Welcome to the latest phase!

I've been blogging for several years at http://www.lauraainsworth.com/, and it's great to be entering a new realm. But you'll still find tons of archive posts on plastic surgery, Botox, diet books and other hilariously depressing topics at the original site under "Laura's Diary," along with pics, videos from my shows, sound clips and more. Go over there and poke around!



Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fighting Ageism With Dancing Parrots

Too busy for much blogging the past couple of days, but here's something fun to share with you. A website associated with the Dallas Morning News put together a video profile on me that turned out very cute. Kudos to Allen Houston, who shot it and put it together. It includes clips of Cady, the footless wonder cockatiel, singing her little heart out and of Aussie the cockatoo dancing to "Let's Misbehave" by Cliff Edwards (aka Ukelele Ike and Jiminy Cricket). How much more entertainment does any human need?

Click here to watch it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

New Modeling Star Is Barely 13

Maddison Gabriel has blue eyes, dark blond hair, and is 5-foot 7. That’s not very tall for a model, but in this case, she could still grow a few inches. She just turned 13 years old.

Chosen when she was 12 to be the official ambassador of Gold Coast Fashion Week in Queensland, Australia, she apparently wore a number of revealing outfits during the event. How revealing? I don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet they wouldn’t have met the dress code at my middle school.

Her participation has sparked strong debate in Australia, with Prime Minister John Howard deeming it unacceptable. “Catapulting girls as young as 12 into something like that is outrageous,” he said. “There should be age limits -- I mean there has to be -- we do have to preserve some notion of innocence in our society.” Europe has set an age limit of 16 for appearing on catwalks (I didn’t know that); he wants Australia to do the same.

But Maddison’s mom has demanded an apology from the Prime Minister. He’s getting “very doddery,” she says. “He does not know exactly what 13 and 14-year-old girls are like. I used to vote for him. We’re trying to get our teenage daughters to act older.”

Why? So old rich guys will want to date them?

Fashion Week spokesman Kelly Wieler said, “Maddy got in because she was the best contestant. The judges saw that she was fit to do the job.” She added that Maddy wouldn’t be modeling swimwear or lingerie. (She didn’t mention that many designer clothes look just like lingerie and are just as revealing.)

As for Maddison, she feels she deserved to win and become the “face” of the show. “I believe that I can fit into women’s clothes, I can model women’s clothes, so I should be able to do it, she insisted. “It doesn’t matter about age. It matters that you can do the job. Modeling is all I’ve wanted to do since I was six. I don’t think I’m too young.”

If she can fit into women’s clothes, it’s because most of them seem designed for women who are built like 12-year-olds. And even though I’ve said many times and believe with my whole heart that “it doesn’t matter about age,” I am always talking about the world of adults. This is another issue entirely.

For me, the most important question to ask is why the “face” of this women’s fashion event is that of a barely 13-year-old girl. “Best” is subjective; why was she considered the “best” contestant? She’s a cute girl, and if this were a junior fashion show, she would be perfect. But this event is for grownup women, and I don’t understand why grownup women are supposed to aspire to look like a seventh-grader, albeit a very tall one playing dress-up in mommy’s makeup and heels.

This attitude about fashion and beauty is not unique to Australia. Here in Dallas, we have an annual event called the Fashion!Dallas/Kim Dawson model search. (Fashion!Dallas is part of The Dallas Morning News, and the Kim Dawson Agency is a local modeling agency.) Each year, hundreds of contestants show up at a mall to have their pictures snapped. There are specific height and age requirements. Judges select the finalists, whose pictures appear in the paper. Readers get to vote for their faves and select two Readers’ Choice winners, but the judges pick the actual winner or winners. This is a big deal; being chosen can really jump-start a career in modeling. Case in point: the first year’s winner, Erin Wasson, who went on to be a top international model.

The age threshold for a girl entering this contest is 14; the cutoff age is, I think, 21. Last year, the girl who won, Ali Michael, was – you guessed it -- 14.

I’m reminded of myself at 14, certainly tall enough to model after growing six inches in one year! My height was 5-foot-9, considerably taller than most of the boys (alas), and I was to grow another inch. I was skinny, too, with blue eyes and long, straight, very blonde hair. But I was painfully shy, absolutely na├»ve, and certainly no fashion plate; Mom made most of my clothes. I’d gotten contact lenses but was a year or so away from wearing makeup. Maybe someone could’ve gotten hold of me then and made a model out of me, but I’m glad nobody did. I was a baby – way too young. I wasn’t at all ready to be a model in the very adult and sometimes rough world of fashion.

Today, though, the fashion world actually seems to prefer babies to wear its grownup clothes. It’s not my imagination – the models really are getting younger. In real life, some of these models wouldn’t even be old enough to wear a prom dress.

By amazing coincidence (I’d already started writing this piece), today’s paper features this year’s finalists in the Model Search. There are a dozen finalists this year, all girls, ranging in age from 14 to 20. The 20-year-old, a 5-foot-11 brunette named Ren Vokes, is described as the “elder statesman” of the group. “Everyone here is 14 and I’m 20,” she observes. “I feel like an old person for the first time in my life.”

Cry me a river.

Not all the other girls are 14, but most are 14-16. Looking at their headshots, I’d think they all could get work as professional models. (An interesting aside: one of the 14-year-olds is Asian, and she still has Eastern-style eyes, with no fold. I wonder if this pretty girl will feel pressure to change that.) In the photos, they all look closer in age than they actually are. I don’t have a favorite to win, but I’d be more likely to bet on one at the lower end of the age range than the upper end.

I can remember, way back in the Jurassic Period, when teenage model Brooke Shields created a scandal just by saying, “Know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” It was widely thought that she was too young to do such a suggestive ad. Times have changed. Young teens now look to such stunning role models as Paris Hilton as their fashion icons.

Even so, my concern is less for the extremely young girls involved in modeling than for the grownup women who feel compelled to try to look like them. Think about it: even a 30-year-old woman is surrounded by images of girls half her age. Some of these models are in ads for anti-aging products.

What is wrong with this picture?

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Next time: “To Gray Or Not To Gray…that is the question,” and you better get the answer right because it’s an incredibly significant personal statement and a matter of political correctness. Or so I’ve read.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Facing Spiegel's "Reality," Beestung Breasts & Other News

The Spiegel catalog has just arrived - I get one about every three days - and once again, there's a section called "Reality Dressing - fabulous at every age!" As you might guess, it's one of my biggest pet peeves. This one has eight full pages of how to dress in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and "ageless," which I assume is code for 70 and over.

It starts with a two-page spread featuring one women from each of the age groups; for example, the 50s are represented by Beverly Johnson, "legendary model." (This is one of those rare gigs for 50-plus models.) The other women are not professional models. They include a pediatric nurse, a real estate broker, a copy editor and a retired teacher. The 40s are represented by Lynette Lewis, author of "Climbing the Ladder in Stilettos," though she appears to be wearing a medium-height heel. All the women, from 20 to "ageless," look polished, confident and attractive.

They're all dressed in "casual chic" for fall: black pants with lots of leather. But there's a problem: I'm supposed to see how they illustrate "leather in every look for every age," but for the life of me, I can't see what it is that makes the clothes appropriate for their particular age group. As long as these women have essentially the same body shape, any one of them could wear any of the outfits. And if they could, why have they been divided into decades? I don't see the point of this whole exercise.

I personally would wear any of the outfits on these two pages, except maybe the boxy red jacket they put on the "ageless" woman, simply because I think big jackets overwhelm my willowy build. I feel swallowed by them, and would "at any age." Ditto the super-wide pants on the 60s woman.

