I get my picture taken a lot. I’m not particularly photogenic, but as president of The Catholic University of America, people expect me to be in the frame for a lot of occasions, and it would be rude for me to refuse.
There are also events like graduation and alumni weekend when I really want to meet people and shake hands, and inevitably someone is holding a camera. After a decade of this, I’ve begun to notice a difference in how I look. In a word, older. This is one part of my job description that I’d change if I could.
My vanity was aroused by a recent piece in The Washington Post, about men in Silicon Valley who undergo all sorts of cosmetic procedures to look younger. The subject of the piece, a tech worker named Daniel, is living a double life — he is 48 years old, but his co-workers think he’s in his 30s.
He has just done “a yoga retreat and juice cleanse in Bali … shedding 10 pounds of subcutaneous fat.” He is now considering hiding his age using “plastic surgery, Botox, a facelift to counteract under-eye bags, and the kind of midsection sculpting that could offer the impression that washboard abs ripple beneath his tailored shirts.”
I wondered, should I be considering the same course of action? I’ve certainly gotten wrinkled and grayer (let’s be honest, whiter) on the job.
I was going through passport control in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, last month, and the officer wanted me to look into a camera for a retina scan. He kept saying “Open your eyes.” I tried, but they’re getting kind of droopy and I couldn’t do it to his satisfaction no matter how much I lifted my eyebrows.
Exercise and a healthy diet are not bad things. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t go to the gym — I’d just get too fat and sluggish. But Botox? Plastic surgery? Radio frequency microneedling?
The fashion for body sculpting is not just for 40-something computer programmers. It’s also the rage among older politicians, lobbyists and lawyers in Washington. Washington-based media have long speculated that Nancy Pelosi (80 this March) was not born with that surprised look. Joe Biden (78 this November) has also probably had some work done to improve his chances at the Democratic nomination.
You can imagine what President Abraham Lincoln’s campaign manager might have advised him if he were running today. But George Orwell said that at 50, everyone has the face he deserves. And Lincoln was elected president at 51 because he had an honest face — real laugh lines, real worry lines and the sorrows of the nation etched on his brow.
Nowadays the message is that at 50, everyone should have the face he wants. This is a bad thing for a couple of reasons. Someone dating Daniel, or interviewing him for a job, will want to know who he really is. Someone voting for Joe Biden will want to know how much tread he has left on his tires. I am troubled by the idea of presenting a false face to the world.
I also have to say that I feel sorry for people whose ambition in life is to look 10 or 15 years younger than they really are. Getting a redesigned face or body is not very different from buying other things — clothes, cars, jewelry — to make yourself more attractive. Both are a kind of intemperance that distracts us from what we should really want.
Don’t get me wrong. I wish I were better looking. But I think a good rule of thumb is, don’t mess with Mother Nature. Be content with your looks (and your wardrobe), and consider the lilies of the field.
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