Feminism told us we’d earned our wrinkles and other signs of maturity, so why all the drastic cosmetic surgery? Kirstie Clements examines the new aesthetic and asks if it’s a club we’re all destined to join

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

During her one-woman show, Judith Lucy vs Men, the Australian comedian made a pithy observation about what the future looks like for women over 50. “It’s like you have two options,” she said. “You can look old—or weird.” Funny, yes, but it struck a chord with me. How do I want to age? Will it be gracefully, or will I go down fighting, forever resisting grey hair and gravity? My friends and I discuss it often: what options we have and how we want to look as we head into the next chapter of our lives. I am in my late 50s; I have friends in their 60s and 70s. We are ageing pretty well: we’ve worn sunblock all our lives, we colour our hair, watch our weight. A few of us have had botox or minor injectables. But our jawlines are softening, our lids starting to droop, our necks going. No one has any very obvious work done, but it seems as if we may be in the minority. Increasingly, the fashion seems to be for taut, immovable faces, sometimes misshapen with fillers, and the resultant overblown lips and squinty cat eyes. At its best, it might shave off about five years; at its worst, it can look like a genetic mutation.

“Twenty years ago, most grandmothers looked old. Today, they don’t; they look fit and vital,” says plastic surgeon Dr Warwick Nettle of Silkwood Medical. But health and wellness aside, “fit” and “vital” are not the words that spring to mind when I see an overfilled trout pout or a face that resembles a lioness. Although it is becoming ubiquitous, there is still something about drastic cosmetic work that stops you in your tracks when you see it. It can look strange. Have the aesthetics of maturity changed, and is it a cosmetic club we are all destined to join? Certainly, no one wants to come across as desperate. As style icon Ines de la Fressange once commented, “Nothing gives the impression that you’re old more than being obsessed with looking young. It’s very ugly when women refuse to get old.” Perhaps we should not be judging the older woman who has altered her looks. Everyone is entitled to age the way they want.

“I’m actually annoyed at myself that I even care,” says an artist friend who is in her mid-sixties and is resisting any anti-ageing intervention, albeit somewhat reluctantly. “As a feminist, I thought we were supposed to be above all that, and be all Zen and accept that ageing is just part of life. We earned these lines and wrinkles and supposed flaws. In my experience, the people who really love us prefer us the way we are.” But society is sending mixed messages about what 50-plus years should, or could, look like. We can choose whether to age like Katharine Hepburn or like Kris Jenner. It is a dilemma that previous generations did not necessarily face, given they did not have access to the advanced and comparatively safe and affordable cosmetic procedures available today.

“Generally, Western cultures and social norms have placed value on the youthful and lithe, not the wisdom of maturity and the contribution humans make with their careers and endeavours,” says psychologist Jocelyn Brewer. “To a degree, it’s only in the last 100 or so years that humans live regularly into their 80s and 90s, so it’s relatively new to think of women in their 60s as still having value to contribute to society, and there is competition, to a degree, with much younger women.” If older women are indeed still in the game, it is natural then, that we may feel the pressure to have a few needles, nips and tucks. Personally, I have no intention of denying my age or playing the role of some delusional coquette, but my eyes are disappearing, ditto my jawline, and I’ve started avoiding mirrors. At this point in my life, I feel I could go either way—I could accept the passing of time or I could go for the full wind-tunnel facelift. But while surgery may be the ultimate option, there are a lot of antiageing strategies to attempt before one heads for the general anaesthetic, and so I start with skin.

Beauty therapist Jocelyn Petroni is well known for her superlative facial treatments, so I pose the question of anti-ageing to her. “We find that people who haven’t experienced corrective skin health or the right skin treatment programme from a knowledgeable clinic or salon tend to use injectables to overcompensate,” Petroni says. “Our aim is for optimal skin health, for glowing results at every age. There is definitely a place for filler and botox, however, as healthy skin will make you look more youthful.” Petroni starts with a treatment plan to build the skin, repairing and correcting both colour and breakouts. She then works on treating congestion, pigmentation and fine lines, using non-invasive techniques such as peels, vitamin infusions, microdermabrasion and Omniflux. “We put our clients on a skin programme with different modalities to achieve their individual and specific results,” she says. “It’s never one size fits all.”

The next facial features to address are the eyebrows and lashes, as time can take its toll on these as well, leaving them looking patchy and less than lush. Amy Jean of the spectacularly successful Amy Jean Brow Agency, which offers brow and lash services, has all the answers. “The wrong shape or colour enhancement for a brow can prematurely age us. It can make the eyes droop or accentuate heaviness if they are too round or too dark,” she says. “It is always worth making an appointment to have them shaped, even if it’s only once.” Pesky grey or white hairs can and will begin to make an unwanted appearance. “I refer to those lighter brow hairs as ‘dazzlers’ that need matting out and/or camouflaging with a brow gel,” she says. Amy Jean also offers eyelash extensions: As the eyes age and start to droop, they can appear smaller, which is why a potential quick trick is to add some shape via “imitation mink” eyelash extensions. It’s a tedious but ultimately rewarding hour-long process that produces a more wide-awake look, with infills required approximately every three weeks.

