I went to a dermatologist the other day for a skin-cancer check. I had made the appointment two months earlier. She was a busy doctor and didn’t have an opening any sooner.
The doctor’s waiting room offered helpful pamphlets on cancer prevention, detection, and treatment. But mostly, it was stocked with magazines such as Glamour and InStyle and promotional material about age-defying treatments such as Thermage, in which a radio-frequency-emitting device heats up the tired old cells beneath your skin and singes them until they promise to produce more collagen.
At 57, I am vulnerable to the sell.
I ought to know better.
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Most cosmetic procedures designed to youthify involve suffering. Chemical peels burn. Laser treatments feel like a swarm of yellow jackets. Surgery, well, scalpels? Blood? Needles? Swelling? A world of self-inflicted agony.
But the promise of pain didn’t deter the willing souls who submitted to 9.5 million cosmetic procedures last year — a 9 percent increase over 2009. This, according to a report released this month by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
Even in a recession, Americans (92 percent of them women) relinquished nearly $10.7 billion in 2010, trying to look better. And a lot of it was paid in cash, since insurance doesn’t consider turkey neck a medical condition.
As I filled out the medical-history forms, checking off the high blood pressure and high cholesterol I inherited from my father (who had perpetually youthful skin), I thought about what I should say to my doctor. My only reason for being in her examining room was preventive care. Then again, my daughter is getting married next fall.æ.æ.
“You’re fine,” the doctor said after scanning my topography. “Nothing to worry about.”
“That’s great!” I said, pulling the crackly paper gown around me. Then I went for it.
“While I’m here, can I ask you something?”
I expected her to flatter me. To reassure me that I look just fine. Sure, I have a few laugh lines and furrows. A little loose skin here and there. But I’m hardly a shar-pei.
But she wasn’t one to coddle. “What bothers you most?” she asked bluntly.
I told her.
She disagreed. That’s not what I should be worrying about, she said. I had other, more daunting challenges.
If I went for Thermage, which takes six months for the full effect to show, I would have to start within a week to complete it in time for my daugther’s wedding. Doing my eyes alone would cost $1,200.
She touched my face. “Your forehead has dropped,” she announced, and suddenly, so did my heart.
We discussed various options, including Botox and laser resurfacing. But she warned me that fixing my problems was like rehabbing a house. You do the kitchen, then the living room looks shabby. You do the living room, then the bedroom demands attention.
At the very least, she said, I should start — immediately — on a regime using a combination of expensive skin creams.
Then she looked deep into my crinkly-edged eyes and leveled with me. “To be honest,” she said, “surgery is your best friend.”
To be honest, I thought, I would much prefer a well-meaning lie. And no friend of mine would carve up my face, resew it, and then charge me an arm and a leg.
I thanked her and said I’d have to think about it. That it was a lot of information to process.
“You asked,” she shrugged.