Calling the Shot

Botox was the antithesis of my feminist upbringing—and I wanted it anyway.


Illustration by Eric Mongeon

I want to paralyze my face. I’ll admit this is a completely fucked-up desire. But lately, getting a couple of shots straight into my forehead, just above the eyebrows, sounds like the perfect solution to all of my problems. Every single one.

Yearning for the needle didn’t begin in the Newbury Street eyeglass shop where I spent a recent Saturday afternoon shopping for frames for my 12-year-old daughter. But that’s where it became chronic. Since our last visit a year ago, the girl who could pick out a pair in five minutes flat had transformed into an adult-size, waffling, hedging, decisively indecisive proto-teen. Which meant that during our long and ultimately inconclusive shopping expedition, complete with false victories and two dozen iPhone portraits of eyewear pending approval, I had plenty of time for a tense summit with my frown lines. These lines and I go way back—they were helpful when I wanted to scare a certain toddler into submission. But lately, they’ve teamed up with a variety of other seemingly harmless facial flourishes to create an overall effect more soccer mom than sexy. And frankly, I want my mojo back.

At first, of course, I blamed the store’s halogens: so strong, so downlight-y. Lumens are cruel (until you’re trying to read a gray-on-gray cocktail menu at a dimly lit restaurant). At a certain point, though, the excuses wore thin. Because at a certain point, an officious thirtysomething sales assistant started referring to me as “Mom.” (Aside: I may also have a masochistic streak, because I never actually got around to telling him my name.) And while I was dodging bad lighting and mirrors and a fully functioning adult posing as my child, a radiant fiftysomething Julianne Moore look-alike appeared on the scene. She was, confusingly, both middle-aged and luscious, with rich red hair, green eyes, and, most disturbingly, a completely lineless visage. If ever a face did glow, hers did, just a tiny bit. It was as delicate and pure as a restored da Vinci. The first word that came to mind: lovely. The second thought that came to mind: Who the hell is her surgeon?

Let me back up two clicks. I’m a feminist with a lowercase f, the product of single- sex education and a working mother. I was born into this “f” stuff; it’s knee-jerk. When someone refers to a high- powered career woman as a bitch, I get all Virginia Slims on them. When my high school friend (a Princeton grad) starts talking about her (imaginary) droopy neck, I figure she needs to get back on her motorcycle. When my ex-mother-in-law complained about her aging hands, I told her to take up woodworking—hands are meant to be used, not admired.

In other words, I’m classically trained in the art of pitying the desperate age-defying efforts of others. I knew I should summarily reject this specimen, who’d been expertly injected with a brew of toxins and fillers to achieve something approximating “not old.” But in the confines of a store outfitted with dozens of opportunities for reflection, my feminist scorn sounded an awful lot like bullshit.

My muses are muddled on issues of appearance and body image. I remember my fiercely feminist mother pointing to my teen thighs and announcing that I’d inherited that cellulite (a word I’d never heard up to that point) from my father’s side. Feminist ambivalence is a running family theme. One classic joke: Mom says to Dad, “Jerry, I’m leaving you. Help me back the car out of the driveway.” My great-aunt may have lived alone in New York City, supporting herself as a therapist and eschewing makeup, but when I showed up at her apartment in my twenties, slightly a-chunk, she poked her bony index finger into my abdomen and said, “I thought we’d agreed on staying thin.”

So I summon other women who have steadfastly climbed whatever power ladder they were on without worrying too much about their faces. And I ask them, Is it wrong to take advantage of the tools we’ve been given, even when offered by a rapacious medical establishment? Would I betray the code of sisterhood by artificially freezing my glabellar muscles? Would Simone de Beauvoir or Susan Sontag ever have considered Juvéderm? How about Betty Friedan? (Don’t answer that.) Radical libertarian Camille Paglia has already weighed in; in 2012 she was quoted as saying, “I just want to look passable.” Should I interpret that as more eyeliner or full-on facelift? Hard to say.

Women’s magazines—where I first learned about G-spots and shaving with conditioner and homemade oatmeal masks (which once sent a classmate to the emergency room because she couldn’t pry the thing off herself)—generally assume the deed has already been done. Harper’s Bazaar instead dispenses sartorial advice: “there’s no irony” in the way French women my age dress, the mag helpfully tells me, which I interpret as meaning mini skirts and feathers are musts to avoid. Meanwhile, W runs the essay “Botox Saved My Marriage: Sometimes finding family harmony is as easy as getting the right injections,” by Francesca Castagnoli. In it she describes being completely mystified when everyone—including her kids and husband—inexplicably started giving her wide berth. They encouraged her to sleep in, delivered breakfast in bed, and became inordinately upbeat, all in an effort to reverse what they thought was an oncoming fit of mommy rage. The bewildered writer finally pinpointed the problem: “And as soon as I saw the photo [of myself], I realized what the room service was all about. I looked angry. My family thought I was mad…because my Botox and fillers had worn off.” After she got plumped and paralyzed, she writes, “I was relieved to know [my husband] thought I was happier—even if my face was so stiff it was hard for me to smile back.” Oy.

To avoid looking perpetually miffed, women like me—women who think that desperate beautifying acts stink of…desperation—tend to hydrate, a lot. And moisturize. And sleep in sunscreen. We try not to mash our face into our pillow because we read somewhere that it causes wrinkles. And we try to avoid overusing our facial muscles, because at this point, our expressions might really freeze that way. But speaking of freezing, Botox exists, and it’s taunting me. Which is why there has been some late-night Googling for a low-key place where I can dose up and run.

Meanwhile, the husband says messing with nature would be grounds for divorce. Botox is a gateway drug, says the guy who would know. Before long, I’ll be filling and plumping and getting plastic-surgery tips from Jocelyn Wildenstein. Doubtful. I know myself: I make a terrible addict, in that I’m terrible at maintaining routines. Even brushing my teeth in the morning involves a certain amount of internal dialogue. I can quit anytime, baby. And that’s about the point at which the discussion among me, myself, and my feminism peters out. I take this as a sign.

When I send a draft of this essay to my editor, he calls me over to his desk and tells me that this thing needs an ending. He wants to know what happened: Did I or didn’t I? He knows me well, so I’m a little surprised. And a little thrilled, because it turns out that I’ve got a secret. And then I probably turn a little red. But this is all about sharing, right? So I take off my glasses and lean in. See? He looks at me, confused. “What’s happening?” he asks.

“Nothing,” I say smugly. That’s the whole point.

I read that they’re researching whether Botox can treat depression. If you can’t frown or hold stress in your face, the logic holds, you’ll end up happier. The first few days after disabling a certain range of expressions, I began getting headaches because, goddammit, my shit had to go somewhere. Eventually, the stress just kind of worked its way out, dissipating into the ether, along with my ability to make an angry face. Now whenever I’m feeling splenetic, my forehead floats above it all—lineless and impassive, distant and disengaged—with a certain Easter Island statuelike aloofness. Yes, it’s creepy. But from a feminist perspective, this brand-new facial reserve is also strangely, curiously, and addictively empowering.