For Decca Aitkenhead, non-surgical 'tweakments' seemed like the pick-me-up she needed after personal and physical upheaval in her life. But could she get past feeling like a guilty feminist?
It is more than 20 years since the feminist journalist Angela Neustatter was accused of "betraying the sisterhood" by having cosmetic surgery on her eyes. She was, she wrote, "amazed by how puritanical the younger feminists are". I wasn't remotely amazed, I must confess, because back then I was one of them.
I was still only 35 when the great, alas now late, screenwriter Nora Ephron published her 2006 memoir, I Feel Bad About My Neck. Why would anyone feel bad about their neck, I wondered. No self-respecting feminist could care less about ageing. That was never going to be me.
Yes, well. Fast forward to 2019, and the wrinkles and jowls in the mirror made me feel not only bad but sad. Having been widowed in my early forties, and then undergone chemotherapy and surgery for cancer, I knew I should feel lucky just to be alive. To care about my face collapsing would be plainly ridiculous. The trouble was, I did.
The politics of a facelift weren't even the only problem. To justify the risk of unnecessary surgery — let alone a month off work to recover — would be a very tall order, and, worse still, what if it went wrong? Best-case scenario, I'd look recklessly vain; worst-case scenario I'd look like a freak. So when a friend (from Manhattan, of course, where else?) said hadn't I heard of a non-surgical facelift, within a week I found myself presenting my face for inspection to Dr Rita Rakus, London's leading cosmetic non-surgeon to the stars.
The key procedure she proposed was something called Ultracel, a combination of radio frequency and ultrasound that stimulates the regeneration of your skin's own collagen and elastin. Your face then gradually tightens and lifts itself over the course of six months, during which there are two top-up sessions. The results last for up to three years.
It sounded implausibly brilliant — if only I could square it with my conscience. Was there really much ethical difference between a surgical and non-surgical facelift? Rakus soon convinced me there was. "People get hung up about doing anything 'unnatural'. But what's natural about ageing caused by pollution, chemo, smoking, sun damage?" she asked. Good point, I thought. "We're only restoring your skin to its natural state," she said. "No one's going under the knife any more. These days it's all about machines and needles, not knives."
Really? I'm old enough to remember school friends' parents in the 1980s grumbling about the money they had wasted on those vibrating belts that promised, ludicrously, to transform middle-aged paunches into six-packs. But Rakus was adamant: "Our machines are like iPhones. You won't believe the advances they've made." Using nothing but machines and needles, requiring no downtime and involving no risk or pain, over the course of six months she could, she said, achieve results just as good — and much more natural-looking — than an old-fashioned facelift.
As an experience, an Ultracel session is almost laughably uneventful. I lay down, Rakus smeared gel over my face and, for the next hour, she slowly moved a handheld device that looked a bit like the one shopkeepers use to scan barcodes all over my face. It felt like having an ultrasound scan, except that, every few minutes, I'd get a fleeting sensation deep under my skin's surface that is best described as the thud of an electric shock, only without any of the pain. If you've ever had acupuncture, it feels a lot like that momentary throb when a needle releases a pulse of energy underneath the skin. Over the course of an hour there were between 12 and 20 thuds; the rest of the time I came quite close to nodding off. Before I knew it, Rakus had finished, the gel was wiped off, and I went back to the office and got on with work.
The likelihood that something this innocuous would make a discernible difference to my face seemed remote. Within weeks, though, everyone began telling me how well I looked. My skin brightened and tightened, cheekbones made a reappearance and in profile I watched my jawline re-emerge. When you've spent 48 years watching your face grow older, there is something quite surreal — and frankly magical — about waking up each day to find it looking younger.
There were plenty more tricks in the non-surgical toolbox, and over the course of the following six months, I popped back to the Knightsbridge clinic every few weeks to try another procedure. First was the HydraFacial. This is a non-laser skin-resurfacing treatment that, again, involved nothing more arduous than lying down for an hour while a beauty therapist applied a kind of wand all over my face to exfoliate and rehydrate the skin, leaving it feeling unfeasibly clean and glowing. Compared to everything else I tried, the HydraFacial produced the least-dramatic or long-lasting results, but as a quick fix for a special occasion, it does the trick.
