Photo: George Marks
I'm sitting in the beige surrounds of my local beauty salon. Tight-faced beauticians flutter past leaving trails of musk-scented air and the tinkle of a synthetic waterscape pipes out from hidden speakers. A woman approaches.
"Fill in this card before your massage, Miss Simmonds. It's just to identify any conditions or problems we might be able to help you with."
I glance down at a page busy with boxes and ailments.
Journalist Jessica Rowe. Photo: Lannon Harley
- Dry Skin
- Skin cancers
My eyes freeze. My dutiful ticking and crossing ceases.
"I'm sorry, how is ageing a dermatological condition?" I ask, my voice bristling with indignation. Before the poor startled woman can respond I put a heavy angry line across the page and write "No problems! My skin is quite perfect." My masseuse later tells me I'm carrying tension.
If ageing were anything other than the most human of conditions, then I suppose you could say I'm afflicted. A thought-line the length of a finger nail has formed a splendid sluice between my eyebrows, and when I smile my eyes crease into a hundred happy rivulets. I have a face filled with the days of my 35 years.
Of all the wrinkles on my face, it's my thought-line that is most beloved. It's a proud testament to a life spent in study – a physical marker of intellectual growth and wisdom. It communicates to others the experiential authority of my opinions, and it allows me to question without saying a word.
Suffice to say I have a very different relationship with my face to that of Jessica Rowe. Recently Rowe wrote that she chooses to Botox away the lines on her face simply because it boosts her self-esteem. And because she said the c-word ("choice") then feminists should celebrate the power she exerts in choosing to do this of her own free will.
My reaction, of course, was to furrow my fabulous thought-line. If Rowe had said that she does it because she's a news presenter and Botox would guarantee her another 10 years of work then I would understand. You can't fight every battle. But to suggest that her choice exists in divine isolation from any pressure to ward off the social invisibility that befalls older women; to suggest that she is miraculously quarantined from a world that equates youth with beauty and that sexually disqualifies women past the age of 50 does not make good sense.
Ageism and sexism have an incestuously close relationship whose mutant offspring are called Botox and Plastic Surgery.
There is nothing natural or inevitable about women wanting to cut up their faces or inject them with silicon. Until around the 1920s, the feminine ideal was decidedly matronly. Victorian models of femininity were based on moral virtue or character, which meant that there was nothing wrong with ageing. In fact, beauty was equated with a maternal ideal.
Maturity was scorned at the precise historical moment that Western women gained the vote, started to work, began to live independently of men and entered the public sphere. I don't put this down to mere coincidence. Nor is it a strange quirk of history that an infantile model of femininity emerged at the same time as a mass market. Victorian women were deeply suspicious of make-up, or 'paint' as they liked to call it. To make money, the beauty industry (today worth $170 billion a year globally) had to convince women that beauty could only be bought, and this meant creating anxieties through promoting an unattainable ideal of sexualised adolescence. The companies who created the fears were also the ones who offered the remedies at a very high price.
At the very moment that women were promised freedom, they became subject to a crushing regime of external regulation and bodily "improvement". At the very moment when maturity should have given women political power and social authority, they were mocked or made invisible because of their deviation from a childish ideal. At the very moment when they should have turned their minds to matters of state, they internalised these new prescriptions and turned their minds to matters of moisturising. The psychological effect upon women of youthful femininity was, and is, catastrophic.
The question that feminists should ask is: "What does it mean to botox your face?" I think it means that you are wealthy enough to pay a lot of money to erase all the marks of character, experience and wisdom from you face.
It means that women's faces remain frozen in time, while male faces are loved and valued for how they speak their authority. It means, in Susan Sontag's words, that a "double standard of ageing" exists in our society where old women are sent off to the sexual gulags. Botox is just an attempt to delay the sentence. And it means that women are taught to get their sense of self-worth through male standards of sexual attractiveness that are tied to infantility.
Should feminists applaud Rowe because she says it's her choice? I say fifty shades of no way. You could begin by saying that just because the act of choosing can be called feminist, it doesn't mean that the choices you make are feminist. But I would go further. Choice is the language of capitalism and individualism and as such sits uncomfortably with a feminism based on collective rights. The choice between being a sexual object or being put on the shelf has NOTHING to do with feminism and a lot to do with patriarchy. Choosing between a 19th-century feminine ideal based on women as mothers and a 20th-century ideal based on women as nymphettes is also not a feminist act.
The c-word is starting to become a little nauseating of late. Why is it that every "choice" that women make – from pole-dancing to botox – also aligns with patriarchal views on women's value? It's time we went back to analysing the power structures and social conditions under which people make decisions and worked out how to dismantle them for the benefit of women and society as a whole.