The next two-page spread features a lineup of put-together outfits - no models here, just the clothes - with one supposedly for the 20s, one for the 30s, and on through "ageless." I'd wear the 20s and 40s outfits but definitely not the 30s, 60s or "ageless" ones. (Oops, they seem to have left out the 50s! Whatever will Beverly Johnson wear?)

The next two-page spread has another lineup, this time of "9-to-5 looks for every age and every style." None of these are my style. One possible exception is the 20s look, but it has those floppy, wide pants. An outfit that might look chic on someone - someone who isn't me -- is the black "ageless" pantsuit, which could look quite smart for the right business occasion. But with its matching long coat, it's so covered-up. Any long coat tends to make me think of Bea Arthur, and black pantsuits remind me of Hillary Clinton. As for the outfits for 30s, 40s and 50s, they look matronly and would add about 20 pounds - some might say 20 years -- to anyone's frame. (Again, these clothes are shown without models.) I would never wear them, "at any age."

Moving on to the next two-page spread, we come to my favorite part. The catalog takes one article of clothing, in this case a leopard-print "trapeze" jacket, and shows it used appropriately for the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. (Oops, this time they left out "ageless"!) And for each decade, they thoughtfully provide an appropriate adjective.

In your 20s, you want to be "edgy." In your 30s, "sophisticated." The 40s are "elegant." The 50s are "adventurous." Finally, in your 60s, it's time to be "dramatic." And, believe it or not, for the woman in her 60s, they pair the leopard-print jacket with A LEOPARD-PRINT SKIRT. My Lord! Even SCTV's Edith Prickley wore a tasteful black skirt with her leopard jacket. That's right, I am telling you that even Edith Prickley had enough taste to know that top-to-toe leopard would've been too much! What are they thinking??? And why didn't they include a matching, leopard-print pillbox hat?

I've tried to cultivate a wardrobe that manages to be edgy, sophisticated, elegant, adventurous and dramatic, all on a limited budget. Ironically, many of my clothes come from the Newport News catalog. Newport News is part of Spiegel.

So, listen up, Spiegel. I am not a demographic category. I have always been and will continue to be "ageless." Stop defining a woman by her decade of life. I hate it, and I'm sure many other women are sick of it, too. Your "Reality Dressing" pages are a prime example of the age-obsession that drives me insane.

It's not my reality at all.

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BEE STING DEFLATES BREAST, AND OTHER NEWS

Southern China City News reports that a woman from Miaoli, Taiwan, was riding her motorcycle while wearing a low-cut dress when a bee stung her on the breast. "My right breast disappeared in one day," she said of her saline implant. I understand this was so traumatic for her, she broke out in hives. Her surgeon said this is very unusual, but the woman is very skinny, and her thin skin was stretched tightly over the implant. (Bet that looked natural!) Ironically, her natural breasts were exactly the size of bee stings. The doctor replaced her implant but advised her to avoid acupuncture. Also, lapel pins.

Victoria Beckham should be warned about this.

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Speaking of breast implants, did you know that the Australian military has given taxpayer-funded breast implants to some of its female sailors? (Maybe they take it out of the budget for torpedoes.) A spokesman defended this practice, saying plastic surgery is provided where there are compelling medical, dental or psychological reasons. He said suggestions that they're trying to make the female sailors look sexy are not only wrong, but insulting.

Of course, suggestions that the sailors don't look sexy are also wrong and insulting.

The spokesman also noted that in an emergency, breast implants can double as flotation devices. And women who've had the surgery don't have to admit it. The policy regarding plastic surgery is strictly, "Don't ask, don't tell."

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More implant news: The Hindustan Times reports that Indian men have noticed women looking at their butts, and they're getting self-conscious about it. A doctor at one cosmetic surgery clinic said that for every seven female patients he sees, there are now two men coming in for butt treatments. "Butt therapy" can involve anything from liposuction and toning/firming to hair and scar removal. A few men have even gone in for implants, but so far, not many. Probably just Bollywood actors.

If this doctor wants more male patients for this procedure, he should tell them that butt implants will help align their lower chakras.

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A Cosmopolitan magazine survey of over 5,000 Australian women found that they are unhappy with their bodies but don't know how to change them. Almost half said if they could change anything about their lives, it would be their bodies; 42 percent consider themselves overweight or obese. Yet a quarter of the women exercise once a month or less, and nearly half don't eat fruit every day. One in six women prefer chocolate to sex, and one in ten would rather skip a meal than give up alcohol to lose weight. Yet 10 percent said they're so depressed about their bodies, they'd give up four or more years of their lives to lose weight. Presumably, they mean the years they'd have to spend on a weight-loss diet.

Realistically, as long as women are this depressed, is there any way they could give up cheesecake? Not to mention chocolate -- if it's better than sex, giving it up would be worse than death. I can also see why they'd rather give up food than booze: food reminds them they're fat, while booze helps them forget they're fat. With these habits, they may indeed lose four or more years of their lives, and still die fat.

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Speaking of chocolate, a psychologist at England's University of Bristol says that despite what chocoholics think, chocolate is not literally addictive. He said some people may think they have no control over their craving for it, but the compounds in chocolate that produce a buzz in the brain are found in higher concentrations in other foods, such as cheese and avocados, which are not generally thought of as addictive foods.

This doesn't explain the people who would do anything for a Klondike bar. But I think it's probably the same as with nuts: sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't.

I also believe there may be people addicted to avocados. I no longer eat chocolate (it causes my migraines-drat!!), but I can polish off a pretty generous bowl of guacamole. Especially if it has a little cheese on it.

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Finally, the Northern Italian town of Piobbico has unveiled a monument to ugly people. It's sponsored by the World Association of Ugly People, an Italian-born group that has spread around the world. Their motto: A person is what he is and not what he looks like. So instead of a monument showing a good-looking movie star or dashing war hero, this monument depicts "a person who is just as beautiful, but only on the inside."

It will be unveiled, then immediately veiled again. Oh, and the person they have chosen wins a free Extreme Makeover.

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Next time: the new star of fashion modeling. She just turned 13.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Weighing In On Britney, Madonna & Demi

I've seen footage of Britney Spears as a little girl, singing confidently and on-key. After she'd had a few hits, I saw her sing live on "Saturday Night Live," just sitting on a stool with a hand-held microphone, and thought she did a good job. But Britney's appeal has been more about her hot dancer's body and her choreography - some nice moves, but certainly not too difficult for most high school drill teams to pull off -- than about her voice.

In case you are Amish or from the planet Neptune, I should mention that the voice we've heard on CDs and in concert was created in a studio. (To find out how modern hit songs are manufactured, just click here.) In concert or on TV, Britney is always lip-synching to a backing track. If you think that's because she can't be expected to sing while she's dancing, you haven't ever been to a Broadway show. And her songs, while catchy in the beginning, are now just tuneless and annoying attempts to be seductive, delivered in that generic overproduced whisper that also marks the "music" of Janet Jackson and countless other pop and hip-hop artists who really don't have much voice at all. (To be fair to Britney, these other artists also lip-synch.)

I don't know what happened to Britney's voice. Maybe she just got so accustomed to lip-synching that she lost her confidence for singing live. Or maybe she spends so much time in loud clubs, talking over music, smoking Marlboros and pouring hard liquor down her throat, that she's fried her vocal chords. Whatever the reason, Britney is a musical performer who never sings.

