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(Author not pictured) (Rick Gomez/Corbis)

Nip, Tuck

My Plastic Surgery Regrets

Two-thirds of baby boomers would get work done if they could afford it—but Michele Willens wishes she'd known more about the negative side effects before going under the knife.

Beauty—and the lengths people will go to get it—is an evergreen issue. Next month, actress-director Elizabeth Andrews will debut her short film, The Face, in which viewers watch a woman decide whether to go under the knife. Even humorist Paul Rudnick, in his new Young Adult novel, Gorgeous, deals with what he calls "the degree to which beauty rules our lives. Mirrors are more dangerous than drugs and more readily available."

On this very website, Samantha Marshall touted the success she has had with numerous cosmetic surgeries. I am thrilled for her, but lately, I have run into—and experienced—more and more disenchantment on the subject. I had some work done on my neck and chin area about a year and a half ago. Barbara, my downstairs neighbor, had a similar procedure in January. We both had six very good, satisfied weeks. Since then, she has been suffering one medical mishap after another. My repercussions have been mostly of the mental variety.

There are 79 million baby boomers now hitting the age when our mothers were blushingly asked, “Did she or didn’t she?” and were happily settling into retirement and grandparenthood. As for us, we are desperately seeking ways to stay vital as we face what we are told will be an unprecedented 30 more years or so of a “second adulthood.” As OB-GYN Dr. Rebecca Brightman says, “Keep in mind that 40 percent of women’s lives now take place beyond menopause.” Damned if I am doing three decades with gray hair and jowls.

Barbara and I are not alone in using our former anti-war fervor to take on aging. Over 11 million Americans had some form of cosmetic procedure last year; 17 percent of those were actual surgeries. (Those also accounted for 61 percent of the expenditures.) It is no surprise that 90 percent of the patients are female, with the majority being married, college educated, employed mothers. While a growing number of younger women and even teens are having plastic surgery, most patients are between the ages of 35 and 65.

There are no concrete statistics, however, on the number of those satisfied (like Samantha Marshall) or those who subsequently hopped onto a slippery slope (like Samantha Marshall). You know—you get a new dining table and suddenly those chairs look awfully old. Not to mention those, like my neighbor Barbara, who have real medical complications of some sort from surgery. “What they don’t publicize is what I hear,” says Dr. Brightman, “which is revisions, revisions, revisions.”

Aside from Barbara, one friend told me she had to have her eye job repeated six months later; two had to have their faces done again; and yet another’s procedure left her with a drooping eye that needed repair. Leslie, a performer friend, says she was at first “thrilled to get my chin off my neck, and relieved to have eyelids. Yet it wasn’t long after, that I noticed one side starting to sag. The doctor wasn’t at all happy with the results and wound up doing the whole thing again! The hardest part was the swelling and my husband says I looked cross-eyed for a long time. I am glad I did it, but wish I’d known it would take two years for the swelling to really go down.”

Then you throw in the guilt, the embarrassment, and the disappointment that life pretty much goes on as it was. “When contemplating physical changes to your face and body, it goes without saying that there are risks that must be considered, and not just physical ones,” says New York psychologist Dr. Vivian Diller. “Cosmetic changes may seem superficial but they are permanent and have far-reaching emotional consequences.” Dr. Diller (with whom I worked on a book on helping women navigate the aging process) talks many patients through their conflicting feelings over the decision, asking what they expect in return, and for whom they are really doing it.

The public’s reaction to the subject is often as unpredictable as the procedures. When Jane Fonda proudly touted her “good work” to Oprah, the audience roundly applauded. Remember when a country-full of women supported Betty Ford’s very public First Facelift? Yet, how would they feel if Hillary had one before 2016? We all whisper about Nicole and Meg and Stockard and Goldie, yet I have the feeling we’d feel somewhat betrayed if Meryl or Helen came forward with news of a nip-and-tuck. Jamie Lee—a heroine for letting the cellulite et al. show—admitted to some work awhile back and then flatly stated, “none of it works.”

Whether in the public eye, or privately seeing ourselves through our own distorted ones (more than six million viewers watched a YouTube video of a Dove advertising campaign in which women harshly describe their appearance to a forensic sketch artist) we tend to be our toughest critics. “The ability to reduce judgment is an essential element in therapy,” says Brooklyn psychologist Gretta Keene. “Letting go is a powerful tool when people are locked into images of how their faces or bodies should be.”

What the doctor didn’t tell me was that I would be tingly and numb for a long time and that I would be wracked with emotional ups and downs.