Other procedures were ones we've all heard of — and, alas, seen go horribly wrong. I wasn't at all keen on the trout pouts, frozen foreheads and droopy eyelids I see on my way to work most days, let alone that unfortunate phenomenon known as Spocking, where the outer ends of one's eyebrows lift to resemble those of Star Trek's Mr Spock. But their abundance, I was assured, is largely due to the fact that non-medical professionals are allowed to administer Botox and fillers in the UK.
Before either were applied, my face was smothered in anaesthetic cream for half an hour — and thank God for that, because being injected in your face turns out, unsurprisingly, to be the opposite of painless. Rakus injected fillers into and around my lips, and Botox into my forehead and brow and around the eyes with expert speed, while I gritted my teeth and occasionally yelped, but it was over within minutes, leaving no marks or redness or swelling. The filler results were instant and, after a few days, the frown lines and crow's feet around my eyes had almost vanished.
For good measure I was also given a month's supply of Radara patches. These are teardrop-shaped bits of paper covered in tiny spikes on one side, like Velcro, that you place on the skin around your eyes each evening for five seconds, so that the spikes puncture the skin. Then you remove the strips, apply a drop or two of hyaluronic acid serum and replace the strips for five minutes.
Hyaluronic acid is to fine lines what water is to cracked earth. In other words: brilliant. Even better was a procedure called Profhilo, in which the acid was injected all over my face. Again, I needed numbing cream first, and afterwards, my face looked a bit like a mosquito had gone to town on it, but within 24 hours the swollen dots had subsided and the fine lines around my mouth had been plumped up and were no longer visible. I had two sessions, four weeks apart, and for the first time in years, when I looked in the mirror, I couldn't top smiling.
The final procedure was called Intracel, for my neck. Like Ultracel, it uses radio frequency to stimulate the regrowth of your own collagen, but is administered by microneedles. The procedure only took about 10 minutes, which was a good job, because even after numbing cream had been slathered all over my skin for an hour, it felt a bit like having tiny hot pins hammered into my neck by a staple gun. This was as close as I came to needing downtime; my neck looked sunburnt at first, and when the redness subsided after a few hours I was left with rows and rows of little red dots that took two days to fade. No one noticed, though.
The funny thing is, I wouldn't have minded if they had. I don't know if I ever would have gone under the knife, but I do know that if I had, I would have kept it a secret. Yet I couldn't feel less embarrassed about admitting to all these non-surgical procedures. There is a world of difference in my mind between undergoing procedures that, at worst, involved no more discomfort or inconvenience than a visit to the dentist, and taking medical risks with major surgery that hurts like hell. I'm not sure a philosopher would agree that this qualifies as a moral distinction, but it does to me.
So, were the results of all this as good as a facelift? No. They were way, way better. Instead of feeling artificially improved, my face feels exactly like my own, only brighter and tighter and glowing with health. Friends who haven't seen me in a while are agog at my new skin. An old mate from Ibiza took all of three seconds to gasp, "You've had work!", two others have already signed up for the same procedures, and recently I even ended up having to Google myself in a nightclub to prove to three sceptical twentysomethings that I really am nearly 50. The improvement has been so gradual, though, that my kids haven't even noticed.
Had I known, at the start, that anyone who sees me every day would be oblivious to the changes, I think I might have been disappointed. But to have been spared the grim self-consciousness of the post-surgical big reveal moment turns out to be one of the best things about the whole process. It has also made me revise my scepticism towards the claim women often make about undergoing beauty treatments "for themselves". Having always been tempted to roll my eyes and mutter, "So you'd wear those false eyelashes on a desert island, would you?", I now realise they might have a point. As long as I'm happy, I don't really care what anyone else thinks.
The only downside, of course, is that I now find myself peering at my teeth and wondering what could be done about them. Infinite perfectibility is a slippery slope — and I'm trying not to think about the inevitable decline when the results of all these treatments eventually wear off. But, for now, I could not be happier. There are enough things in the world to feel bad about — but my neck is no longer one of them.
All at Sea by Decca Aitkenhead is out now.
Written by: Decca Aitkenhead
© The Times of London