Published Jan. 5, 2011
Lipstick on a Guinea Pig
A burning, scraping, stabbing journey through skincare
I don’t go to great lengths to improve my appearance. Shaving on consecutive days is something I did in my teens, back when the ritual was a novelty, not an annoying necessity. The hairbrush has only recently become part of my grooming arsenal. But I floss (almost) every night, so let’s not start throwing stones.
A couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through the channels and landed on a show called Bridalplasty, a terrifying program in which young women compete for implants, nose jobs and other procedures in the hope that, on their wedding days, they’ll be able to unveil themselves as completely unrecognizable to their husbands-t0-be. The show came up in a conversation with a friend, who, it turns out, never misses an episode. A nurse practitioner specializing in skincare, she shared delightful stories about wealthy, Percocet-addled housewives and desperate boob-flashers soliciting illegal, direct injections of silicone. As the images swarmed in my imagination, the world of medical aesthetics became a canvas for Charlie and the Juvéderm Factory, or a painting by Hieronymus Bosch by way of Us Weekly. Seeing the fear in my eyes, she offered to guide me through some of the outer circles of beauty’s inferno.
Preferring to remain anonymous, I’ll refer to my friend as Joan, in honor of Rivers, the patron saint of aggressive measures. So it’s fitting that the first thing she did when I arrived was sandblast my face. Technically a microdermabrasion, Joan exfoliated my features with a small plastic node attached to two tubes: one for sucking in my skin, the other for barraging the surface with aluminum oxide crystals. Aestheticians normally keep the suction power to around 35 kilopascals, but as a nurse, Joan was free to crank the dial to 48. The process sounds unpleasant, but it’s relaxing, like being cleaned by a toothy vacuum.
The next logical step was to smear my face with acid–10 percent glycolic, to be exact. To me, the notion of a chemical peel has always brought to mind a Mission: Impossible-esque revelation, with the recipient literally peeling off a mask to reveal his true, debonair self. In reality, the person underneath looks like a guy who fell asleep on the beach, as, before it’s neutralized, the acid evokes the feeling of a freshly smacked sunburn.
Then it was time for some real pain. After extracting the pores of my nose with a “scoop” and a “spear,” Joan unholstered her laser gun for some hair removal on my throat. What followed was five minutes of penitence for every sinful ingrown hair, each exploding follicle snapping like a rubber band against my jugular. The smell of burning beard was disturbing, but what really had me nervous was the final step: Botox.
I’m more comfortable communicating with a smirk or a shrug than with actual verbalization, so I find my frown lines useful. Now with five shots of botulism between my eyebrows, my preferred method of expressing disdain has been paralyzed. “People are going to say “Oh, Nick, you look so happy!” Joan assured. That’s not something I’m used to hearing.
“You look like you got beat up,” said my father. It was Christmas morning, my neck was irritated, my forehead slightly swollen and ruddy cheeks were emerging from underneath a shedding layer of epidermis. My skincare session produced no holiday miracle, but as the days progressed, I found myself rounding into a smooth New Year’s baby. But a mere $559 in procedures won’t sway me from my austere grooming habits. I don’t fit the type, do I?
“I have everyone from landscapers to pro athletes’ wives,” said Joan, correcting my assumptions. With an age range of 16 to 86, her customers’ motives vary beyond the vanity stereotype. “There’s people who got laid off and feel like they’re competing in a younger job market, or people that just got divorced and maybe they’re not feeling so good about themselves.”
Like buying a new shirt, there’s an element of pampering coupled with a moment of trying on a fresh persona, a fleeting version of you. But for now, I’ll stick with my current method of revitalization: a winter beard, grown to shroud, and to be shaved on my birthday, revealing a newly exfoliated, inescapably older me.