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April 18, 2002
Farewell, Furrowed Brow
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
ASHINGTON ‹ I look closely in the mirror and here's what I see: eyes with
crinkles at the corners, a nose slightly bulbous, hairline long ago receded,
familiar bags under the eyes and relaxed wattles under the chin. A furrowed
brow gives the impression of a brain thinking deep thoughts.
I know this visage. It's been my lifelong friend. It's not broke and I'm not
about to fix it, other than getting the haircut I really need.
This uncharacteristic self-examination in the presence of my readers is
occasioned by this week's news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
has approved the use of diluted botulism toxin, originally developed to
paralyze muscles in spasm, for cosmetic purposes.
The Wall Street Journal describes as "a Tupperware party with needles" the
growing practice by hard-selling plastic surgeons of lining up patients in
swinging champagne-and-brie party settings. The doctors then inject Botox
into the facial skin of their slightly sloshed customers at $500 a pop. (The
Journal, in tune with The Times, has Botoxed its front page with color and
graphic pizazz to reverse its own aging process.)
Nor is medical science's War on Wrinkles limited to women lusting after lost
youth. Male trial lawyers whose snarling looks offend jurors have eagerly
taken up the Ponce de Leon pinpricking, which smoothes out their aggressive
appearance and helps the most savage browbeaters appeal to the better angels
of a jury's nature.
The reaction of many commentators is to wax sociological. They hoot at the
shallowness of a society that worships youthfulness. They deplore the
culture that drives the heavily love-handled to liposuct their hips and
those with pout-deprived mouths to collagen their lips. Anti-libertarian
editorialists tut-tut at the wasteful expenditure of billions for cosmetics
and fragrances ‹ as if the ancients since Cleopatra had not perfumed their
barks and asped their bosoms.
I reject such highbrow claptrap. Are we to listen to television diatribes
against the skillful modification of appearance from talking heads who have
just spent a half-hour getting brownish-red creams and powders rubbed on
their faces? (If Nixon had had a decent makeup man, Watergate would have
been over eight years earlier.)
In this space we set aside that crow's-feet fetish and deal with practical
politics: In an age of image manipulation, what will be the political impact
of the erasure of expression from the American face?
Specifically, how will a politician be able to measure a voter's reaction to
the stump speech ‹ when the entire audience is taking in the exhortation
with unfurrowable brows and frozen smiles? The speaker will reach out for a
reaction ‹ and be confronted only with waves of coiffed heads, hard bodies
and the paralyzed cheek muscles of smoothed-out physiognomies.
Now switch around to the audience's view of the Botoxification of the
speaker. How can the viewer, at a rally or watching television, know if the
politician is truly concerned about the public's grave anxieties if the
demagogue bites off his words in a tight-jawed rictus, physically unable to
appear infuriated, worried or empathetic? An orator of irenic countenance
cannot summon a people to greatness.
And what about the burning issue of access to this expensive, temporary
facelift? In the coming Congressional campaign, we already anticipate
pressure to turn Viagra and even herbal aphrodisiacs into entitlements. The
step beyond that politics of populist potency will be to sweep away the
unfairness that would enable the rich to stay young, slim, supple and
mysteriously expressionless while the elderly poor are forced to look old
and fat and honestly ornery. (Yes, they'll be the ones able to smile ‹ but
The peril of poisonfacedness can be summarized in a chestnut at once sexist,
ethnicist and age-ist. Rose, a woman recently widowed, begins to spend her
inheritance on a complete makeover ‹ new face, new hairdo, new figure, new
clothes. Killed by a speeding bicycle courier as she steps out of a beauty
parlor, Rose stands before God's great judgment seat and says: "For 50 years
I scrimped and saved, and the minute I'm on my own it's all over. You call
The booming voice from on high replies in amazement: "Rose ‹ is that you?"
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