I tried Botox for the first time two years ago. I was rapidly approaching my 40th birthday, and, like so many other people, I had spent the early Covid years staring at my increasingly pallid and wrinkled visage through daily video calls. That I succumbed to the expensive allure of cosmetic injectables as a result of this scrutiny was both banal and mildly embarrassing.
Banal because what could be more boring and superficial than a woman approaching middle age and beginning to fret about her wrinkles when there are a million and six more important things happening in the world. And I’m certainly not the only one who was horrified after staring at herself during hours of Zoom calls — according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, neuromodulator injection, which includes the use of Botox, was up a staggering 73 percent in 2022 compared with 2019.
It’s mildly embarrassing because in my late 30s, I thought I’d reached a level of radical acceptance about my looks that would preclude injecting toxins into my forehead.
I spent my teens hating myself for not looking like (insert name of blonde actress or singer here — usually it was Kirsten Dunst). My 20s and early 30s were spent learning to appreciate what I had, which was more of an acquired, Shelley-Duvall-in-the-’70s kind of taste. I wasn’t really interested in what the beauty industry had to offer, anyway, though I get why others enjoy experimenting with different kinds of makeup. I’ve always hated the feeling of foundation on my face. And I’m too lazy to wear lipstick or mascara if I’m just running out to do errands, though I tend to put them on when I need to look pulled together.
After reaching equanimity when it came to my face, getting Botoxed was an admission that this self-acceptance had been conditional and not permanent emotional growth.
Still, it wasn’t just the advent of my 40th birthday, or the Zoom effect, that ultimately steered me to the dermatologist’s office. It was also the understanding that the news world was finally and truly pivoting to video, and that if I wanted a younger audience to engage with my ideas, my aging mug would probably have to appear on social media from time to time — according to a Pew Research report from 2023, about a third of American adults under 30 now regularly get news on TikTok.
I didn’t become a writer to make short-form video content — the idea of reshaping my writing to fit different formats can feel a bit like shoving my deliberately worded essays into a Play-Doh extruder, with some colorfully packaged new shape coming out the other end. But I also live in the world and would like to remain relevant rather than putting my head in the sand.
Those were the thoughts swirling around in my mind as the Botox syringe approached my forehead. The procedure took only a minute and barely hurt, and I was honestly pretty excited to see the results. Mostly, I was hoping I looked like a more refreshed version of my normal self — as if I had just been on a vacation or slept for 12 straight hours.
I did look less tired — “the dreaded 11s,” those parallel lines between your eyebrows, were gone. My forehead was smooth and for the first few days it felt like I was wearing a too-tight beanie, though that dissipated after about a week. But there was also an unexpected side effect that I hadn’t anticipated: My eyes, and my eyebrows, became more symmetrical.
My left eyebrow is normally higher than my right eyebrow. The difference is particularly pronounced when I raise them — it gives me a skeptical expression. And this wasn’t something I realized that I appreciated about myself until it was gone. I couldn’t access that look anymore. When I raised my eyebrows, the circumflex was the same on both sides.
Technically speaking, this symmetry made me more attractive. In her 2019 tour de force about “Instagram Face,” Jia Tolentino, in The New Yorker, asked plastic surgeons about the “single, cyborgian” visage that seemed to dominate Hollywood and online influencer land. “It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips,” Tolentino explained. One plastic surgeon, Jason Diamond, told her that while no single look would work for everyone, “there are constants,” adding: “Symmetry, proportion, harmony. We are always trying to create balance in the face.”
But what if the imbalance, that asymmetry, is where the interest — even the humanity — is?
My jacked up eyebrows used to bother me. Someone once told me I looked like Dora Maar, the surrealist photographer and Pablo Picasso muse. At the time, I took it as an insult because I couldn’t tell if the reference was to the woman herself, or her 1937 portrait, in which her eyes are misaligned and looking in different directions.
After my Botox experience, though, I reconsidered the comparison, and thought of it more as a compliment. My face will never be normatively beautiful, but it could light a spark. I was surprised to find myself happy when, after about six months, the injections faded and my eyebrows went back to their old tricks.
I worry that this hard-won point of view is under siege, as facial uniformity becomes ever more dominant with the ubiquity of injections and heavily filtered images online. In October, for The Cut, Daisy Schofield wrote about teenagers who are already focused on anti-aging skin care. “The beauty standard is to stay young, and I do try to fit the beauty standard,” one 15-year-old told her. In 2021, for The Times, Jessica Schiffer wrote about 20- and 30-somethings getting “baby Botox” to combat an “all-consuming anxiety” about aging.
In our looks-obsessed culture, it takes time and maturity to accept the “imperfect” face you have. If you’re messing with it before wrinkles even set in, there may be no end to your discontent — or the money you’ll burn chasing an ever-shifting beauty standard. Do we all really want to be like Kim Kardashian, the ur-example of Instagram Face, who said, as Rachel Strugatz reported for The Times in 2022, that she would “try anything” to look younger? “If you told me that I literally had to eat poop every single day and I would look younger,” Kardashian said, “I might. I just might.”
I don’t want to get caught up in that endless and ultimately futile cycle of chasing a conformist beauty ideal that slips farther away with every year. That said, I can’t promise that I’ll never mess with my face again. I am only one moderately vain human, trying to salve her ego in a world where commenters don’t hesitate to say things about my un-Botoxed face like — and this is a direct quote — “NYT, pls don’t put your ugliest employees on these videos. Makes me sick.”
Exponentially worse than any imbalances on my naturally aging, nearly 42-year-old surface is a culture where any random internet crank feels comfortable expressing disgust at my simply existing with it. No wonder Pamela Anderson makes headlines when she goes out without makeup; it’s still considered brave to be a famously beautiful woman with an unadorned 56-year-old face out in public for everybody to see.