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Will Botox - or defying it - make you happy? Add to ...

They call it the Academy Awards. I call it the Botox Derby.

Who doesn't watch the annual parade of celebrities and examine them, not just for their choice of gown and shoes and hairstyle, but for how they're wearing the years?

And last week's show provided the perfect opportunity to ruminate on the debate about aging - an issue, like few others, that threatens female happiness and, in this modern, Botox-happy age, pits vanity against principle. It can feel more fraught than the decision to have sex for the first time.

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For there sat Annette Bening, best actress nominee for The Kids Are All Right, next to her aging hunk of a husband, Warren Beatty. She looks good, you think. She looks normal. No obvious cosmetic "intervention." (Many "experts" say she hasn't.)

You feel a little cheered by the fact that a woman her age (52) doesn't have to freeze her face or have a brow-lift to feel good because she has a great career to make her happy. (And, presumably, a non-wandering husband.) At this age, it's not about the exterior, but the interior, right? Haven't we earned the right to not be judged by our looks?

But that little euphoria of relief only lasts a nanosecond before a not-so-charitable thought careens in behind it: Yeah, well, her face is what happens When You Don't.

We are all the hotness police, tagging who looks better than whom, if only in the privacy of our minds.

There are plenty of examples of what happens When You Do. Granted, some are monstrous. But there are some who look "refreshed" in a way that provokes hideous envy. What is Sharon Stone doing, for example? Also 52, she glided onto the red carpet in a one-shouldered black gown, with feathery details, her blonde hair in a fantastic gravity-defying 'do.

She says she's trying to age naturally, with the help of good nutrition and exercise. Others gossip that her regime consists of needles (for fillers and Botox) but no knives. Everyone has principles, you see. Whatever she's doing, she took home the Oscar for hottest fifty-something.

It's all about choices - yet again. That's the terrible beauty of women's lives. We have to decide whether to be a Wife or not, to be a Mother or not, then to be a Stay-at-Home Mom or a Working Mom, and then to be a Woman of a Certain Age who either does or doesn't. And, honey, it's not just about colouring your grey - because frankly, it's only thanks to chemical hair goop that people can even entertain the idea that 50 is the new 30.

Widely unacknowledged is that at the heart of the debate is a huge tension between sadness over the loss of youth and a new type of happiness that's possible with humorous acceptance and the realization that you don't have to live by other people's standards.

It came as no surprise to me to discover that the top non-surgical procedure in the United States (Canada doesn't gather statistics on cosmetic procedures) is Botox. Nearly 2.5 million people had the injections in 2008, the last year for which data is available from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Women account for 92 per cent of all cosmetic procedures. And it's from ages 30-50 - what I think of as the Age of Fading Youth years -- that 45 per cent of cosmetic procedures take place.

There is grief over the loss of effortless, youthful hotness. In her 2010 book, My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches from Just the Other Side of Young, Stephanie Dolgoff writes about a morning commute in New York, when an attractive man asked her the time. "Eight-forty," she replied without hesitation. But he didn't ask her anything more. And it hit her, then at the tender age of 39, that she was "no longer a sexy young thing who had to adopt a slightly defensive posture when asked superficially innocent questions on public transportation. I was no longer 'all that,' perhaps no longer even a little of 'that' or whatever 'that' is."

"You're in a different category of human being," she explains in an interview.

All of us reach an age when you feel yourself slip from the male gaze. To some, it's a welcome relief, as though you've passed through a toll booth, after a long stretch in the judgmental opinion of others. But to others, the loss of attention is so profound, it makes them feel disingenuous for having complained about it when they basked in it.

And just as Ms. Dolgoff found, midlife invisibility often comes as a surprise.

"No wonder Dad fell in love with you. You were hot," my youngest son innocently marvelled to me in my mid-40s, when I was single and divorced, and he saw a picture of me when in my 20s. From the mouths of 17-year-old, six-foot-four babes, I sighed to myself.

But it's the pressure to succumb to cosmetic fixes that is most difficult to withstand. The subtext for not doing anything is insidious: that the woman is not valuing herself. It's treated like a somewhat shameful lapse in grooming habits, as if she has ventured out in public without brushing her teeth or dressed in a ratty bathrobe.

"I'm furious about the pressure women are under, but on other days I'm fantasizing about getting it done," admits Ms. Dolgoff, now a 43-year-old mother of twins.

It doesn't help that even your family doctor can make you feel bad about your eyelids.

"See the way the skin above your eye droops down a bit?" said an M.D. I once consulted who does some non-invasive cosmetic procedures. She held a mirror up for me. "That's what men's eyes are like."

God, give me a pill, a needle, anything, I thought. I felt worse than if I'd been diagnosed with a nasty illness. I have been transformed into a different sex without my permission?

I resisted in the end - out of principle. It doesn't sit well with me to think that just as we are coming into our own, learning about and celebrating our authentic selves, we are being encouraged to deny the years of experience that brought us here. There may be power in age-defiance - all the marketers who look to profit from our age-unhappiness tell us it's about being your best self and an empowering choice - but it is also a form of self-subjugation.

Ms. Dolgoff had a similar epiphany. She is happy being a Formerly, her term for being past it in the youthful beauty stakes. "The quality and quantity of my happiness is richer, more nuanced and one that I feel is not predicated on what others think. When I was in my 20s, I felt I was the composite of other people's opinions of me. I didn't know how to be happy. But I have learned how to over the years. I know there's no right answer. It's what works for you."

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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