For the first 44 years of my existence, I had but one thought when I looked in a mirror: Why?

God gave Zsa Zsa Gabor features like a doll’s (button nose, lushly curved cheeks, enormous blue eyes), but my face was more like an aardvark’s (small chin and big nose topped with serviceable brown eyes). No, I wasn’t deformed, or what frat boys call coyote ugly, but by my early teens I knew that my face would never launch a single ship. As a freshman in high school, I discovered that it wouldn’t even sell a pepperoni slice.

It happened at Godfather’s Pizza, where my best friend and I had just landed our first jobs. Jill, a Cheryl Ladd look-alike, was assigned to a cash register while I was dispatched to the walk-in freezer and put to work destemming tomatoes. The message couldn’t have been clearer, but about a decade later, the rising star at my first postcollege job decided to reinforce it. On our first date, he whispered, “I used to think you were funny looking, but now I see your inner beauty.”

Life went on. I married. I had a child. I accumulated professional accomplishments. But I still felt ugly, and now not only did I feel awful about that, I also felt awful that I could feel so awful about something so superficial. Still, if looks were so important to me, why didn’t I just whip out a credit card and be done with it?

Fear. Fear that other people would think I was as vain and batty as a C-list reality-TV star.

So I stayed sort-of-ugly. Then, while I was working as a soap opera writer (a terrible job for anyone who feels sub-stunning), a huge-deal talent manager contacted me by phone to say he looooved my work and wanted to represent me. Then he blandly asked, “By the way, how old are you?”

I said 35. The conversation was over.

Going under the knife to satisfy my vanity was one thing. Doing it to avoid future age discrimination was another. So the next time I heard the daytime actresses whispering about their “doc,” I got his name.

I figured that since I was only 35, no one would notice if my wrinkles and sags suddenly disappeared. The physician, a board-certified plastic surgeon with a swank office on New York’s Fifth Avenue, informed me that I did not need a face-lift. I needed a chin. He also suggested that the results of a chin implant are so subtle, no one would notice that I suddenly had a silicone prosthesis sewn to my mandible. Instead, he said, everyone would just think I’d lost weight or changed my hair in a way that made my face more aesthetically balanced.

He had me at “No one will notice.”

“Oh my God, what did you do to your face?” my usually extremely flirtatious former professor screamed when we next met for dinner. This is not what you want to hear after you’ve invested $3,500 and three bottles of Vicodin in a new chin.

“I’m afraid you transformed me from an aging aardvark into the Joker from Batman,” I delicately told the doctor at a follow-up appointment.

“You look great!” he responded.

“My chin wiggles,” I said.

“So don’t touch it!” he said.

Clearly I needed a new doc. But since someone who was both highly recommended and board certified had left me looking like the Wicked Witch of the Upper West Side, I was clueless about how to make a better choice. Then fate stepped in. A magazine editor assigned me to interview Charles H. Thorne, a director on the American Board of Plastic Surgery. I was to suss out the professional secrets of getting rid of a scar.

“So how do you get rid of a scar?” I cleverly asked.

“Can’t,” said Dr. Thorne. “They’re called scars for a reason.”

At least he’s honest, I thought.

I paid $250 to see Dr. Thorne at his swank private-practice digs and show him my “before” and “after” photos.

“Wow, you were much better looking before you had the implant,” he said.

“At least you’re honest,” I said.

“I can fix it,” he continued.

He had me at “I can fix it.”

And he did, replacing the too-big, cockeyed implant with one that was rightsized and perfectly centered.

You know what happened? Exactly what the daytime actresses’ doc had said would happen. No one noticed that I had added a piece of silicone to my face. I was just suddenly more aesthetically balanced, and therefore better looking, and therefore regularly told things like, “You know, you’ve suddenly grown into your features.” That was the upside. The downside was that I’d now had a taste of vanity crack. I became, in Dr. Thorne’s unsparing words, a junkie.

And I immediately had two big problems: (1) I couldn’t afford to indulge my habit with Dr. Thorne, and (2) I still did not want anyone to know I was as shallow as the divas I wrote for at the soap opera.

I resorted to half measures. In the world of cosmetic procedures, this means Botox, fillers and laser treatments. But to an addict like me, these were all temporary fixes.

In my fantasies, I became Mrs. Dr. Charles H. Thorne, and I looked spectacular.

“Rough day, honey?” he’d say, coming home and finding me glum at my computer.

“Oh, darling,” I’d sigh, “you know how ugly editors can be.”

“Want a little lift?”

“How do you always know?”

“I’ll get my scalpel!”

As my fantasy life threatened to become more appealing than my real life, two unbelievably awesome things happened: My husband and I inherited $25,000, and then—the way other people lose their near vision in their middle forties—I lost my capacity to be embarrassed. Really, somewhere during my six post-pregnancy hemorrhoid operations, which require you to lie down on a humped-up operating table with your ass in the air, my humiliation reflex mercifully died.

When the inheritance money came, I ran to Dr. Thorne’s office and asked him to give me Michelle Pfeiffer’s taut, smooth, poreless-but-not-stretched-or-plastic-looking skin, as well as Scarlett Johansson’s nose. Dr. Thorne’s expression suggested he wished his specialty were anesthesia.

“I will shape your nose to make it more aesthetically proportioned to your face,” he said. “Then I will reduce the signs of aging around your jawline, midface and lower eyelids.”

We made a date, and I wrote him a check for $21,000.

When I Told my husband, he was apoplectic. Not about the money but about the possibility that he would wind up married to Jocelyn Wildenstein, the socialite whose serial plastic surgeries have led to her being nicknamed the Bride of Wildenstein.

My mother-in-law was apoplectic about the money.

My friend Lisa was disapproving. “You are too old for a nose job,” she said. “Everyone will think you’re crazy and leaving your husband.”

My friend Ellen said, “You are too young for a face-lift. Everyone will think you’re crazy and leaving your husband.”

My mother sighed and said she’d known for a long time that I was crazy.

The only person I was afraid to tell was my 10-year-old daughter. I didn’t want her to think women have to surgically enhance themselves to feel good, even though that was exactly what I was doing. Over a package of Little Bites, I finally said, “Um, Mom’s going to have an operation to get her wrinkles removed.”

“Thank God!” my daughter exclaimed. “It’s about time you got those things taken care of.”

Until I was on the bus on the way to the hospital, I wasn’t at all worried about letting Dr. Thorne slice open my head with incisions along each ear and across the back of my skull, trim all three layers of my superficial muscular aponeurosis center, cut along the lash lines of my lower eyelids to pull up and slice off the wrinkled skin and finally cut open my columna (the cartilage between the nostrils) in order to chisel away at my nasal bones.

By the time the bus—filled with people who appeared to be gracefully accepting the features God had given them—reached the hospital, a super-extreme makeover struck me as the dumbest idea I’d ever had. But after writing the five-figure check to Dr. Thorne and ignoring my friends’ outrage and my family’s fears, I ended up feeling very much as I did when I went into labor with my daughter.

No way out now.

When I woke up after the five-hour surgery, my head was mummied up in gauze bandages, and I had two round-bottomed tubes, filled with dripping blood, sticking out from holes in the back of my skull. Four days of Tylenol 3 ensued, after which Dr. Thorne removed all my stitches and bandages. My skin was a bit mottled with jaundicey bruises, and my features were all swollen. But the results were in. I looked just like myself—only younger than I was and prettier than I had ever been.

I threw my arms around Dr. Thorne. He peeled me off.

At home my husband threw his arms around me. I peeled him off. In the days that followed, he offered to take me on a shopping spree, made reservations at wildly expensive restaurants and announced that we should go to our first charity ball.

“You are sickeningly happy about my new face,” I complained.

“You’ve turned into a trophy wife,” he replied, adding that if I would just use the new crunch machine at his gym, I could have abs like Xena the Warrior Princess. To my annoyance, my mother-in-law was also thrilled. She asked for all the medical details and now regularly exclaims, “That face! That nose! That columna!”

My own mother, on the other hand, yelled at me for the first time in 25 years. “How could you?” she shouted. “Now everyone is going to think I’m your grandma!”

My friends Lisa and Ellen remained disapproving—Lisa because she reads books like The Beauty Myth and Ellen because our friendship is largely based on her feeling amused and/or disgusted by my behavior. But both were kind enough to say I looked very pretty.

My daughter simply denied there was any difference in my face. “Same old Mom!” she declared. But she declared it with such relief that I felt like buying her a pony and a parrot.

Weird as these people’s reactions were, what seemed weirdest to me was that no one outside of my family and close friends uttered a single comment about how suddenly splendid I looked. And now I desperately wanted people to say I looked splendid. Not because they mistakenly thought I’d changed my hairstyle or lost weight or had magically grown into my features but because they could see, plain as day, that my whole face had been surgically rearranged.

Apparently, all I needed in order to allow my vanity to step out of the shadows was to indulge it whole hog. I was no longer ashamed. I was proud. In fact, I felt myself to be a kind of paragon. My looks had made me unhappy. So I changed them. If only everyone else could so easily change what made him or her unhappy.

But damn if not one person uttered a single compliment. Not even one “Gosh, you look fresh!” Not the beautifully muscled moms at morning drop-off. Not a friend or frenemy. Did they not notice? Impossible. Or is plastic surgery what masturbation used to be—the great unmentionable?

A month after I’d upgraded my face, I met my former professor for dinner. Given that he’d screamed at the sight of my Joker chin, I figured I could count on him to say something. But as I slid into the restaurant booth, he just began flirting as usual.
“I had a face-lift,” I told him, interrupting a litany of sexual innuendo.

“Great,” he said. And went back to sexual innuendo.

“You’re supposed to say I look fabulous.”

“You look fabulous.” Back to innuendo.

“I had my nose tweaked, too. See? The middle part comes down a little now. My nostrils are smaller.”

He considered my nose for about a second. More flirting.

“Oh, for God’s sake!” I exploded. “Is the improvement that imperceptible? Or are people unsure of proper plastic surgery etiquette?”

Sensing a trick question, he took a long gulp of Scotch before answering. “Hot isn’t about nostril size,” he said. “But, whatever, if it makes you happy.”

It was a reasonably satisfying answer. I resumed flirting.

The only person who expressed appropriate interest in the details of my transformation was Steve, my friend Julie’s husband. Steve is a very handsome banker who shows no signs of aging. So I’m not sure why he was so fascinated. But his attention delighted me so much that I invited Julie’s entire family for dinner and showed them my “before” photos, my “after” photos and even a CAT scan of my first chin implant. After they left, as my husband and I washed the dishes, he gingerly said, “Um, you know how some people torture their friends with vacation pictures . . .”

It’s true. Just as even your dearest pals aren’t really that interested in your Kilimanjaro photos, very few of your acquaintances actually care whether you are a 5, 6, 7 or 7.5 on the looks scale. Not even those blessed men who flirt with you. But if you really mind that you’re a 4, then you do.

I minded. Now I’d say I’m about a 7. Yes, I had to engineer it. And I don’t mind that at all.

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