It's a fair question: What do I, as a male, have to say that's worth reading about women and cosmetic surgery? Particularly since I'm on the record, in my earlier Gather blog, as putting down most cosmetic surgery for men.
Here's what I have to say: Women are different. A total concern with physical appearance is hard-wired into the female psyche. So I can better understand why women would give in to society's inane insistence that aging equals ugly and put themselves under the knife or the needle. Of course, that doesn't mean I like it.
As it happens, I've interviewed lots of women in their 50s and 60s about their experiences with cosmetic surgery, and I've done some research in the field. The good news, from my point of view, is that the vast majority of women prefer the less-invasive treatments, the injections and chemical peels. The bad news: Surgical solutions still draw hundreds of thousands of women, despite the cost and the danger of doctor error and infection. Their ranks increase year by year, and many have multiple procedures.
I talked with a woman in Palm Springs, California, for example, who started with eyelid surgery when she was 50 and an executive at a computer company. "Women in big jobs were a decade older than the men," she said, "because it took us so long to get into management. We had to be good, and we had to look good, too." Three years after the eyelid surgery she had a face lift. At the age of 63, she had a second face lift. "I was a docent at a museum to keep my mind young," she explained. "I wanted to keep my face that way, too."
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons, which surveys members and board-certified doctors in a variety of specializations, reports that women had 1.6 million surgical procedures in 2006. Breast enlargement led the way for the first time ever, with 329,000 procedures, and those numbers are expected to grow with the recent approval of silicone implants by the F.D.A. I'm told many women prefer the look and feel of the silicon. On the less-invasive side, Botox was the overwhelming leader, followed by chemical peels, but a newer entry has taken over the third spot — hyaluronic acid. This gell-like substance is injected to fill out facial wrinkles and furrows: beauty by means of addition, as it were, rather than the subtraction practiced by surgeons.
But the injectibles have their limits. When skin elasticity starts to go, as it has for the masses of the Baby Boom generation, a surgical lift is the only real solution. According to the surgical society, in just a single year, 2005 to 2006, thigh lifts for women rose 28 percent; upper arm lifts, 27 percent; face lifts, 25 percent. For cosmetic surgeons, you might say, business is literally booming.
Even the most successful cosmetic surgery is not guaranteed to please everyone. As an elegant artist in her 60s told me, some women friends are envious. If she received a compliment on her facelift, she'd hear, "Well, she should look good. After all, she had a face lift." Friends may resent the improvement because they don't have the money to have a lift or they're afraid of the procedure or, as the artist put it, "They don't want to be reminded of their own looks."
She did very well with strangers, though — sometimes too well. "Some guys came on to me who were just too young," she reported. "It made me uncomfortable, but, you know, in a nice way."
Robert W. Stock, a New York Times alumnus, is a writer and editor based in New York. Find more of his writing in Living At Its Best!