While genetics, sunscreen and a balanced lifestyle play big roles in how well we age, the years eventually exact their price, no matter how many resurfacing treatments we have or topical creams we apply. This is where injectables come into play, and the point at which it can, in some instances, all go horribly, Real Housewives-style wrong. Dr Joseph Hkeik is an aesthetic physician who owns the All Saints Skin Clinic and the man behind some of the best-kept faces in Sydney. I ask him about the difference between old and weird. “Good work,” he replies succinctly. “Just because someone has a medical licence to hold a syringe, it doesn’t qualify them as an artist. You are asking someone to create a sculpture, and that sculpture is 3D, on a human, a face that is forever changing every minute.” Dr Hkeik is very much a proponent of the less-is-more approach. “As an aesthetician, I can see in 10 seconds what is missing from a face. If you only replace what’s missing and don’t add one tiny bit more, you can achieve a subtle, beautiful, symmetrical result.” When I mention the myriad people I see who overdo it, Dr Hkeik nods. “It’s unnecessary. You don’t need to have too much of anything to look better. I think sometimes the person doing the procedure is treating the whole face, regardless of whether the client needs it or not. I’m not going to give you 4ml of filler if you only need one; it’s not what I’m about. No doctor should be doing it. It’s unethical.”

Dr Hkeik describes his clinic as a “skin practice”, offering a variety of treatments from facials and Fraxel lasers to “liquid facials”, ie. fillers and botox. “Botox, to me, is not a freezing mechanism. It’s a mechanism used to manipulate muscle, to open and to lift the face. It’s not really what the product was designed to do... it’s how you utilise it,” he says. “You shouldn’t be able to tell a person has had anything done. I call it invisible beauty. This is what all practitioners need to practice—invisible art. We need to make patients look like they’ve never been anywhere near us.”

While I agree wholeheartedly with Dr Hkeik’s view of restraint, it appears that society at large may now have other ideas on what beautiful or youthful is, as anyone who has watched Married at First Sight can attest. From social media influences to reality television contestants to porn stars, the over-plumped, frozen face look is seemingly everywhere. The puzzling—and some would suggest, alarming—thing is that many people who undergo these procedures are well under 40, 30 and even 20. New beauty icons, such as Kylie Jenner, admit to having interventions at a very young age to achieve their multimillion-dollar looks. Advancements in the area mean that no one needs to be born “beautiful” anymore. Apparently, you can work your way towards it, if you have enough cash.

Dr Nettle thinks the reason we are seeing sometimes major work on younger women is more about prevention. “The vast majority of women are getting botox and fillers for ‘prejuvenation’ reasons,” he says. The efficacy of these materials has improved by light years in a very short space of time—what is injected today as a matter of course could only be dreamed of 15 years ago. The materials are better, cheaper and vastly more available. Why wouldn’t motivated people—and young women who have always been motivated more than any other group to pay attention to appearance—take advantage of this?

Jocelyn Brewer sees the trend as a shift in mainstream beauty standards in Western culture and beyond. “The ‘not-so-secret cosmetic surgery’ look of those who follow celebrities is a very specific niche within a fairly narrow, but slowly widening, sense of beauty and attractiveness,” she says. “It shows up in extreme ways on TV shows such as [cosmetic surgery documentary] Body Freaks and with people who spend their life’s savings on trying to look like Barbie or Kim Kardashian West. There is also a certain level of freedom of choice and empowerment to take control of your body that comes into play.”

I think my friends and I are all on the same page about what results we would like to see from any facial injections, and it’s not an immovable, inflated cookie-cutter mask. The importance of choosing a quality practitioner and not making decisions based on price also cannot be overstated, especially in an age of botox parties and proliferating and dubious “clinics”. Beware the upsell, Dr Hkeik warns. “I see people who went for hair removal suddenly come back with a face filler. It’s often sold by the receptionist, not even a nurse. The clients get distracted by the bargain and stop focusing on the result, which they often regret. Doctors and nurses have a responsibility to be more ethical, but clients must also take responsibility. You can’t give consent for just anyone to do something to your face.”

Given that botox and fillers occupy the top two positions in terms of minimally invasive procedures, the Cosmetic Physicians College of Australasia (CPCA) has created a Get Real page on its website (cpca.net. au/get-real-with-cpca) to answer questions frequently asked by patients before they commit. “The CPCA believes it is of utmost significance that patients seek appropriate professional medical advice to make informed decisions in consultation with trained doctors who maintain the highest ethical standards,” CPCA president Dr Michael Molton said in a statement. “We launched the Get Real campaign to stress the importance of engaging with a cosmetic physician who will help patients focus on looking better, not different, and most importantly, maintain realistic outcomes.”

Even with the most sensitively applied and superior injectables in the world, the real game changer, at a certain point, is surgery. “You have to look at what works in the real world, not the world of marketing and websites. The equation is simple—the more sag you have, the more you need to do,” Dr Nettle says. “Of course, it’s totally understandable for people to have less invasive and time-consuming procedures in order to look better and fresher-surgeons totally get that,” he continues, referring to surgical alternatives such as threading (small subcutaneous barbed “strings”, either permanent or dissolvable, that are designed to subtly elevate facial and neck skin, and reverse sag) or skintightening machines (radio frequency or microfocused ultrasound that delivers heat deep under the skin, triggering a healing response). “But unfortunately, comparing threads and machines to surgery is like comparing a candle to a log fire—they’re both sources of light and heat, but massively, qualitatively different.” The facelifts of today are infinitely superior to the overly stretched and taut versions we saw in the ’80s, but the price can be prohibitive, and the idea of a general anaesthetic, along with the fact that the outcome is irreversible, can be a major deterrent.

Personally, I am armed with knowledge, but still in two minds. All, or nothing, or something in between? “I think if I can fix concerns, make someone blossom and become who they are, then there will be a ripple of love,” Dr Hkeik says. “You will be happy and make those around you happy. That’s what the world needs. Not more perfect faces that don’t move.”

I remark to a close friend that while I intend to do everything I can to turn back time, I’m not sure I’ll ever go under the scalpel. “That’s OK,” he says kindly. “I’ll just be glad if you’re around.”

‘Fit’ and ‘vital’ are not words that spring to mind when I see an overfilled trout pout or a face that resembles a lioness. There is something about drastic cosmetic work that stops you in your tracks. It can look strange.