I see I am not the only one to find Pamela Stephenson’s comments on the ABC’s Q and A panel this week so fascinating. An actor, sex therapist, comedian and wife of Billy Connolly, I heard a long time ago — through a bizarre series of personal links — that she had chosen to have breast implants and I had also read about her choice to have plastic surgery, and to use Botox.
But the other night on Q and A, in answer to a question from a young woman in the audience about why someone would choose medical intervention rather than simply accept the ageing process (I’m paraphrasing here) she replied that it was because she “wanted to be a babe.”
The other members of the panel felt compelled to add the PC line that surgery/intervention is up to each individual woman, and that no woman (or man) should diss another woman for having it etc etc. But can I say here that actually there is a very real argument for supporting women so that they can make the choice NOT to have such surgery or intervention?
I know all the arguments: but you use lipstick don’t you? Hairdryers and skin lotions and face powder and all those other things that constitute artiface? Humans — men and women — have been adorning, adding, subtracting, tatooing, extending their lips or their ears with rings or plates or whatever, ever since humans had bodies.
Well, yes. Each of us is probably engaged, to a greater or lesser extent, with presenting our best physical self to the world. And every woman — no matter how plain or how beautiful or how ugly – can tell you a story about how the way she looks has resulted in certain outcomes. When I was writing ON BEAUTY, I catalogued what happened to humans who are beautiful and the effects of beauty are often very real rather than symbolic. A beautiful woman — an exceptionally beautiful woman I mean, not just a pretty one — has to get around her own beauty, so to speak, and so does an ugly one.
Every one of us, too, has a rough idea of where we fall on the beauty scale. I have the kind of appearance that appeals to a certain kind of man, but another kind of man finds no appeal whatsoever in my face. I am still recovering from the wound of being told that I most resemble Rowan Atkinson in his Mr Bean persona.
And every one of us is vain, to a greater or lesser degree. For instance, when I was in my early 40s, I wrote a hot-hearted defence of grey hair and in a flame of self-righteousness I declared that I, Susan Johnson, would NEVER dye my hair. I listed all the women in the public eye who are still not grey –Susan Sarandon, Madonna, Hilary Clinton, Quentin Bryce, Hilary McPhee — and I could hardly name any who had eschewed the dye bottle (Emmy Lou Harris is the pin up silver haired girl).
But now I am 55 years old, and I had to return to the workforce recently. I am working with people not only ten years younger than me but twenty years and thirty years younger. So — in a typical slinking-out-the-back-door compromise — I use wash-out six-weekly rinses (NOT dye!! NOT dye) to colour my hair, trying to convince myself that since I am not DYEING my hair it is not artificially coloured. Yeah, right.
Look, no way around it: I am dying. I am on the train that is going in only one direction, and what dyeing your hair or Botoxing your face or getting a surgeon to pull up the skin of your sagging jaw is trying to do is pull the emergency stop cord.
But, hey, folks, the train aint going to stop! It’s going one way, and what the grey hair and the sagging and the wrinkles are telling you is that your time with dark hair and no sags and no wrinkles is over. Move over! Let the unlined youth climb aboard! Unclutch your hands! Let life pass over you, let the trajectory of birth to death continue on its way.
Mourn your unblemished, smooth skin. Mourn your glossy curls. Yes, it’s a grief, no way around it: it’s a grief because it’s about loss. Loss feels like all the other losses that have come before, all the losses like Russian dolls packed inside you.
But, sweetie, sweetie, you can’t be a babe at sixty. You just can’t, no matter how sexy you feel. For the record I feel sexier now, at 55, than I have felt in a long, long time, and possibly part of that is because I know my physical self is altering. I know my face is passing away, and that hurts.
Don’t think I haven’t noticed that Helen Garner is still dying her hair. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how bright, crazy-red the hair on Kate Grenville’s head is now, and how it keeps getting brighter and brighter. Don’t think I haven’t seen Lily Brett’s dark, curled head, the beautiful kohl-rimmed eyes.
We are all going on that necessary journey, as Colette once said. But let us travel like Doris Lessing, who said that when she finally understood that she had entered the terrain of the invisible older woman she felt grief, yes, but she also felt strangely free, as if she finally stood revealed, without her carapce, as if she was at last herself. I want that, too: I have a lot of fears about how I am going to get there from here but I am not enough afraid to yearn, still, to be a babe.