So what does she have left? Her ability to lip-synch, her smooth dance moves, her hot, sexy body? As we saw on the recent MTV Music Video Awards show, the lip-synching and the dance moves didn't come off well. Some of the choreography didn't come off at all. Later, it was revealed that Britney was 4-1/2 hours late to rehearsal and showed up with a frozen margarita in her hand after clubbing all night. She has only herself to blame for that, but with all the personal trauma she's been through in recent years, self-inflicted or not, and the constant public scrutiny, I'm wondering whether--deep down--she even wants to be on stage. (Check out late-night host Craig Ferguson's monologue on the relentless criticism and joking about Britney.) If she doesn't, she should go somewhere secluded, find some serious help, and get her life together. This will take some time. There are plenty of attractive girls with talent who'd love to be pop superstars and who would definitely show up for rehearsal.

She did make the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and the feature story is all about her, but I'm sorry: there is such a thing as bad publicity, and this is it.

Some might say that Britney's missing rehearsal was a sign of her overconfidence. I speculate that it was the opposite. This was to be The Comeback, and she must've been feeling more pressure than she could handle. So she avoided the situation, preferring to down drink after drink of liquid confidence to get herself up on that stage. Yeah, that helped. Good plan.

So, simply through lack of preparedness, her dance moves didn't click. She wasn't sure of the lyrics, either, even though they seemed to consist of nothing more than "gimme, gimme, gimme," so at some point she simply stopped mouthing them.

That leaves her hot, sexy body.

The Internet has exploded with comments, pro and con, about Britney's appearance on that show. They range from "Most women would kill to have that body" (probably true) to "Britney is a fat tub of lard" (a gross exaggeration). Most of the "fat" remarks have been incredibly snide, and I'd be willing to bet that most were made by people who weigh more than Britney. Weight seems to be something that no one can get exactly right, and yet it's sooooo important. Opinions vary, and everyone has to "weigh in."

Two pregnancies - along with, it must be said, mass quantities of fried chicken and tater tots - had wrought havoc on Britney's trim, sexy body long before the MTV show, but she had gotten herself into pretty fair shape for The Comeback. It was revealed later that she rejected the flattering outfit created for her as "not sexy enough" in favor of the tiny black bra and little-boy shorts she must've been carrying around in her purse. That must've been the margaritas talking. Or maybe it was the outfit she'd been clubbing in the night before.

The body that might have looked stunning in the other outfit definitely lost its "wow factor" in the bra-and-shorts. Britney doesn't seem to understand what "sexy" is. It's not getting out of a limo in a short skirt and no panties. It's not wearing as little clothing as you can get away with on TV, especially if the outfit is unflattering. In other words, this discussion shouldn't even be about Britney's weight. It should be about her taste and her judgment.

Also, have you noticed that the emphasis on super-thinness seems confined to white girls? Beyonce has a little extra poundage - temporarily lost to shoot "Dreamgirls," but now comfortably back on -- and so does Jennifer Lopez. They are both considered sexy. Queen Latifah's career hasn't been hurt by her size. It's only the white singers who have to be matchstick thin. I just read a capsule review of white blues singer Joss Stone that mentioned she'd finally lost her baby fat; would that have been said of a black singer? Unlike Britney, Joss Stone is a tremendous talent, but we're still talking about her weight.

When looking at Britney's career, it might be useful to compare her with Madonna. Both started as hot, young dancer/singers with lithe bodies and small voices. Both had the early success in pop music that's typically associated with flashes-in-the-pan. Both appealed to a young, fickle demographic. Yet Madonna built on her early success, while Britney soon faltered. I'd say - and Madonna would no doubt agree - that the critical difference was Madonna's steely determination and singlemindedness. Critics say that Madonna has constantly "reinvented herself" (a term I hate; I'll have to write about that sometime), but I don't think that's it. Her various incarnations were always expressions of the Madonna we knew; the important thing is that she grew as an artist. By the time she sang the torch song "Sooner Or Later" for the film Dick Tracy, her voice had become a lovely thing. The chirpiness heard on early hits such as "Borderline" was gone, replaced by a rich, emotional, mature sound. She sings live in concert, though probably with a backing track, and she's kept her dancer's body, even at almost twice Britney's age.

Ironically, the very maturity that transformed her voice has been her biggest liability in the pop music world. Now in her late 40s, Madonna is the brunt of jokes about her age. It doesn't even seem to matter that she's kept her body in top form. Weight is something virtually all of us can do something about, but age...well. No one, repeat, NO ONE can turn back the clock.

Case in point: Demi Moore, who is in the news. (If an over-40 actress is in the news, you can bet the subject will be age.) In the London Daily Mail, Lucretia Munro writes that four years after undergoing a massively expensive, top-to-toe makeover, Demi has failed to win the big Hollywood roles she'd hoped for. It's estimated that she spent close to half a million dollars on personal trainers, nutritionists, yoga instructors and various surgical and cosmetic procedures. Those who follow such things say she even had an operation on her knees to lift the sagging skin. Demi showed off her lean, sexy body in 2003, emerging from the sea in a skimpy bikini for Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.

Since that time, she's appeared in only two films, with two more to be released this fall, while ex-husband Bruce Willis (almost a decade older than she) has appeared in 13.

Demi has said she hoped to overturn the belief that juicy roles should not be given to older actresses, but it doesn't seem to be working out that way, even though she's looking great. And the problem seems to be unique to Hollywood; European filmmakers tend to care much less about it. "If we are told we are not valuable once we hit 30, it is a problem," Demi said. "We have to say, 'I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore.'"

The same article quotes Sharon Stone as saying, "When I went to the Oscars, it was like, 'Oh, there's been an archeological dig and look what we've found, a 40-year-old."


Her body looks great, too, but you don't see too many Sharon Stone movies coming out these days, do you? So maybe Britney Spears should just concentrate on looking like a normal, healthy woman, growing up, finding better friends, getting to know her kids, seeing a good therapist and living a happy life. Even if she starved herself into a size 2 and decided to get serious about a comeback, she'd have to realize that untalented pop stars have an even shorter shelf life than Hollywood actresses.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Redheads & African Greys

With all the appearance-related issues thrown at us every day, there's one I didn't even know existed until now. And it applies to me.

My unofficial British correspondent, Paul, informed me a few days ago that the British have a "thing" about redheads. It seems they fear them. The next day, the Dallas Morning News ran an article (by Shelley Emling, Cox Newspapers) about this very thing! According to Emling, Simon Cheetham, founder of http://www.redandproud.com/, is working to counter discrimination against redheads. "In the politically-correct world, you can't say anything about people's religion or sexuality, but it's still okay here in Britain to portray redheads in a negative manner," he says.

I was shocked. This is the same observation I've made many times about age. Race, religion, sexual orientation are off-limits, while someone who's "aging" - in Hollywood, that's over 30 -- is fair game. Now, I see that having red hair can spark the same kind of criticism. But why?

There are theories. In the Middle Ages, redheads were often thought to be witches. In Elizabethan times, Shakespeare used red wigs to denote menacing characters. Redhead-hate could also have something to do with British hostility toward Scotland, where about 13 percent of the population has red hair, compared to about 1 percent of the entire world. In England, a redhead is referred to condescendingly as a "ginger."

The article cites several examples of extreme, violent and just plain nutty attacks on redheads. Embling says that the disdain for redheads can be so great that one of the first questions asked of new parents is whether or not their baby is a ginger.

If I take "My Ship" to England, there will have to be a special segment of the monologue devoted to this issue. I go to a lot of trouble to turn my blond hair red, because the red looks great and suits me so well. There are numerous natural redheads on my mom's side of the family, and my skin and eyes fit the redhead template. My little niece has precious apricot-colored hair. So I wrote a poem that would make Ogden Nash proud:

In not making me ginger-haired,
Nature erred.

Hmm...I've just realized that my poem rhymes only if "erred" is said the way I pronounce it. For those of you who pronounce it the other way, here's another poem:

In not making me a ginger bird,
Nature erred.

