The Art of Botox

The internet has conscripted us into the construction and manipulation of our own images, so that the idea of wearing some kind of mask — whether through plastic surgery, Instagram filter, online avatar or cloak of irony — no longer reads as unnatural, but rather as broadly relatable. At the same time, social media has demystified plastic surgery procedures. On Instagram, a range of accounts hypnotically reveal their effects, and on TikTok, aestheticians have cast themselves as plucky ambassadors for injectable self-improvement, staging unfunny but self-effacing skits: “This is Botox crying face, when you can’t make ugly crying face due to Botox,” the plastic surgeon Anthony Youn explains in one.

In the land of influencers, Botox is pitched less as a nightmarish habit than a relatable vulnerability. Also, a self-esteem booster and tool of self-invention. It was canny of Botox to recruit the drag queen Yuhua Hamasaki for one of its ads. Among the wealthy white women of Orange County, Botox may suggest conformity and compliance, but drag recasts the construction of femininity as creative and individualistic. In the spot, Hamasaki implies that Botox, like makeup and wigs, is a tool for escaping the gender binary, not policing it.

There is a limit, however, to this sympathetic turn. Kidman has been savagely mocked for her appearance in the trailer for “Being the Ricardos,” a film set in the 1950s where she plays Lucille Ball, a woman known for her facial expressiveness. Even among Hollywood actors, the procedure remains a taboo. Elsewhere, it has grimmer connotations. In “Botox,” a bleak Iranian-Canadian film that’s been circulating at festivals this year, it becomes a profound metonym for self-delusion. The film is about two sisters reeling from their brother’s horrifying disappearance, and how they come to rationalize the event, even forget it. When the sisters are not in physical distress — they spend much of the film hauling, shoveling and grunting — they are languishing in a medical spa where one of them works. In one scene, an aesthetician pitches Botox to a client. “Botox means youth, eternity, to keep dreams forever,” she says. She adds, absurdly, that it “has roots in an Eastern Rite in Tibet and Mayan tribes in Latin America that believe death is the only way to become eternal.”

Even in commercials meant to promote Botox, a morbid shadow looms. The Errol Morris ads have a funereal quality. Soft lighting and somber music suggest that the subjects are suffering from a terminal illness — which I suppose is true, as aging eventually leads to death. Since many years of ridiculing Botox have failed to banish it from foreheads (Americans spent nearly $2.5 billion on the procedure in 2019, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons), we are left to navigate the stages of grief, from denial and anger to bargaining and acceptance.

It strikes me that wrinkles on women are not only stigmatized because they make them seem old, but because they make them look angry, sad, surprised, distressed — they make them look alive. Even as Botox has become a way station for women at risk of being catapulted from Hollywood, it presents as a vivid reminder of what has been lost. Female movie stars are no longer buried after a certain age; instead they are embalmed. The new Botox tagline is “Still you,” but it could be “Still here.”

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