My friend was in his middle 50s, and he had just informed me he was thinking about getting a tummy tuck. My reaction was instinctual and instantaneous: "Are you kidding?"
No, I don't live on Mars. I'd read reports that a few men were actually signing up for cosmetic surgery, but not in my crowd. Until, that is, this longtime buddy, perfectly presentable by my lights, started talking tummy tuck because he claimed he had trouble seeing the golf ball when he putted. That was his little joke. He eventually admitted he felt he was being passed over for promotion at work because his rivals looked younger and more "fit."
I told him to get real, to cut back on bread and start working out. Translated loosely, I was really telling him: "Be a man." In my view, it's one thing to have surgery to correct an abnormality caused by bad genes or injury; it's something else to try to improve on nature because you lack will power or you're beginning to show signs of aging. Call me a dinosaur if you want, but I wear my wrinkles and liver spots with some pride, battle stripes in life's wars. And aside from all that, you risk infection and worse anytime you let a doctor stick a knife or a needle under your skin.
In any event, the conversation led me to do some research, and it turned out I was living on Mars. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, American males submitted to more than a million cosmetic procedures in 2006, and that doesn't include the many thousands more performed by M.D.s who are neither society members nor board-certified doctors, the two groups queried. Over the last 10 years, the society's count of male cosmetic surgery events has increased more than 13-fold. For all I know, my crowd may actually include one of those cosmeticized men, and he just never happened to mention it.
Plastic surgeons report that men are far more close-mouthed about the process than women and far less likely to opt for procedures that result in major changes or create obvious bruising. In other words, they want the game without the name. Surveys show that, when asked about their motivation, male patients in their 50s and early 60s echo my friend: No matter how qualified and energetic you may be, you're in danger of being sidelined at the office if you're perceived as being old. Old, of course, is still equated with over the hill, even though men in their 50s and 60s today are far more vital than their counterparts of a few decades ago.
So because of this cultural lag, because the social mores haven't caught up with the new reality, there's ever-greater pressure on older people to look young. I don't believe for a second that all these guys lining up for chemical peels and Botox injections are doing it just for their careers. I bet a large percentage of them are also hoping to improve their chances with women and/or other men. Surgeons say they're seeing many middle-aged and older male patients who are recently divorced or widowed and want to start new lives looking "better" — which is to say, younger.
There are two basic kinds of cosmetic surgery, invasive (nose reshaping, eyelid surgery, liposuction) and not-so-invasive. The second category is the male favorite, by a margin of more than 3 to 1. The society lists Botox, which temporarily relaxes the muscles that cause frown lines, as the most popular minimally invasive procedure among men, while nose reshaping leads in the more invasive category.
When all is said and done, I suppose I should be more understanding about cosmetic surgery for men. Live and let live. Younger men seem to spend a lot more time on their clothes and hair and fingernails than I and my generation ever did, so why not cosmetic surgery? You know, they say that an inability to adjust to change is a sign you're getting old, so I guess I'd better, well, shape up. No more letting my shirts hang out to camouflage my belly. Tummy tuck, here I come.
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!