Hmm...that works only if you know that "bird" is British slang for "girl." And I'm not sure that "bird" is even used any more. But I wanted to use the word "bird" because it allows me to segue into the next story...

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I have to warn you, it's a sad story, maybe sadder for me than for you, but sad nonetheless. You may wonder what it's doing in a blog about age and beauty, but trust me - I'll get to that.

The story is about Alex, the famous African grey parrot who showed through his use of words his ability to conceptualize. Under the longtime tutelage of Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D, Alex learned many things that most people would think are beyond the ability of a bird - or any nonhuman -- to understand. Say you had a tray with a small red key, a large green key, and a yellow square. If you asked Alex what the objects were, he'd say, "Key, key, and 'four-corner.'" If you asked him what color the four-corner was, he'd say, "Yellow." If you showed him the two keys and asked, "Which color bigger, he'd answer, "Green." He could tell you what each object was made of. After every correct answer, he would tell you what he wanted as a reward. Dr. Pepperberg even gave him his own "computer" with which to select his favorite music and games.

Alex died last week; the cause is still not known. He was 31.

Now, you may think, "He was 31? Wow! Parrots sure live a long time!" But 31 is young for an African grey parrot. These birds can easily live twice that long in captivity. They're trying to find out why a seemingly healthy bird - he'd had a routine vet check two weeks before -- just suddenly died.

I have my own 18-year-old African grey, named Dorian Gray. Yes, I know; it's appropriate that I have a bird named after someone who never ages. I named him Dorian Gray for two reasons: (1) for the play on words, and (2) because as I grow older, he's always going to look pretty much the same, like Oscar Wilde's fictional character with the aging portrait in his attic. There's even a short segment in my show about parrots - a picture of me with Dorian comes up behind me - in which I mention that one reason I love having parrots as pets is that they can be with me for a long, long time.

But now I hear that Alex has died, and I'm stunned. I've shed quite a few tears over this loss. I'm reminded once again that age means so little, and that timetables are all in our heads.

Fortunately, there's quite a lot of video documentation of Alex; I hope you'll watch him in this short clip and this longer one with Alan Alda on PBS.

Alex's abilities come as no surprise to me after living with my own African grey and interacting with him every day. I write a regular column for the Companion Parrot Quarterly in which I've detailed much of what Dorian can do. I even wrote to Marilyn Vos Savant about him during a discussion of whether animals understand the concept of "name" when they respond to their names; she posted it on her website here.

I can't find the words to express how sad Alex's passing is to me. I'm sure Dr. Pepperberg must be in shock; I know I'd be inconsolable. But at least there was an "Alex." If there hadn't been, I'd be telling people stories about Dorian and they'd be rolling their eyes or patting me on the head and saying, "Sure, sure, of course he does that."

If I live for 50 more years (and that's the plan), that would put Dorian at 68, certainly within the normal lifespan of a healthy companion grey. So I hope we'll be old and gray together. I'll crack his seeds for him if he needs me to.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Report From The Dallas Plastic Surgery Expo

(Sorry to go for a while without a blog post, but it's been a very hectic week. More will coming very soon. In the meantime, I'm reposting something from the copious archives of my blog at my personal website. It's from my visit last October to the big (and I do mean BIG) Dallas Plastic Surgery Expo. Since it will probably be rolling around again soon, this will help get you prepared if you're planning to drop by and explore all the latest breakthroughs in epidermis peeling, organ inflating and botulism injecting. Enjoy!...)

SPECIAL REPORT! A VISIT TO THE DALLAS PLASTIC SURGERY EXPO!
(Or “Into the Beauty Jungle with Botox Gun and Camera”)

Whew! I almost missed the first-ever Dallas Plastic Surgery Expo, held a few weekends ago at the cavernous Market Hall. A large newspaper ad alerted me to this phenomenon just in time, and, of course, I immediately cleared my calendar, as it was time to set aside the frivolity for some serious research.

What a concept! I'd been to similar expos for home improvement and design, landscaping ideas, and even pet birds (I take in parrots in need of a home), but the idea of having one for midface rejuvenation and microdermabrasion seemed a bit surreal (although not dissimilar to the renovation expo). In retrospect, it appears to have been an inevitable development, at least for Dallas.

The most elaborate booths were for cosmetic surgery clinics. Huge monitors showed before-and-after pictures of noses, jawlines and breasts (some discreetly covering the nipples with black bars, others not). Dermatologists were also well represented. Surgeons and skin docs gave seminars throughout the day on such topics as breast augmentation (the most popular topic – with both women and men), rhinoplasty and Restylane. To his credit, one cosmetic surgeon even held a seminar on the things that can go wrong during a procedure.

There were surprised looks on the faces of some of the women working the booths, so I looked around to find out what was spooking them. Immediately, I realized that these women had seen absolutely nothing to warrant their looks of astonishment, which had instead been created and frozen into place by exaggerated browlifts and numerous syringes of Botox. If they had hoped to be living billboards for the miracle of cosmetic enhancement, they were just the opposite.

It's hard to know how much blame to give the doctors in such cases, at least for the Botox. I've discussed Botox with my dermatologist (though I haven't used it – honestly, and I say that with a completely straight face), and she tells me some patients say, "I want you to freeze everything!" This line is delivered not as a suggestion but as a command. She knows that if she doesn't make her clients happy, there are plenty of dermatologists who will. She explains to me that she does have some control over the level of paralysis - and that's what it is: PARALYSIS -- because it's partially determined by the placement of the needle. Fortunately, Botox does wear off, so, unlike a plastic surgeon doing an extreme browlift, she's not creating permanent disfigurement.

Still, with these perfectionist patients, the moment there's even the tiniest movement in the treated area, they're back for more injections. They have to spend every moment looking like a PhotoShopped picture - frozen in time, and just frozen, period. Some of these are very young people, too, and increasing numbers are men. My doctor told me about one very strange stepmom-and-stepson "couple" (?) who came in together and received thousands of dollars worth of Botox and fillers, leaving with perfectly smooth but totally immobile faces. I'm guessing they looked so much alike at that point that people would think not only that they were biologically mother and son, but that she had passed on some freakish genetic condition to him.

But I digress. There were other women working the booths who looked quite natural and lovely; it was only in the context of the event that I suspected they'd been somewhat lifted and Botoxed. Some would say that even this kinder-and-gentler improvement is somehow dishonest, but I have no problem with subtly softening nature's onslaughts. It's no more dishonest than whitening your teeth, getting highlights, lasering off that old tattoo of your ex-husband's name or using concealer to cover a pimple. As I try to convey in my show, we live in a world where people are evaluated and categorized by their youth and beauty, or lack thereof. Each of us has to decide how far we should reasonably go to deal with that reality. And any cosmetic procedure, along with one's choice of the doctor who performs it, should be very, very carefully considered. With surgical alteration, you can't go back.

The expo also included booths for vein therapy, antioxidant drinks, a variety of treatments such as Thermage and different types of lasers, a vibrating machine that's supposed to exercise and tone the body (used by Madonna! Write your own giant vibrator joke), and numerous new skincare lines. Yes, every week there are new skincare lines. If these products did what they claimed, why would we keep needing new ones? I think that, at this point, there must be enough skincare lines for each woman in America to have two or three of her very own, but still they come. Several skincare booths at the expo had samples for me to take home and try.

