It’s only 12 years since Botox was approved for smoothing out our faces, but questions about why we’d want to do that have disappeared. It’s time to unfreeze that debate
Happy birthday Botox, approved in 1989 for treating uncontrolled blinking, again in 2000 for spasms of the neck, and finally in April 2002, for the treatment of lines between the eyebrows. Happy birthday Botox, with your things that you stand for, and the faces you make.
As with the web (25 years old on 12 March), it’s difficult to remember a time before Botox, when women on TV wore their make-up over, rather than under their skin. When the idea of injecting a poison into one’s forehead was yet to shock, then repulse, then interest, then bore you, and its reach was yet to extend to every frown line in Fulham. The numbers continue to rise; the faces continue to stiffen; by 2018, the global market is forecast to reach $2.9bn.
Today, conversations around fillers concern three things: safety, advertising and cash. The safety of the women attending Botox parties or salons, injected with unregulated substances, by untrained hands; the now-banned advertising of fillers as beauty treatments; and the economics of the stuff. In the US, there has been a 700% increase in procedures since 2000, with the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery last week suggesting one reason for its popularity among younger women: the rise of the “selfie”. The main reason more and more people are paying for “injectibles” is that they have got cheaper and more accessible, and the stigma around graduating from a moisturiser to a needle has evaporated. Today, we are so used to Botox, the phenomenon, that we forget it’s something that once disgusted us, and why. It has become simply a choice in our flow chart. Colour in a reality show. We forget that it is something only 12 years old and still forming.
There was a period a few years ago when I noticed a trend for, rather than a younger face, an “ageless face”. Women in their 20s were having Botox to look like they’d had Botox. The ideal, surgeons told me, was to appear to be 36, even if (like Lindsay Lohan, who appeared on a catwalk with a taut, inflated face) you were 24. You chose an age and stuck to it. Which suggested tastes in faces change. Just because a lineless forehead is fashionable today doesn’t mean it will be next year. This moveability in taste makes me wonder why we don’t spend more time discussing the aims of fillers and their flimsiness.
It has become so familiar, so landscapey, that now all comment on Botox wearily ignores the question of why people want it, and whether (and how) we should fight that desire. It’s seen as an old-fashioned suggestion that girls be encouraged to enjoy or accept their looks, rather than eternally improve them.
As Botox hits puberty, we should make space for the idea that its popularity need not continue to grow. That on its 15th, or 20th anniversary, we might be chuckling at the idea that (much like Elizabethans and their make-up of white lead) once it was considered normal to pay for poison to be injected into our face, to make us appear less like ourselves. There are ways of doing this, of reducing the shame we’re taught to have for our ageing bodies. We could increase the diversity of media images, introduce feminism to the school curriculum, we could work to avoid passing down body anxiety to our children.
While technology never moves backwards (we will never unlearn that the Botulinum toxin can be squirted into our wrinkles with plumping results), neither does education, or conversation, or our ability to change. Though we will read about the stone-faced woman whose surgery has gone wrong, whose lips have swollen to the size of banana shallots, it’s not the substance itself that causes the most harm, it’s the van-load of pressure that draws us towards it. We are not those frozen faces; we can move.