Needless to say, the industry’s associations such as the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, have no records of surgeries gone wrong. Though when Kanye West lost his 58-year old mother following cosmetic surgery, we did hear about it loud and clear. Kanye has access to a megaphone, of course, unlike one Minerva Rodriguez, who died shortly after a "buttock augmentation" in February in Washington Heights in NYC. (Diagnosed later as poisoned by acute idocaine intoxication.) I have no doubt that far more go right than wrong. “Those are really the exceptions, most are happy patients,” says NY dermatologist Dr. Doris Day. “I am sending patients out to plastic surgeons every day, but I do warn them to be realistic about their expectations. And I am strongly against before and after photos of others, because everyone looks different.”

Barbara was only interested in the wrinkles on her neck and if you just focus on that now—and her rejuvenated cheeks from injections during the procedure—she looks far younger than her 69 years. Unfortunately, you have to get past the half dozen cysts on her face and the parotid gland in her neck that erupted about a month after her surgery. She has spent $1,200 on visits to the dermatologist, (to drain the abscesses) and has paid visits to an ENT physician and most recently, an infectious disease specialist who, at least, has come up with some kind of diagnosis: a mycobacterium infection that all agree was somehow picked up during the surgery or in the operating room.

Barbara is a sunny personality by nature, though she admits she has broken down crying recently. She takes some mild pleasure in the fact that all the doctors are conferring with one another “and I am being treated as a very special case.” For now—and likely for at least another six months—she is on heavily prescribed medications and relies on Band-Aids and plenty of makeup.

My wounds, such as they are, cannot be covered with anything.

This was not a decision made without serious self-interrogation. Can I be a feminist and narcissist at the same time? Have I turned into that woman? Who will I tell? This may be politically palatable rationalization, but I do believe that I did it for the right reasons. Part of my lower face was sagging—a congenital condition, I was told—(when in doubt, blame Mom and Dad) and frankly, did not reflect how I felt and how the rest of my body looked. In the end, I felt clear and strong, did not mind the procedure—in fact, enjoyed the alone recovery time—and hardly bruised at all.

Within weeks, I was being told how great I looked and I rocked at my 45th high school reunion. (Which I promise did not spur my decision.) I was not known in adolescence for my looks—which were always fine, but not Prom Princess fine. I am well aware that the process is very often toughest on those who did rely on their God-given beauty. The rest of us had to compensate in other ways and perhaps that makes these years somewhat more manageable.

The doctor told me what I could expect—sort of: when the stitches would come out, when I could exercise again, how long there would be tightness in the neck, etc. While not having the side effects that Barbara is experiencing, I did soon after get some darkened spots which the good doctor claims are sun damage, not related to the surgery. (Nevertheless he continues to try to laser them away.) What he didn’t tell me was that I would be tingly and numb for a long time and that I would be wracked with emotional ups and downs. Only on one of many subsequent visits, as I confessed I was having a difficult time on many levels, did he use the word “insidious” for what I had undergone.

I ask Barbara why she isn’t pressing her surgeon to take more responsibility. Then again, I find myself being seduced and intimidated by mine, who keeps nodding, reassuring and lasering. Do we not lean in at the doctor’s office either?

Am I angry? Consider that I wrote a one-act play called Waiting for Dr. Hoffman, wherein three ambivalent women in a cosmetic surgeon’s office are shocked when a former patient barges in, armed and demanding a do-over. When it was performed in Los Angeles and New York last year, people assumed the sarcastic writer character “just here for a consultation” was based on me. No one suspected I might be the girl with the gun.

The emotions are far more complicated. I did this not to look younger so much as to feel better, but ended up liking that I also looked younger. I am guilt-ridden that this stuff matters when others have real health, family, and economic issues. (Though a Harris Poll revealed that two thirds of the boomer-aged participants would do some cosmetic work if they could afford it.) I am frustrated in that I am not sure where the money went. And I am amazed when I recall that as a 21-year old journalist, I wrote a hotly debated article in which I worried that my big breasts were making me suspicious of men’s interest. Here, 40 years later, I am still writing about my body.

Finally, it is depressing that while women have made so many strides in so many aspects of our lives, we can’t get a grip on this one. There are some glimmers of hope for, if not a reverse of the cosmetic trend, at least a tempering of it. Both Dr. Diller and Dr. Brightman have been asked to consult for top cosmetic companies seeking to understand the needs of women midlife and beyond. “I am sensing somewhat less of a rush to run out and get work done,” says Dr. Brightman. “And when they do, it may be the less invasive kind or an attempt for a more natural look.”

The million-dollar question, of course, is, “are you glad you did it”? Barbara says flatly, “I would not do it again, knowing I had to go through this.” For me, the brutal truth is it has been a lousy year and a half. But those six weeks were sure fun.

Michele Willens writes for Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and The Atlantic and is the editor of Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change. (Hay House).

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