Face-Lifts Before Aging Sets In

Many women are getting "maintenance surgery" to prevent sags and wrinkles, but one plastic surgeon warns of the risks.

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As the mother of 12-year-old girl, I was disturbed when I read this recent Today Show blog on the growing popularity of professional hair waxing for preteens; one mother actually booked a bikini wax for her 8-year-old! I'm not sure whether it's the moms or the girls themselves who are pushing the must-grow-up-before-puberty trend. This is highlighted in a new documentary called America the Beautiful, which investigates the overemphasis on supermodel good looks in this country. I'm also troubled, though, by something else: the growing acceptance of antiaging plastic surgery in women over 30 who never want to see a wrinkle or frown line creep onto their faces.

What prompted my concern is a series of articles from the August issue of Vogue focusing on trouble spots that need addressing as we age, like armpit bulges, widening nostrils, and sagging knees. I actually grabbed the issue—while getting a pedicure—for its compelling cover line: "The Age (Less) Issue: Vogue's Guide to Looking Amazing at Every Decade." Who can't use a little of that? And I was impressed with the splashy photo profiles of John McCain's 95-year-old mother, who stumps for him on the campaign trail, and actress/UNICEF ambassador Mia Farrow, who, I learned, cuts her own hair and nails because she doesn't want to waste time in salons.

While these women have blossomed in their senior years, other far younger women, Vogue points out, are more focused on doing whatever it takes to avoid looking like a senior even when they're, say, 80. They see plastic surgeons every six months to "get subtle updates, that little 'tweak' that makes a big difference but is virtually undetectable." (I'm quoting the magazine here.) Some plastic surgeons contend that procedures like lower eye-lifts to remove bags and lower face-lifts to redefine the neck and jaw are best performed in a woman's 40s or early 50s when the skin has more elasticity. But is it really OK for women to be so worried about aging that they turn to surgery years before they actually look old? And just how safe is it to go under the needle and knife again and again as these temporary fixes require?

I pose these questions to plastic surgeon Anthony Griffin, whose Beverly Hills practice has been featured on the TV show Extreme Makeover and who also appears in America the Beautiful.

"I think we need to be leery," he tells me. "What scares me is that as technology advances, younger and younger women are coming in to ask me if they need anything." Safety is an issue, he adds, since no one knows the long-term health effects of getting semiannual injections of Botox or Restylane fillers for wrinkles and sagging skin. He turns away about one third of prospective patients with supposed signs of aging or imperfections invisible to him. "If I can't see it, I can't fix it," he explains, "and I need to know that you're going to have a noticeable before-and-after result." A significant proportion have an undiagnosed psychiatric problem like depression, and "they won't be happy no matter what you do," he says.

Griffin also warns against buying into the notion—now being pushed by some plastic surgeons—that preventive maintenance surgery is the way to avoid aging. That's because you can't actually prevent aging altogether. What's more, "it's impossible to predict how your face is going to age, whether it will sag or just hollow out," Griffin says. You risk looking not younger, he says, but strange.