Published March 2010
I stand in front of the mirror and pull back the skin around my eyes. I look 10 years younger, maybe more.
In the doorway to the living room where my husband, Brian, helps our teenage son practice guitar, I say: “Maybe it’s time. What do you think?”
They look up at me. Our son laughs. Brian shakes his head. “Oh, God, no,” he says.
I’ve lived in Southern California for more than 20 years, but I never gave cosmetic surgery a thought until a long-ago boyfriend made me aware that I was less than perfect. It has been on my mind, in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways, ever since.
The boyfriend was a writer, like me. Unlike me, he was buff and dedicated to exercise and physical perfection. One day he said: “You know, you’re perfect. Well, you would be perfect—if only you had bigger … .” He gestured about the chest area.
I was dumbfounded. At that point, I’d lived in Orange County five years and no one had ever suggested my chest was a problem. I was small, but not as flat as Kansas. My boyfriend assured me that his mother and sisters had had work done—boobs, lifts, lipo—and it was no big deal to go under the knife.
It took me a minute to snap to. I said: “I’ll get implants if you do, too.”
He flushed red and his lips quivered. “What are you saying?”
We broke up soon after. That’s when my obsessions about the physical began. Nowhere I had lived—the East Coast, New England, Northern California—were big boobs (and wrinkles, but that would come later) such a big deal. Now I noticed boobs everywhere. If I ran into a woman with small breasts but with a seemingly happy husband, I considered him either a hero—or a fake.
Then I met Brian. On our first date, as we walked along Ocean Avenue in Corona del Mar with the sea churning below, a half moon low in the sky, I said: “What do you think of breast implants?”
I stopped on the grassy area of Inspiration Point. “It’s like this,” I said. “My last boyfriend wanted me to get them. If you want that, too, we should call it off now.”
“I don’t want that,” he said. “I mean, I like boobs, but not fake ones.”
We were married less than a year later.
I was a young thing in the days when it was cool to go braless, and because I was small-breasted, bralessness made little difference in my appearance. My mother, with cleavage that made men drool, tried to persuade me to wear a bra.
“Barbara, you’re still growing!” she said, as if without a bra’s support, my breasts wouldn’t reach their full potential. My mother’s favorite actresses were cleavage queens—Jayne Mansfield, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren—and she prayed for the same for me.
“I’m 21!” I said. “I’m done growing!”
“You never know,” she said, sipping her milky Folgers.
My breasts were the size of martini glasses—not margarita glasses—a good thing, had you asked me back then. I could run, lie comfortably on my stomach, and do anything braless without bouncing. Boyfriends didn’t seem to mind.
But in Orange County, size matters. And breasts also measure the aging process. The more they droop, the more you’ve aged. It’s harder to age in Orange County than in, say, Altoona, Pa., where I was born. Here you’re surrounded by youthful-looking women, even if their appearance is the result of surgical help. Seeing all these perky breasts and thighs of steel, I look down and bemoan the curse of aging, and gravity.
Fortunately, Brian likes all things vintage. When we walk down a Corona del Mar sidewalk stamped 1929, he looks dreamy. His favorite guitar was made in 1931. Good for me, I suppose, that he appreciates my gently worn parts.
Still, everyone wants to look attractive—don’t they? Or is the wish to look different, more appealing, a way to ensure you’ll be loved more? A therapist friend says, “Isn’t everything—everything—at its most fundamental, about being loved more?” Loss of youth means loss of love.
Aging means different things to different people. One male friend says getting older, for him, means a loss of societal right: “You lose the privilege to be affectionate in public because no one wants to see older folks getting frisky, and you lose the privilege to talk to a younger woman without people thinking you’re having a midlife crisis.”
Still, he’s not worried enough to go under the knife.
One guy I knew hated his droopy eyes. He thought he looked like a dog. So he got cheek implants. The surgery made it worse; one of his cheeks fell. Now instead of looking like a sweet dog, he looks like a demented basset hound.
My therapist friend says a client was distraught because she had a nose job at her boyfriend’s request and now doesn’t recognize herself. Looking wistful and a little sad, the therapist says, “Not much to do about it now.”
Of course I’ve heard many happy post-surgical stories—women and men who have renewed self-esteem, whose clothing now fits them like a dream. Or, like Roseanne Barr, their cosmetic work replaced the face they disliked with a face all their own.
A couple of years before my mother died at 81, I found a magazine open on her kitchen table, revealing a cosmetic surgery ad, circled. She didn’t worry about aging, never had cosmetic work, and bedazzled men—mostly with her cleavage—until she was well into her 60s. What was the world coming to, that my elderly mother entertained thoughts of surgery? Did she think it would return her earlier allure and bring her the love of a man to replace my late stepfather?
Back then, I couldn’t imagine why someone would go through all that just to look better. But after I turned 40, I began to understand how it feels to look in the mirror and wonder how the girl I once was had disappeared. Maybe cosmetic fixes help women become visible again, to avoid the unsettling experience of having men look past you to a younger, prettier face. Yet, I’m beginning to relax as I accept that there are, and will always be, younger, prettier women.
“Really,” I say to my husband, who has turned his attention back to my son and his guitar, “I’d be cuter with the most minor little face-lift.”
“One thing leads to another,” he says. “ ‘Animal Farm.’ Michael Jackson.”
So while I can now empathize with women—and men—who go under the knife, I feel lucky to be in good health and growing older at all, and lucky to be with someone who accepts my aging and his own. I can live with that—I think.
Barbara DeMarco-Barrett is an Orange Coast contributing writer and the author of “Pen on Fire.”
She also hosts “Writers on Writing” on KUCI-FM 88.9.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell