A friend of mine recently texted asking if she should get Botox, so I sent the reaction I’m supposed to send, as a feminist: “No! You’re far too young.” This is true, she’s in her mid-twenties. “You don’t need Botox, you’re beautiful,” I write. Again, true. “And anyway, it’s anti-feminist. Let’s age gracefully!” That last part is true too, but by telling her not to get injectables because they’re some sort of tool of the patriarchy, I’m lying to myself – and her. The only reason my friend consulted me is because she knows I get Botox. I’m fairly open about this. I make jokes about it so nobody else can get in first.

Despite the ubiquity of cosmetic enhancements, it’s true that even minor treatments like lip fillers or my “baby Botox” remain a weird, touchy subject between women. Men, I’ve found, are much more direct and unforgiving in their opinions. They may demand “natural women only” on Hinge dating profiles, saying they “love us the way we are”, but what they actually mean is they want us to look young and beautiful forever – just in a “normal” way, please. They don’t want to be embarrassed by our vanity. Their view of plastic surgery is channelled through horror stories like Jocelyn Wildenstein or Madonna, women who’ve gone so far in the pursuit of everlasting youth that everyone feels justified in judging them for their hubris and narcissism. Though until it gets this extreme, men rarely notice the difference.

The first time I got Botox I told my husband I was going for a facial. “You look great!” he said afterwards. “Maybe I’ll come next time.” For a lot of men, hating plastic surgery in all forms becomes a way to communicate something about themselves: that they’re discerning, perhaps, and not superficial in their ideas of beauty. Unfortunately, such strategies fail to disguise a certain misogyny, such as when men joke about taking a woman swimming on a first date, so they can see what’s revealed when her make-up washes off.

Perhaps I shouldn’t judge them for these double standards, because talking about “tweakments” with my female friends makes me feel just as hypocritical. Partly that’s because we all know, deep down, it’s not justifiable. We all know we’re too young, really, to be shelling out hundreds to erase laughter lines nobody but us would notice. We all know it plays into harmful patriarchal values – the same values that inform joking about how 48-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio has never dated a woman over 25. We know it’s a sunk cost fallacy project. We tut over Madonna’s puffy face while secretly injecting our own. And it’s true that it feels like superficial, fourth-wave, millennial-choice feminism to defend our decisions to make ourselves more beautiful. But here’s the thing: we women don’t exist in a vacuum. Even if we choose to opt out of societal pressure, that pressure still exerts itself upon us.

I was truly horrified when my friend asked me about Botox. I don’t want other women to feel pressure to look young and beautiful forever, because I already feel that and it’s horrible. I’ve become part of the problem. I can’t stop thinking I look better without laughter lines. I can’t stop Googling famous women’s ages and marital statuses when I’m feeling bad about myself. My search history is an SEO graveyard of famous, beautiful, successful women in their thirties: Ana De Armas, 34, divorced, no children. Georgia May Jagger, 31, 22-year-old boyfriend. Gemma Arterton, 37, expecting her first child. I can’t stop myself comparing myself to these women, allocating myself a space on the sliding scale of ideal womanhood that we all jostle along in uneasy, unhappy solidarity. I could give up Botox, sure. But would I give up whitening my teeth? Dyeing my hair? Perhaps the complicated – and unpalatable – truth about tweakments is that where we draw the line is guided more by a fear of looking weird, like Madonna et al, than by what our vanity says about us as feminists.

Róisín Lanigan is a writer and editor based in Belfast and London

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Columns, Main Features, March 2023

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