But I'm a hard sell. As you know if you've seen my show, I worship Dr. Perricone. Literally -- I sing an aria in his praise. Of course, Dr. Perricone does have some very expensive products, but I use only a few of the basic ones. (I'll have to reach my goal of becoming an international superstar - any day now! -- before I can afford the neuropeptide serum.) My advice to you: instead of buying every pricey new "anti-aging" cream that comes along, go with the beauty-from-the-inside approach. Eat lots of wild salmon and fresh vegetables, and avoid sugar and the other carbs that send blood glucose levels soaring. Put junk food into some other category that isn't food at all. Buy industrial-strength sunscreen by the case and use it all the time. Drink water or tea instead of diet soda. I also recommend weight training, which I've been doing for about a year now, and trying to avoid stress (yeah, I know, but try). Also, you should discourage wrinkle-formation by refusing to wear painful shoes no matter how hot-looking they are. Also, I've finally realized that's it's necessary to get enough sleep. Try it!

Okay, that's my book of beauty secrets, which I guess is really more of a pamphlet. But they work; my body is in better shape now than it was when I was 25, I have much more energy -- including mental energy -- than before, my friends say I'm "thriving," and my skin, though not flawless, has a radiance that is absolutely not achievable with some $300 "Botox-In-A-Tube."

Important note: "Botox-In-A-Tube" doesn't fulfill its claims even if the tube is shaped like a syringe. Marketers package their products like this because they think you have the I.Q. of a lawn chair. I have tested some of these products myself and have read research on their active ingredients. If any topical skincare product promises to do what Botox and Restylane do, it is a sham, a scam and a total ripoff of money better spent on, well, Botox and Restylane, as long as they're done very sparingly and you don't mind pain. If you prefer to avoid pain, as I generally do, spend the money on wild salmon and the best sunscreen you can find. Then, relax a bit about the whole thing. I think the injection we'd benefit from the most would be the one that immunizes us against the tactics of professional marketers.

Anyway, there were LOTS of new products at the expo. Afterwards, I tried a sample of one new line for three days -- the trial was supposed to go for four days -- before running back to Perricone. The skin around my eyes was looking a little less firm (egad!) and I had a large zit in the chin-jawline area. Also, the full regimen was very involved - six steps in the morning, six at night! Are they kidding?

The expo seemed to be well attended, so I anticipate an even bigger one next year. If you ever go, remember that having a fancy booth and sophisticated marketing does not mean a doctor or product is the right or healthy choice for you. In fact, there was one person at this event about whom a plastic surgeon friend of mine confided to me once...Well, I'd better not repeat what he said. I might get sued, and then I really wouldn't be able to afford Perricone products.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

It's The "Age" Of Insane Fashion Magazines

Just got home from the hair salon, where, in addition to enhancing the fabulosity of my trademark red mane, I typically spend time researching the treatment of age and beauty in various women’s magazines. Today I struck the mother lode – or should I say “load” – with the September issue of Glamour.

The headline reads “LOOK & FEEL YOUR SEXIEST AT 20, 30, 40 – The hair, the skin, the body, the secrets!” Three beautiful babes are on the cover, identified as “Hot At Every Age! Claire Danes, 28; Queen Latifah, 37; and Mariska Hargitay, 43.” Inside, there are headlines such as “20? 30? 40? Who Cares?,” while the very existence of this issue shows that the editors of Glamour, their advertisers and their presumed readership care very much. In fact, they seem pathologically obsessed with it.

There’s a whole section called the “20, 30, 40 Special – Inspiration for every age” that includes features such as “What Will You Look Like In 20 Years?,” “Look And Feel Your Sexiest at 20, 30, 40” and (my personal favorite) “Everything You Need To Know About Being 20, 30, 40.”

Spread throughout the magazine are pages such as “Look-great ideas at 20, 30, 40.” I learn on this page that the 20s are a great time to live out a travel fantasy (like Claire Danes), the 30s are when you make time for a cause (like Queen Latifah), and the 40s are the time to “be proud! ‘I’m aging like a fine wine and showing young women, look at what you can grow into'” (like Mariska Hargitay). Okay, thinking of yourself as a role model is great, but can’t you travel, work for a cause, or be proud of yourself at any age? What’s with all the categories?

And while we’re at it, what are the 50s the time for? Apparently, they’re the time for death, because there is nary a mention of anyone in this magazine who’s over 49. Yet they keep repeating the mantra, “at every age…at every age…,” as if there were no women over 49. Many women I know who have the digit “5” in their ages, not to mention “6,” “7” or even “8” (one of my dearest friends is a very current 80), might legitimately wonder what the editors of Glamour mean by “every age.”

Of course, they’re not going to target women that old, because their advertisers obviously want to reach the – you guessed it – 20s, 30s and 40s. This is why so many magazines make a point of specifying these decades over and over, month after month. Their advertisers want to sell clothes and skincare products to 20-year-olds and 40-year-olds. My guess is that demographic research has convinced the editors that this is about as wide a net as they can cast and still keep those valued 20-year-olds, who are also – surprise -- turning into a big new market for anti-aging products. So Glamour can have a full-page ad for Aveeno “clear complexion foaming cleanser” (to fight acne) and also one for Neutrogena “anti-oxidant age reverse day lotion” (to fight aging). Gosh, there’s even one full-page ad, for Revlon Age-Defying Makeup, that screams “DEFY AGE” in huge red letters.

More magazine, in contrast, covets advertisers who are selling to women 40-plus, and they try – again, way too hard -- to define themselves in terms of that particular golden demographic. In this magazine, it’s the 20s and 30s who don’t exist. Virtually everything in More is devoted to reminding one of one’s age; I can hardly get through an issue without throwing it across the room. Jeez, give me a break! I’ve ranted about More magazine before and will do so again; for now, let me just say that, although it often contains wonderful writing from insightful contributors (all over 40, of course), it’s based on a concept at odds with my philosophy of truly “ageless living.” Sure, it puts a positive spin on aging, but it also puts a not-so-positive spin on my head by obsessing relentlessly over everybody’s age.

This particular issue of Glamour is just about as bad. I say “just about” because there’s still quite a bit of content that’s more like their usual thing, with no reference to age. They have a spread on “the best fall clothes for your body type” as opposed to “for your age,” and another one on “a power look at every price” as opposed to “for every age.” They include tips for making more money, losing weight and enhancing one’s understanding of the male animal – things women in general truly are interested in. (Aside: I listed those three things according to relative difficulty.)

But then we get to page 253, and the headline: “20, 30, 40…Hot at every age!” Here, we get to see which decade of life all our favorite Hollywood stars (under 50) are currently enjoying. Superimposed in a little circle over each star’s picture is – you guessed it – her age. Who’s 20? Who’s 30? Who’s 40? We have to know! Who’s younger than we would’ve guessed? Who’s older, but passing for younger? Who’s had plastic surgery? (My guess: virtually all.) Have you had enough? Ready to throw the magazine across the room yet?

But then, turn the page, and there’s something that, in spite of the “20, 30, 40” in the headline, I actually like: “Doing it all wrong at 20, 30, 40. Women explain the value of throwing out your timeline.”

All right! We hear from a woman who moved back in with her parents at 31, graduated college at 37, had a baby at 45. No, these are not the same woman. Three different women made choices that ignore the traditional timetable, and they’re glad they did. It’s a great message -- although the parents of the 31-year-old might disagree.

On the very same page, though, is another groaner: “The Perfect Woman In Each Decade.” This pushes me towards the precipice of violent rage, for so many reasons. But here it is: According to a Glamour poll, the perfect woman in her 20s is (for men) Jessica Alba, 26, and (for women) America Ferrera, 23. Men and women agreed on the perfect woman in her 30s; that would be (ugh) Angelina Jolie, 32. Wow, they sure didn’t ask me. They also agreed that the perfect 40-something woman is Salma Hayek, 40.

