Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Implications of the Frozen Female Face

Botox, a type of botulism toxin, is used cosmetically by millions of individuals every year to freeze their facial muscles in order to smooth wrinkles in the skin. Women use it in far greater numbers than men--with men receiving around 10 percent of Botox injections in 2012--although Botox use in men is swiftly increasing numbers. Last year 6.1 million individuals received Botox injections in the US; 5.4 million of them were women. Of course, these numbers are official ones. Some folks can't afford to access Botox by regulated means, so they resort to self-endangerment by seeking out unlicensed practitioners, whose number of Botox administrations remain unreported. Others are endangering themselves by unknowingly receiving unapproved versions of Botox.

Of course, we understand why millions of women pay hard-earned money and endanger themselves for facial injections of a poisonous neurotoxin that is "the most acutely toxic substance known" and has serious potential side effects in order to appear younger for a few weeks, right? The extreme pressure on women to retain a youthful appearance; the unbearable cultural expectations of a certain type of hairless, thin, young, tall, white, European beauty; the constant conditioning and messaging that women's appearance and sexual appeal to men determine our worth... You know, the usual things that women constantly process on an hourly basis in every single aspect of our entire lives. But I want to look beyond the reasons we use Botox to the ramifications of that use.


Silencing Emotion

Jessie Cole's recent article for the Guardian piqued my interest in the implications of Botox use in women. She nicely summarizes the psychosocial dangers of Botox and the potential for a loss of empathy:

"...Botox...minimises micro-expressions, those brief, involuntary facial expressions that reveal our unconscious feeling of anger, happiness, disgust, embarrassment or pride. In a sense, communicating with someone who's had Botox is like communicating with a static image – much of the body language involved is silenced. Considering that body language, mostly consisting of facial expressions, makes up at least half of any message being communicated, this is a significant loss.

But this facial paralysis also inhibits the ability of the Botoxed to mimic the facial expressions of others, which is critical in the formation of empathy. Facial micro-mimicry is the major way we understand others' emotions. If you are wincing in pain I immediately do a micro-wince, which sends a message to my brain about what you are experiencing. By experiencing it myself I understand what you are going through. This suggests that not only do I find my Botoxed friends hard to read, but they are also hindered in their capacity to read me. An unfortunate feedback cycle. The possible implications of this are frightening."

Cole proceeds to suggest that friendships and mother-child bonds could be negatively affected by Botox use in women. Because women comprise the majority of Botox users and 4 million women give birth in the US each year, there are negative implications for children,* as well as society as a whole since the majority of children become adults that make up our population. If parents have frozen faces that cannot display emotions or microexpressions, thereby limiting their ability to empathize, then the development of children could be negatively impacted. She cites Edward Tronick's Still Face Paradigm as a scientific indicator that frozen faces on women would negatively impact children's social and emotional development.

Frozen faces not only physically arrest women, they are also emotionally arrest them. Botox use has been scientifically proven to prevent humans from experiencing a full range of emotions. Richard and C.R. Zwolinksi note, "Scientists agree that there is a causal relationship between facial expression and emotions–if you can’t smile, you can’t feel the emotion associated with that smile. In order to...fully experience the emotional content of language, you must be able to respond to that language with facial movements such as smiles or frowns."  By using Botox, women are perpetuating the cultural message that looking smooth and ostensibly young is more important than nonverbally expressing and feeling emotions.

Cole concludes her article with some fascinating questions:
"With the proliferation of 'selfies' and the focus on static representations of women's faces, are we forgetting how much of who we are is communicated through facial expressions? Are we, in some sense, choosing a form of silence far more insidious than women have ever known in the past? Who benefits from the silencing of women's faces? And what is the cost?" I am intensely curious about who benefits from the silencing of women's faces.

The Male Gaze

The male gaze transforms women into passive objects and requires that they remain in suspended animation indefinitely, perpetually prepared to be observed. Botox is yet another way to make women passive, uncomplaining objects of the gaze. By physically freezing one's emotive features, nullifying one's expressions, dulling one's empathy, and pacifying one's face, Botox makes women blank slates. Botoxed blank slates directly oppose vocal, empowered, expressive, independent women that men and the religions they have created find so troublesome.

Infantilization of Women

Because the gaze renders women past a certain reproductive status invisible and, therefore, useless, women are pressured into pursuing a culturally-accepted notion of youth as beauty. Botox perpetuates the cultural trope of infantilizing women by keeping them in a perpetual state of quasi-childhood. Although Botox does not actually arrest the aging process (or, in my opinion, even maintain a convincing appearance of youth), it does transform wrinkles and fine lines into a smooth, shiny surface reminiscent of a baby's bald head. The infantilization of women combined with the sexualization of girls creates more reproductively viable and visible females for the male gaze to observe and objectify. Now we begin to see who benefits from the "silencing of women's faces."

Those Without It

Without Botox, women have the opportunity to age into being comfortable with themselves, to embrace wrinkles as signs of wisdom, to accept aging as a badge of persistence and survival. The use of Botox is an admission that women are no longer attractive when wrinkled. If women as a class are arrested somewhere between their thirties and fifties, then the ability, as a group, to reject the pervasive cultural notion that they become useless once their reproductive abilities and sexual appeal to men wane, is undermined. The ability to destroy the Double Standard of Aging is eliminated, leaving that pervasive characteristic of patriarchy intact.

If women continue to submit to the male gaze's demand for passive objects, then the woman who refuses to inject botulism into her face--with her rare ability to visually express emotion, show and feel empathy, and age naturally--would become an anomaly. What our generation considers a typically-aging woman (picture your grandmother, assuming she isn't Joan Crawford) would become a grotesque caricature of human emotion and symbol of mortal decay. Her emphatic responses to suffering would make her an oracle of sorts, a deeply feeling poet and philosopher type, the only qualified therapist, mother, sister, and friend. An un-Botoxed woman would become a kind of eccentric character with perceived deep insights and mystical powers, a sort of aging white female version of the magical negro. She would primarily be found sipping lemonade on the Louisiana bayou or making blueberry preserves in the wilds of Maine.

Perhaps my imagination is running away with me. After all, there will always be plenty of working poor who cannot afford such luxuries as perpetual youth. Only in wealthy pockets of imperialist countries are billions of dollars poured into maintaining the patriarchy by accommodating the male gaze while elsewhere in the world poverty, hunger, female genital mutilation, and environmental racism persist.

Cultural hegemony has imposed a racist, imperialist standard of beauty (i.e. white, thin, and tall with straight hair) on cultural representations around the world for centuries. Those standards exclude women of color, women with the scars of work and motherhood, and women with Afro-textured hair. They have always been inaccessible and unattainable to poor women. If rampant Botox use adds an eternally frozen face to the Western standard of beauty, then working class women will be further removed from an already unattainable aesthetic, condemning them to further invisibility to the imperialist patriarchy that so ruthlessly and consistently exploits and ignores them.

Again, I fully understand the pressures to avoid aging at all costs, to be sexually attractive to men, to remain visible to the gaze. A waking hour has never passed during which I was not inundated with those messages. However, our psychosocial development and emotional health as a society should not be subordinate to our personal vanity and perverse internalized desire to uphold the patriarchy by passively accommodating the male gaze. Let us resist these trappings of a system that disgusts us in order to dismantle it.

*Obviously, not all births result directly in parenthood, but many do.


  1. This is the most amazing thing I have read in so long! so informative, brilliantly written. thankyou for putting this up it's been a pleasure (allbeit depressing) to read.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. I'm so pleased that you like it.