shaving my chest, which I've done and which grows back. Or piercing my ears for earrings I no longer wear. I can dye my hair or grow I beard or do whatever though I'd never get a tattoo because it's semi-permanent. Yet even skin ink can be lasered away, unlike getting your face carved into. And whether the surgeon's work is an improvement is debatable, since who can compare with the hand of God, and Nature is after all the Divine's maker.

I knew a guy in high school who had rhinoplasty and I thought it vain and effeminate. He wasn't very handsome before or after, but a true heartthrob doesn't wear a fake face. Posers do. Okay, maybe Fitusi had a Jewish nose. Or Italian. It was aquiline. But what's wrong with aquiline anyway? I'm not the guy to have work done, and yet at my mother's behest I had work done. Granted it was over half a lifetime ago, but still. The irony is the harsh finger of judgment is now pointed by me at me. In weaker moments I condemn myself as living a lie. This face is not who I am! But who am I really? Ah, that's the question of all questions. To the extent I identify with this body, I will continue to be bothered by a procedure I underwent at my mother's urging when I wasn't even old enough to drink and hardly old enough to care. Accept what comes unsought, am I wrong?

I've made my peace, though sometimes the self-castigation (I should have been stronger! I should have resisted her influence!) or the self-doubt (maybe I do look better this way) still rears its ugly head. My mother has since admitted that part of her motivation was for me to look more like her, which may seem selfish. But she also wanted me to look more "sculpted," more "refined." It is what it is. And the upside is I used to look more like my father, and also to behave like him (how often appearance and actions go together), which meant as I teenager I had adopted his swinging moods and sweeping contradictions. Now that cord has been cut. Funny how academic papers on plastic surgery in the 1960s argued that nose jobs were an attempt to get rid of the father. As my dad would say, I am not the body. So the resemblance may be gone, but his impact remains.

I am more dispassionate about plastic surgery in the writing of this, but at the time of the conversation with my mother, I was much more vehement. The conversation descended into the realm of debate and from there to bickering and fault-finding in unrelated areas of life, like a certain someone's tendency to produce bodily functions at levels so discernible as to be disturbing, and throughout the house. The argument ended as it often does, with my mom's familiar pronouncement: "It's my house. If you don't like it, you can leave." Who can argue with that? Afterwards I reflected on our kitchen altercation. Part of me was sorry for being so frank. My intention was not to hurt my mother's feelings. But the truth can sometimes hurt. I don't think she was hurt. She has her own truth, and thick skin and is resilient and will do what pleases her regardless of what I or anyone else thinks. It's what I can't stand about her, and also what I admire most.

I thought about whether I should move out rather than remain in my childhood home in a sort of protracted adolescence. I began to berate myself for my wasted life. Maybe the fact that the fruit trees I once planted in the back yard all died is a sign that as long as I remain under her roof my literary labors will not bear fruit. Then I wondered about the futility of it all, and why not just off myself! I was pretty upset. I was lying on my bed having this inner dialogue when it happened. It was as if something just snapped. And I found myself laughing and laughing. I mean hysterically. Me, pure consciousness, associating myself with this personality and this face and a certain mother and taking it so seriously that I would actually consider ending my own life? Like infinite space identifying with the air in a wee jar, or thinking it's the wee jar itself! Hilarious!!! And as if the real I could ever die!

It was as though I pulled myself out of a nightmare and came back to who I was as consciousness. Pure. Perfect. Eternally free. And no matter what happens, where I go, what I do, and with whom, or how this body looks while doing it, the pure consciousness remains the same.

But maybe I should move out of the house. Nah, too much trouble. I've traveled the world already. And besides: "A man who can remain still for a number of years in one place, mastering the out-going impulses of nature, can become a true adept sage, for it is a Herculean feat, and brings the rewards of Nature's conquering." (Ramana Maharshi)

Ramana never had work done. He was above such things, and without such a persistently plastic mother who if she saw his picture would certainly argue that at the very least he could have used a tummy tuck.

Plastic surgery may be here to say, but exactly how it is applied may change. I'm waiting for the day that kids look at pictures of grandmothers of ages past, with their sweet smiles and careworn eyes, then up at their surgically-altered versions whose face is frozen in a permagrin or who cannot frown at all, and with cross-eyed confusion wonder what happened, prompting the many grannies and nanas of the world to once again assume the position and submit to the surgeon's scalpel, this time to put the wrinkles and bags back where they found them. Nature knows best.

But really, it's what is behind those eyes, be they in lids creased and hooded with age or nipped and tucked in place, it's what burns as the ever changing reality from the seat of the heart through the light of the gaze, that matters anyway. Time may be cruel, but what you truly are is way beyond and can't be touched, not even by the surgeon's scalpel, which I think we've shown can cut both ways.



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