Does everything have to be broken down into decades? Is our view of ourselves based entirely on the fact that we use a base-10 numerical system?

I turn the page in frustration, and there’s more: “Celebs at 20, 30, 40,” which shows how 40-something stars have changed their looks through the decades, and “We asked guys, what do you love about women in their 20s, in their 30s, in their 40s?” I don’t even want to hear it.

I turn the page again, and this is the worst part of all! “Guess the star’s age! 20? 30? 40? A good outfit never tells. (Bonus points if you can spot the 61-year-old!)” Yes, it actually says this! We see six fashionably-dressed celebrities, but only from the shoulders down. You check a key to see if you guessed right; it turns out that 61-year-old Jaclyn Smith is third from the left.

So, okay, I have to admit, one woman over 49 does appear in this magazine. But does the picture of a headless woman thrown into the mix as a novelty in an age-guessing game really count?

It just goes on and on. In “The Secrets To A Happy Life, three generations of smart, successful women mouth off about what happens to your head and your heart (and your knees!) as you grow from 20, to 30, to 40 and beyond.”

Oh, wait! I’ve spotted someone else over 49! It’s Kathleen Turner, identified as 53, saying, “I had a great time being young, but I have no desire to look the same now.” I find it meaningful that the picture of her they chose to run was taken when she was much younger. It even says, “Turner in her thirties.” Apparently, the editors desire that she look the same.

Even the feature story, “It Took Three Women To Make This Baby,” leads off this way: “When a couple in their forties, an egg donor in her twenties and a surrogate in her thirties used science to create a child…” Normally, I’d find a story like this interesting, but in this context, I’m thinking, “Enough already!”

Towards the back of the magazine, after some luscious fashion spreads, there’s “Look And Feel Your Sexiest At 20, 30, 40!” We learn that Claire Danes thinks her metabolism is slowing down at 28, that Queen Latifah has lost her sexual hangups and is now happily enjoying the “dirty thirties” at 37, and that 43-year-old Mariska Hargitay says, “You hit your forties, and you’re fearless, you’re just unstoppable.”

Okay…

If my blog about this magazine seems unusually long, remember: it did say that it would tell you EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW about being 20, 30 and 40. So, hey, I had to cover a lot of ground! Now, it’s time to sum up with what I think is wrong with this whole approach.

When I see a magazine like this one, I know I’m on the right track with my beliefs about age. It’s why I write this blog, and one big reason why I perform “My Ship Has Sailed.” My dream is for one’s age to be thought of as essentially meaningless, like one’s shoe size. Maybe someday we’ll get there, but, judging from this magazine, I think it may have to get worse before it gets better. I hope that twenty years from now, my nieces -- for the record, now in their twenties -- will find this old copy of Glamour in a garage sale somewhere and just laugh and laugh.

What does it mean to be in a particular decade of life? This question was on my mind this past weekend, because it was the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death. Mom died of something totally unrelated to her age; the hospital was never forthcoming, but I think she developed an infection there that shut her organs down two days after a routine appendectomy. She’d been in great health all her life, and I think she would’ve lived many years longer. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking back to where my mom was in her life when she was in “my decade.”

It was totally different. She was dealing with the personal problems of a husband and two daughters; I’m married but have no kids, unless 16 parrots count. (Mom would never have had parrots!) She had a great head for business but no career. I’ve worked all my life as a writer and performer and am only now shifting the career into high gear. Mom and I were so different; she didn’t really share my interests in the arts or theatre or humor. She hadn’t taken care of herself well and in “my decade” underwent a complete facelift; something I wouldn’t need at all and can’t even imagine contemplating for many years. In “my decade,” mom even became widowed; my father died tragically at a young age. She lived for two more decades as a widow, spending most of her time taking care of her grandchildren as they arrived and, as far as I know, not going on even one date for the rest of her life.

So what does it mean to be 20, 30, 40? I say there’s no way to answer that question. I say it’s a stupid question. I can only conclude that it’s a stupid question that sells magazines.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Men: The Good, The Bad and the Bald

Every day, I see stories in the news relating to The Big Age And Beauty Thing, but today it's an embarrassment of riches - mostly embarrassing to men, I'm sorry to say. Where to start?

First of all, did you know that when choosing women to date, men look almost exclusively at appearance? It's true! Let me tell you, I was shocked. Researchers from Indiana University who studied speed daters in Germany found that while women considered such things as wealth and status, commitment to family, good health and, yes, physical appearance, men kept it simple and concentrated on physical appearance. I'm guessing that by "physical appearance" they meant "breast size."

To be fair, women were looking at attractiveness, too. Interestingly, even though they said they were looking at numerous traits, the men they picked tended to match their own self-assessed level of attractiveness. Coincidence? The researchers think not; their report speculates that women know what they can get and aim for men who are about as attractive as themselves. They don't "overshoot" by picking men who are more attractive because a gorgeous man might run off with someone hotter.

This is called "the Jennifer Aniston Principle."

Personally, I think women hesitate to choose men more attractive than themselves because they hate to have to share the bathroom mirror.

Men have always been open about their tendency to rate women by appearance; in fact, I've always hated it when a man would say that a particular woman was "out of his league." Of course, this means that beautiful women will most often get asked out by men who think of themselves as outrageously attractive. Ever date a man like that? Ever want to again?

So the man and the woman are both thinking about relative hotness, but at different levels of awareness and for different reasons. The woman is thinking long term: would he stick around?? The man is thinking in the moment: can I get her to go out with me and sleep with me on this date??

Sometimes I think it's amazing that most of us remain heterosexual.

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It gets worse. Did you know that women are pickier about whom they'll kiss than men are? (I know, another shocker.) A New York State University team surveyed over 1,000 students and learned that women use kissing as a way to assess a man as a potential partner and increase bonding, then later to maintain intimacy and check the status of the relationship. Men, on the other hand, kiss to increase the likelihood of sex, and they're willing to have sex with someone whom they don't find attractive or think is a bad kisser or whom they haven't even kissed at all.

Especially at closing time, after many beers.

It seems that men are driven to have sex with virtually anyone, even someone they would never kiss! Of course, there are women with this attitude; they are called "hookers."

And, to think, women agonize over what flavor of lip gloss to wear.

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Here's another study about men, sex and age that'll make you cringe: Researchers at Stanford University believe that humans live as long as we do because of horny old men. They say that generally, living beings die soon after their reproductive stage ends, but human males are able to continue reproducing long past the age at which females go through menopause. Because men in their 70s are still able to impregnate younger women, and often do, humans have evolved to live well past the age at which women lose their fertility. The implication: we women should be grateful!

The researchers stopped short of saying that post-menopausal women had no real reason to keep on living. Perhaps there are reasons for non-fertile women to exist: for example, to care for the grandchildren if their own daughters run off to live with Hugh Hefner.

Just think, now that we have Viagra, soon we'll all be living for 300 years.

I'm wondering if evolution is perhaps lengthening the time of a woman's fertility as well. I recently heard of a record-setting birth that took place when the woman was 59. The conception was completely natural; she'd taken no fertility treatments. It only makes sense that, as human lifespan increases, the span of fertility will increase as well.

But men will still be chasing 18-year-olds.

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Okay, I've bashed men enough for one day. Though you might not be able to tell so far, this blog is actually for both women and men as we all deal with issues relating to age and attractiveness.

So let's talk about something men typically face with either resignation or blinding fear. That's right: baldness! Humorist Matt Wixon (mwixon@dallasnews.com) has a column about his hair, or lack thereof, in the September 3 issue of The Dallas Morning News. It was inspired by the fact that after using the same photo in the paper for six years, he now has a current one -- one that shows him with a different shirt and, by the way, with decidedly less hair. Wixon's column, besides being really funny, testifies to the pressure men as well as women face to keep looking young and, uh, beautiful.

