Thursday, March 13, 2014

News Flash! The Risks of Overreporting

Recovering from my hypothetical chemical peel. (Artist rendering.)

So as I mentioned last week, I recently had a medical procedure, uterine fibroid embolization. (I’m fine, just medically oversharing because given how common symptomatic fibroids are, I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of this procedure until I had to have it myself. Happy Fibroid Embolization Awareness Day!) My doctor had told me that I should plan the procedure for a time when I could afford to take two weeks off of work, since recovery varied from person to person and it could take that long before I felt back to 100%. I’m healthy and hardy and all that, so I guessed I’d fall on the earlier end of the spectrum, but still allowed myself two weeks of “freelancer medical leave” (i.e. no work, but no pay) just in case.

But then the thought hit me: Since I’d be in bed for a few days, and not wanting to stray too far from home after that, and wouldn’t be making any social or professional plans for two weeks, why not get a chemical peel too?! I didn’t know much about chemical peels, except that a beauty worker friend of mine said they were possibly the only thing that "really" could reverse skin damage, and that the way its patrons look afterward inspired a horror film on Arrested Development. For a few weeks post-peel, you look like...well, like you’ve just had your top layer of skin removed, which indeed is exactly what's happened. I just knew that I’d noticed more signs of aging, and that I’d started going down the rabbit hole of various creams and serums designed to prevent aging, and that it was a moment of weakness, and I rationalized that if I got a drastic facial treatment I wouldn’t “need” the serums and whatnot, and I could write about it too, and besides, it was a treat! (Because paying someone to pour acid on your face is a treat, of course. That’s another post.) I’d read about people getting small cosmetic procedures done at the same time as small medical procedures, and though it’s not like my radiologist was also going to be my facialist, I thought it was a time-saver, recovery-wise. It was my own way of crossing the line of medical spas and luxury spas—my very own, foolishly planned, DIY, weirdo procedure-recovery plan!

Now, unless my impression of myself is gravely mistaken, I’m not one to run out and try something just because the beautiful people are doing so. Nor am I slavish to new beauty treatments (except BB creams, which I love and will happily wax on about to you, were I a different sort of beauty blogger). No, my reason for suddenly wanting to do a treatment because it seemed situationally appropriate was both more opportunistic and more doltish than that: I knew it was something I could do, and in fact was something people do do, and since for the first time I’d be in a situation where I could do it myself, I just...sort of wanted to do it.

I didn’t do it, to be clear, after floating the idea by a friend who looked at me with a knitted brow and said, Why?, and when I found myself having to say out loud Because I won’t be doing much else for a couple of weeks and no other reason whatsoever, she kindly suggested I find another way to spend my money—even a pricey facial would do me more good, she pointed out, since I don’t have the sort of skin damage that would truly benefit from a chemical peel. (And it’s a good thing I didn’t, since my recovery from the embolization turned out to be just about a week long, hardly the amount of time I’d need to nicely recover from a chemical peel.)

My own simple-minded thinking is the root culprit here. But allow me to finger another cause: hype. I’d only considered the possibility of overlapping a hard-core beauty treatment with a soft-core medical one because I’d heard about people doing similar things—the postpartum abdominoplasty known as a “mommy tuck” comes to mind. It seems that now most doctors won’t do the “mommy tuck” until six months postpartum, but I remember seeing some trash “news”-type program years ago about the “trend” of getting a C-section and a tummy tuck done during the same hospital stay. Here’s the thing: I’m guessing that virtually every single woman, and every single doctor, who was willing to do such a thing, was featured on that news program. That is: It’s something that has been done, and is such an ill-advised thing for someone to do—yet is also something that nicely ties into tsk-tsking fears about “what society has become” or whatever—that it becomes magnified and overreported. Like Vajazzling.

But: We love stories about Vajazzling! We love stories about people who get cosmetic surgery to look like celebrities or anime characters. We love stories about mothers who are so addicted to tanning beds that she was charged with child endangerment for bringing her daughter into the tanning bed with her. We love stories about bagel head and vampire facials. Hell, we love stories we’ve definitively disproven, like the whole Cher-had-a-rib-removed-so-her-waist-was-smaller thing. People, we love stories about anal bleaching. 

