Is Botox the New Normal?

Dominique Browning thinks we're taking the needle and the knife too far

Every year like clockwork, we get a major news outlet insisting that this time, our quest for the Fountain of Youth has gotten out of hand. Over the weekend, the New York Times took their turn, publishing Dominique Browning's essay "The Case for Laugh Lines."

Without citing any numbers to indicate an actual rise in the use of Botox and other anti-aging procedures, Browning insists, "We've gone too far. I'm becoming very, very scared."

The problem, it seems, is mostly visual: Browning keeps running into old friends she doesn't recognize because they've had so much work done. In her world, such procedures are becoming so common that to decide not to have Botox is to become a freedom fighter, challenging deeply engrained cultural standards about beauty and aging. She's not sure she's up for all that.

Fortunately, out here in the real world, things don't look so glum. At 30, I'm a little young to have my finger on the anti-aging pulse (despite Browning's assertion that "the mantra about cosmetic procedures even among some 30-year-olds is 'intervention early and often'" -- I must not run in such fancy circles). But over on Slate's DoubleX blog, KJ Dell Antonia reassures me that outside your average Manhattan cocktail party, there aren't that many midlife women taking the Botox plunge. In fact, there were just "2.2 million Botox injections performed in 2009 out of an adult population of about 230 million."

So why does the media regularly get worked up about this alleged Botox epidemic that has yet to actually take place? For starters, I think the ageism that Browning calls out is 100 percent alive and well. Once upon a time, hair dye was the particular province of Hollywood starlets and loose women. Now it's standard operating procedure for tons of women (and men!) who know their career prospects would be severely hampered by a head full of grays. And it's a slippery slope from Clairol to the collagen injection -- especially if your job is on the line.

But when we focus on the most extreme manifestations of ageism -- news anchors who physically can't display any flicker of emotion when they report on tragedies, celebrities who look like they're melting -- we aren't actually helping to solve it. That's because getting worked up about crazy beauty treatments like vampire facelifts distracts us from the real problem. Day to day appearance discrimination (about age and of course size, too) happens in far more subtle ways, whether it's being passed over for a job for reasons not specified, or having your quality of medical care compromised.

And that's the stuff we should be talking about. Instead of worrying about all of the Botox that Browning's fancy friends may or may not be getting.

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