I love his speculation about where his hair went, especially that a bird might have picked up some of it and used it in a nest. (Birds love our hair; some of my pet parrots like to gently preen and "style" my long locks, while others don't know their own strength and can end up snipping off a strand!) Perhaps his hair is just trapped inside a vacuum cleaner bag, he writes, but maybe it's in an exotic part of the world.

I'm reminded of what Charlie Brown says of Pig Pen's dirt in "A Charlie Brown Christmas": "Think of it as maybe the soil from some great past civilization. Maybe the soil of Ancient Babylon. It staggers the imagination..."

"I'm OK with balding," Wixon continues. "It was a difficult adjustment, however. How could it not be? Our superficial culture values appearance, especially youthful appearance, over just about everything. There is no "aging gracefully" anymore. Nips, tucks and facelifts are the way to go, even if some people eventually look like an off-brand knockoff of a human."

He describes a commercial for Rogaine that ran a few years ago (I never saw this one!): "A man steps up to the camera and, with his wife or girlfriend in the background, asks, 'Will she still feel the same way if I lose my hair?' 'Sure,' he answers to himself. 'She'll just feel it about somebody else.'

"Classic!" Wixon remarks. "I'm not sure if that's more demeaning to men or women."

What a great comment. I swear to God I did not ghostwrite his column. And this is coming from a man. I've got to get a tape to him of my song parody "My Man"; it's about the way women still love their men as they (the men) grow bald and flabby -- at least when they don't resort to those ridiculous combovers.

In spite of that ad campaign, Wixon did try Rogaine, but he stopped using it; it's for mild-to-moderate balding, not Yul-Brynner-style balding. Plus, you have to use it all the time or the hair just falls out. "It's like you're paying protection money to a neighborhood thug," he says. LOVE IT!

Wixon also had to consider that his self-assessment of attractiveness (see today's previous stories) was not high, with or without hair. "It's not as though lack of hair was the only element keeping me from being stunningly handsome," he says.

The picture in the paper is small and didn't print sharply, but I think he looks good. I can't see the very top of his head, though; the photo cuts it off.

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Finally, a sad note about a very funny and talented lady who sang cabaret in Manhattan. Dottie Burman, who wrote and performed humorous songs and also worked as a motivational speaker, helping people get past the "age thing" to do what they wanted at any stage of life, has died. I only just found out, though she died last November.

Dottie was a late bloomer herself. She seems never to have considered her age an obstacle. More of a personality than a trained singer, she nevertheless graced some of Manhattan's most well-known cabaret venues with hilarious songs such as “Age Discrimination,” “Let’s Have A P.C. Holiday” and "When The Palm Trees Grow In Central Park," about the bright side of global warming.

Though we had never met in person, we were mutual fans via phone and e-mail, and I had hoped to visit her the next time I was in New York. She wanted to take me around to her favorite cabaret open mic nights and have me sing for her friends there. But it is not to be.

At least I can remember her by her wonderful songs. Her website is still up, and it's still possible to see some of her performances, read her lyrics - perhaps even to order some CDs.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Your Botox Or Your Life!

Did you know that, in Boston, it takes on average just 13 days to get in to see the dermatologist for Botox injections, but to get a worrisome mole examined, you'll wait - gasp - NINE WEEKS??

A study by a UC-San Francisco dermatology professor found that in the US, it takes a patient an average of about 26 days to have an appointment with a dermatologist to examine a possibly cancerous mole, yet only eight days for an appointment for Botox injections.

Now, the way I'm thinking, spending up to nine weeks worrying about your mole is going to give you big-time forehead lines, so you could always make the Botox appointment, just to get in. Then, if you're like me and prefer to let your eyebrows roam free, you can feign squeamishness at the sight of the needle (maybe you won't have to feign!) and "change your mind" at the last minute. On your way out the door, you can say, "As long as I'm here, doctor, I've got this mole that really needs to be checked...."

This tactic will work only once -- at least with that doctor -- but it's worth a try. Of course, you could always just think of your possibly cancerous mole as a beauty mark and keep it as long as possible.

The researcher didn't know why Botox patients got preference but speculated that it was because of the higher relative payments for Botox. It's a huge profit center for clinics. My dermatologist told me she's had patients come in for thousands of dollars worth of Botox and other cosmetic treatments in just one session, yet I know from personal experience that the mole screening is just the cost of an office visit, with other payment going to the lab.

And I was surprised when they didn't just say, "Come in tomorrow," when I said I had a suspicious mole. Melanoma is serious business; an acquaintance of mine died of it a couple of years ago, and it's possible to get it at a very young age. I have that pale-pale skin that's highly susceptible, and the small, rough patch was on a part of my body that had suffered a severe sunburn during those carefree (read "stupid") college days. But the receptionist wanted to set up the appointment for about five weeks later. "Wow, is there any way I can get in sooner?" I asked. "We do have a nurse practitioner on staff," she replied, "and she's available this Friday. Would you like to come in then?"

That's what I chose to do, and I did end up seeing the doctor briefly; she came in and also checked out the mole. It did turn out to be cancer, but not melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma doesn't metastasize into surrounding tissue, so it wouldn't have killed me, but it did need to be removed before it got bigger to keep it from disfiguring my gorgeous bod.

There's one other reason why it might take longer for a medical exam. Many dermatologists' offices set aside certain days of the week for cosmetic procedures, because so much of their business is for Botox and the like, so all other appointments are made for the days that are left. A dermatologist will always advise that, once a year, you make a routine appointment to have every square inch of your glorious body checked for suspicious moles.

That sounds like a good idea. As for Botox, if you're in Beverly Hills, you can call 911 and a team of dermatologists will rush over in an ambulance to administer it.

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As long as we're on the subject of cancer, there's a story I just read in the Wall Street Journal that needs to be mentioned here, if only because it illustrates so well my beliefs that "life doesn't happen on a timetable" and that one's numerical age means next to nothing.

Chef Grant Achatz, whose restaurant Alinea was named the best in the country in 2005 by Gourmet magazine, has recently been given a devastating diagnosis: stage 4 cancer of the tongue. With his cancer so far advanced, he's been told by three doctors that the only way he can possibly survive is to have part of his tongue cut out. Imagine being one of the world's most celebrated and creative chefs and having to anticipate life without the ability to taste.

Achatz is 33 years old.

"Well," you may say, after the initial shock, "he's probably spent years smoking!" Achatz, who's described as "skinny and boyish," says he's never had a cigarette in his mouth in his life. Knowing the damage smoking can do to the sense of taste, you believe him.

Not surprisingly, Achatz has been looking for alternative treatments that might let him keep his tongue along with his life. He'll soon begin an intensive combination of chemotherapy and radiation treatments; these may dull his sense of taste slightly as they destroy cancer cells, but not ruin them permanently. His doctor says the sense of taste will slowly return after treatment.

Achatz could end up losing his tongue after all, and, of course, he could die. When I look in the obituaries, I see people of all ages there. This is why I think concepts such as "middle age" are essentially pointless. A twenty-year-old who laughs at "middle-aged" people may be middle-aged himself, and just not know it.

Those who know Achatz are confident that with his talent, he'll go on with or without his tongue. So much of what he does comes from his deep well of visual artistry and conceptual genius. "You could take out his tongue and eyes," says Nick Kokonas, his partner in Alinea. "I can't imagine that he wouldn't be able to overcome any limitations."

