A few years ago, I went to stay with a friend in the city. The face she greeted me with was not her face. One of her eyelids sagged, giving her a strange lopsided smile. Distress bubbled up inside me. Had she been struck down with Bell’s Palsey? Had a stroke? Why didn’t she tell me?
“What’s happened to your face?” I blurted out, feeling the tears rise in my eyes.
“It’s no big deal,” she said, brushing me off with a wave of the hand. “It’s just a bit of botox gone wrong. It’s not permanent or anything.”
It took me a while to acclimatise myself to this answer. My startlingly confident, formidably intelligent, beautiful thirty-one year old friend was getting botox? And botox had caused her eye to sag as though she’d had a stroke? Of course, I knew movie stars and the like forked out to get this paralysing poison injected into their faces, but it wasn’t something I’d considered when it came to people I knew.
Fast forward a few years and it seems far more common. I have other friends with tell-tale shiny foreheads, though I’ve never again encountered a droopy eye. Botoxed faces all have something in common. A strange vacancy, a peculiar dullness. Despite the glimmering smoothness of the skin – the odd way that light reflects off an unlined surface – there’s a kind of deadness around the eyes. All my botoxed friends look faintly angry, with a touch of indifference. It’s a particular expression, rarely found in an unneedled face, and it takes some getting used to.
Lately, I’ve found myself feeling uneasy after spending time with these shiny-faced friends. The sense of connectedness we’ve always shared seems impeded by their impenetrable faces. In short, I miss their micro-expressions. I feel cut off from them, and come away lonely and disturbed. I worry how these frozen faces serve them in other parts of their lives. How do their partners feel? What about their children?
I know why women feel they need botox. I understand the pressure on us all to maintain a youthful appearance. The relentless bombardment of media images and meta-messages. Our invisibility once past a certain age. The very real ramifications of aging as a woman in our culture. But I can’t help wondering about the costs of botox, and not just to the hip pocket.
There’s no argument that botox paralyses facial muscles. That’s how it works. It minimises micro-expressions. So in a sense, communicating with someone who’s had botox is like communicating with a static image – much of the body-language involved is silenced. Considering body-language, mostly facial expressions, makes up at least half of any message being communicated, this is a significant loss.
But this facial paralysis also inhibits the ability of the botoxed to mimic the facial expressions of others, which is critical in the formation of empathy. Facial micro-mimicry is the major way we understand others’ emotions. If you are wincing in pain I immediately do a micro-wince which sends a message to my brain about what you are experiencing. By experiencing it myself I understand what you are going through. This suggests that not only do I find my botoxed friends hard to read, but they are also hindered in their capacity to read me. An unfortunate feedback cycle. The possible implications of this are truly frightening.
There has been a study into the effects of botox on the ability to empathise, but nothing which specifically addresses the impacts on friendship, or the mother-infant bond. The absence of discussion around the effect of botox on mothering is troubling considering in that a mother’s display of emotions is how the infant learns to interact with the world. Psychologists have a method for testing infant distress at unresponsive faces called the ‘Still Face paradigm.’ Any alarm bells ringing?
Obviously empathy is a cornerstone of relationship, vital to both building and maintaining positive interactions with others. That many women are prioritising themselves as a still image is disturbing and worthy of consideration. The poker-face, by definition, doesn’t express anything. With the proliferation of selfies and the focus on static representations of women’s faces, are we forgetting how much of who we are is communicated through facial expressions? Are we, in some sense, choosing a form of silence far more insidious than women have ever known in the past? Who benefits from the silencing of women’s faces? And what is the cost?
First published in the guardian – ‘Comment is Free’ – May 22nd, 2013.