There are two prime dangers here to hyping up beauty treatments beyond what they actually warrant, which at first seem diametrically opposed. The first problem: As with my opportunistic chemical peel, overreporting on drastic or silly things people do in the name of beauty can amp up the risk of otherwise sensible people considering actually doing such things. Because while some stories are indeed truly outliers (“tanning mom”), others, while not truly fads, are done in numbers great enough to be able to actually become trends if enough people believe it’s the thing to do. I mean, Vajazzle isn’t a Saturday Night Live sketch; it’s a company

The second danger is more problematic: It allows us to put distance between our own beauty work and beauty work that “crosses the line.” Bagel head is crazy; a little Juvederm isn’t so bad. Anal bleaching is ridiculous; a bikini wax is just upkeep. When we nibble on stories about extreme beauty treatments, or just dumb ones, we’re doing so in part out of discomfort with our own choices—and we wind up reinforcing the idea that ultimately, beauty work is a fool’s errand. I mean, not for me, but for her. As Virginia Sole-Smith put it in her post on “baby Botox,” “By focusing only on these extreme, headline-grabbing stories, we get to outsource the issue and blame the victims.” 

So yeah, like I said, these two problems seem opposed to one another. But I think they’re actually synthesized. Anytime we read about something extreme, most of us take one tiny step toward normalizing it. And once you take a tiny step toward normalizing something, it’s easier for it to take hold in your mind. For example: I'd never thought twice about the color of my teeth until I started reading about celebrities doing whitening treatments—and I never thought I’d do anything about it until I learned that normal people, as in not some lady in a magazine but good friends of mine who shared my general values, did something about it. (I stopped; I’m too cheap to do the real thing, and those gel trays are repulsive.) When we overreport—or overread reports—of beauty work that crosses the line, we nudge ourselves just a little bit closer to that line, until we have to come up with something even more extreme to serve as that line we daren’t cross. And so on, and so on, until we all have bleached assholes.

Speaking of which, if I am just a babe in the woods and this is something a good number of actual, normal, tax-paying, upstanding citizens do—please, I beg you, allow me this one stroke of blissful ignorance. Thank you, friend. Thank you.


  1. I didn't quite agree with your point... Until you mentioned tooth-whitening. Now I see. I remember when tooth-whitening, waxing, and facial injections sounded like bizarre indulgences for the rich and famous, not mere "upkeep" or even "grooming." In ten years, what will we consider sensible that now sounds extreme?

    A lovely read. It's so nice to see you in action again.

    1. Your comment about what we'll consider sensible in 10 years has me thinking about the opposite—about the level of maintenance women a couple of generations ago were expected to do as "upkeep." Like going to the salon weekly, sleeping in curlers, etc. We traded much of that in but added all this other stuff. I guess that's "The Beauty Myth" in action!

  2. Interesting observations. Yes, we normalize extreme treatments and, looking back in time, see that clearly. With developing technology moving into areas like genetic-alteration and neurological-tampering, the future scares me.

    1. Keep your eyes peeled for a guest post I have coming up about exactly this—beauty cyborgism, basically.

  3. Nice to to see a post from you. :)

    I've been thinking about this a lot myself lately. I'm currently living in an affluent suburb (Wikipedia's words not mine) and since being here I've started doing and seriously considering all kinds of beauty work I used to scoff at like wrinkle fillers. I don't even really have *wrinkles* yet. Just two fine lines that make my makeup crease awkwardly but I know fillers exist thanks to the media and that they are affordable. Why add primer to my makeup routine to fill a wrinkle when I can just fill the wrinkle itself? Yikes. I didn't realize how much where I lived and the media had brainwashed me so thanks for pointing out the ridiculousness of my logic.


  4. Funny, I just entered the world of peels recently, buying a 20% mixed acid esthetician's peel a few weeks ago. Which I thought was pretty strong - strong enough that I looked up additional neutralization info on the Internet....

    Oh boy, what I found! People are buying up to 70% glycolic acid solutions from Amazon and doing medical grade peels themselves. Some of them successfully, apparently, but then there are the ones who end up with chemical burns. About 1 in 5 reviews is "Ouch"! Maybe that part of it is being underreported.

    And the true peel aficionados (on Internet forums) say that a 20% peel isn't even worth doing. Though I have seen great results from repeated esthetician's peels (usually 20% or less) from my time working in a skin care salon.

    I still have only tried my new peel at two-thirds strength (it's layered so I can do that) and even though it was buffered for sensitive skin it still burns. I'll probably try it again, though not much as summer will be starting and I won't be staying out of the sun. But I doubt I'll be going into the deep end of the "peel party".

  5. She looks like Medusa Gorogona )
    Skin resurfacing

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