May good health come to Grant Achatz. And remember, whatever decade you're in, taste life while you can.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

"Never Perfect": The Eyes Have It

Wednesday, I was able to attend the Asian Film Festival here in Dallas and see Regina Park’s excellent new documentary, Never Perfect, about the quest by Asian women to achieve their beauty ideal, particularly by having their features changed surgically.

But what is “ideal”? Can one ever really attain it? And just how Asian is it, as opposed to European? These are the central questions of Never Perfect.

The film introduces us to a young woman of Vietnamese heritage, the baby of the family, still living with her mom in a house that she herself owns – she’s successful at an early age and also owns a number of rental properties -- as she eagerly anticipates moving to Los Angeles and being on her own. Mom is nonplussed, but her daughter wants something new! A new city, she says. And along with her big life change, she has finally decided to get “bigger eyes.” This is something she’s thought about for a long time.

One of the first things I notice about her, aside from her strained relationship with mom, is that she’s had her dark hair highlighted with thick, blond streaks.

It turns out that she has grown up with messages from her mother that she’s not attractive with her Asian eyes, the heavy-lidded kind that don’t have a crease. They look too small. Most of the images she sees in TV and movies show women with more European-looking eyes, and most of her friends have them, too. Eyelid surgery seems almost a rite of passage for them. (The movie doesn’t point this out, but non-Asian girls have these rites too – think rhinoplasty in Beverly Hills and breast augmentation in Dallas.)

Commentary within the film addresses the belief that certain features go along with a particular personality. I suspect that, subconsciously, most of us share this belief to some degree. That’s right, deep within us is some stupid little part of the brain that actually thinks people with weak chins are weak-willed, those with close-set eyes are dishonest, and those with high foreheads are smart. Character flaws are revealed to us through physical flaws. This belief is a holdover from the Middle Ages. If you don’t think it’s still in force, talk with a casting director about it. (I’m always pleased when a casting director “casts against type.”)

So what do almond-shaped, Asian eyes mean? Young girls grow up seeing them as part of an “Asian mystique,” with highly sexualized depictions of Eastern women. Some of the images depict mysterious, stiletto-heeled sexual dynamos, the kind James Bond would take to bed and say “don’t taste like European girls”; others show delicate, traditional “China dolls” who are soft-spoken and submissive to men.

(An aside: I may have unintentionally played into this sexual stereotype in my first blog about this movie; I mentioned that many Western men prefer the look of Asian women to that of European women. I meant this as a good thing, to show that Westerners are open to different standards of beauty. After seeing the film, though, I wonder whether the preferences of those men are primarily a response to the hypersexualized and/or submissive stereotypes of Asian girls.)

The movie doesn’t mention this, but I should point out that the preference for larger, more open eyes may indeed be hard-wired into all of us, and it seems to transcend race. Studies have shown that open eyes are considered more attractive; researchers speculate that this is because they make it easier to see the pupils. Large pupils are interpreted as a sign of attraction.

According to the movie, the first article about the operation called “double eyelid surgery” was published in – surprise -- 1896. It grew in popularity when America put military bases in the Pacific; red light districts grew up around the bases, and the women who were considered most attractive to American G.I.s got the most work and made more money. In the 1950s, during the Korean War, plastic surgeons actually did free work for the prostitutes, though I’m speculating that there was more of a barter system in force.

The film points out that Asian eyes aren’t really slanted; that’s a bizarre stereotype. During times of war, “Japs” were categorized as subhuman and caricatured mercilessly, including those slanted eyes.

Of course, today, actresses such as Sandra Oh portray smart, accomplished women, albeit with some serious psychological issues in the case of her character on Grey’s Anatomy but without the relentless sexual overtones. That’s a big step forward. Still, I wonder if the brilliant, hard-driven, antisocial doctor exemplifies yet a different stereotype of the Asian woman.

here’s also a discussion in the film of mixed-race beauty. One young woman says she’s had the message, “Mixed girls are hot!” An increasingly popular opinion among Asian girls is that the ideal of beauty is a racial composite.

In an extremely moving scene – and the one that will linger with me the longest -- the camera stays in close-up on an Asian mom, relating sadly that her “mixed” daughter has made it clear that she rejects the “yellow” side of her genetic heritage. Tears finally come as she realizes her daughter is rejecting her.

Back to our main character, and more mom issues. “I love my mom more than anyone else in the world,” she says, “but she’s done a lot of damage to me.” She says she’s fed up with her mom’s expectation that everything must be perfect. As for changing the appearance of her eyes, she says, “This is what I was cultivated to believe.”

Our main character has put off getting her eyelid surgery because she didn’t want to let her mom think she “got to her,” but finally she goes, and part of the operation is shown onscreen. There aren’t rivers of blood or anything, but it’s still the eye, and this is definitely not for the squeamish. The patient is thoroughly medicated and feels nothing, or else there would be a lot of screaming, but come on, it’s THE EYE.

A surgeon tells us that there are different surgeries for different ethnic looks; Taiwan, Japan, etc., are different. Apparently, some ethnicities can get away with doing a larger, more open eye than others. He says you don’t have to lose your ethnic identity – that you’re not creating a non-Asian eye but a more beautiful eye. This relates to another comment made later in the film: “It’s not taking away ethnicity – we’re emulating other Asians.”

Several sets of “before” and “after” pictures are shown; I notice that the “after” eyes don’t look much different but appear to be wearing false lashes. (I wonder if applying false lashes to the heavier-lidded eye would be painstaking if not impossible.) Overall, the change is very subtle, sometimes so slight that an ignorant Westerner might wonder what all the fuss is about.

I worry a little about our patient when she says things such as “It’ll temporarily make me happier” and “My taste in beauty may change.” She does understand that, unlike breast implants, this alteration is something that can’t be undone. But what if she decides in a few months or years that she’s not as happy as she had wanted to be; will she need to have something else done in her quest for perfection? She observes, “You can always be unhappy no matter how perfect things are.” But what is “perfect,” and where does it end? For some women, this can be the start of plastic surgery addiction.

Fortunately, we learn that (so far) she has had no more surgeries. She examines her eyes in a hand mirror; again, the effect is very subtle. She laughs, “I saw my mom, and she said, ‘You should’ve gotten them bigger!’”

On the way out of the theater, I overheard an Asian woman tell her friend, “My mom used to pinch my nose like this and tell me it needed to be smaller.”

Dear mothers, whatever your race, if you are reading this, please realize that your attitudes about attractiveness will affect your daughter’s self-image for the rest of her life. She listens to everything you say. She’ll carry those messages about her nose and her weight and her lips forever. (It can happen with sons, too; Michael Jackson’s father used to call him “Big Nose,” and we’ve seen where that led!) Maybe you’re uncomfortable with your daughter’s eyes or her ankles because they remind you of your awful ex-husband; if so, KEEP IT TO YOURSELF.

Your daughter could react to your comments by developing an eating disorder, or finding a man who reinforces her poor opinion of herself, or simply distancing herself from you, as the young woman in this film did with her own mom. Please find ways to help your daughter feel positive about her looks.

I still feel a rush of sadness when I remember how my mom, who died four years ago, used to criticize my long fingers and long legs. “Don’t talk with your hands,” she’d admonish, or she’d just give me "The Look" when I’d start gesturing. “Don’t take such big steps.” The message was clear; she thought I was too tall. “Your sister is the perfect height,” she once said of my 5-foot-7-inch sibling. She also said my face was thin and that I needed to gain weight in my face. How was I supposed to gain weight in my face? How was I supposed to subtract height?

Fortunately, I was able to keep in mind that this was the same mom who told me not to raise my hand in algebra class so often if I wanted boys to like me. So I stand tall and wear high heels. And, yes, I love my mom…but I still talk with my hands.