June 30, 2008

Does the "bella" figura?

I work at home as a researcher-writer-translator, with most of my client contact done by phone and email. Once in a while I have to do a personal interview, but these are so few and far between that I have plenty of time to pull myself together -- the hair, the makeup, the right outfit and jewelry.  Okay, okay, the bella figura bit: when you gotta do it, you gotta do it.

But usually the people I interview don't care who I am, they want to do the interviews as fast as possible so they can get back to their "real" work. When I have a face-to-face encounter, some of them barely look up at me from their desks.

June 29, 2008

The doctor dilemma

When I finally called Joan, she put me at ease right away. She had never done anything so wonderful in her whole life, she gushed. If she had it to do again, she’d do it tomorrow. No, it didn’t hurt, not enough to fuss about anyway. And no, she didn’t look plastic or pulled; she still had wrinkles on her face and was plenty proud of them.

"I spent three years interviewing eight surgeons in four countries (five if you count Monaco) before deciding on Dr. Delos," she said. "I wanted to take my time. This is my only face, after all." She described the woman doctor who had taken harshly unflattering “before” pictures to convince Joan of the need for surgery. She described the Parisian doctor who had promised to eliminate all her wrinkles. She described the Milanese doctor who had flaunted his celebrity clientele.

June 28, 2008

Facing frivolity

So it took me until May 29 before I got up enough nerve to call Joan. When I returned from my US trip, I initially postponed the call to her. It was not that I felt awkward about asking her about her surgery; she had spoken frankly, openly to my husband. Nor did I feel embarrassed about my interest in a facelift since I had been joking about one for years. The excuse for hesitating was the frivolity of a facelift so soon after Mom’s death. At the same time, that event was my very catalyst for calling.

What I vaguely wanted to do, I thought, was to look in real life like I look in my photos. I have one of those faces that photographs well, and this has been a constant through the years. But recently, when I would be showing people a family photo album, they would ask me how many years ago such-and-such a picture was taken -- when it might have been a few weeks earlier. I would laugh and make a joke about it, but the temporal gap between my photographic image and real life was increasing.

June 27, 2008

Spiders and dimples

I have never looked carefully at my neck, but my younger son Sacha, a few months earlier, had commented on how spidery the skin there had become. I have never worried about a double chin because my face is small and my skin fairly taut, but lately, Nando had been calling attention to the extra roll of flesh beneath my once-firm chin line.

I hadn’t fretted unduly about the two lines running down from my nose to the outside of my mouth because they would disappear into hyper-attenuated "dimples" when I smiled . . . and I did try to smile frequently. As for the laugh lines around my eyes -- those had appeared when I was in my 20s. They were old friends by now.

June 26, 2008

My husband's advice

I had begun thinking about all this a few weeks before Mom died when Nando, my Italian husband (his full name is Fernando; "Nando" is his nickname), came back from a trip to the South of France in April, 2001. He had visited friends in Monte Carlo and couldn’t stop raving about a woman we both know, a woman a couple of years younger than I. He hadn’t seen her for about a year and was amazed by how rested and glowing she looked. Joan had confessed to him that she had recently gotten a facelift and she recommended it highly.

Nando was impressed by her honesty but didn’t want to press her for details at the time. It was more of a woman’s thing, he felt. He urged me to call Joan and find out more -- who, where, how much, how soon. "You should do it yesterday," he concluded.

June 25, 2008

The lucky ones

Dad told me later that Mom brightened up when he came to see her on the afternoon of May 1, a few hours before her death. Maybe she knew who he was and maybe she didn’t. She wasn’t talking at that point. But she did recognize that SOMEONE was with her.

So she didn’t go out alone; she had the company of someone who had loved her and her alone for 76 years, and never mind the wrinkles and pale fragile flesh that had long obfuscated her beauty. But how many women are so lucky? How many women are so loved?

June 23, 2008

Prince of love

Because I was at home in Italy and Mom was in Maryland, flying to her side wasn't as fast or simple as popping down the road. I arrived too late to be with her during the last moments of her death watch, but the point had really been to keep Dad company. She had been doped up with morphine during her final hospital stay, anyway, to the point where she perhaps hadn’t recognized my father on some of his final visits and definitely would not have recognized me.

She hadn’t known who I was for about two years. But usually she knew who Dad was, and would call him her "Prince of Love". She might stumble over his name, but the “Prince of Love” label came flowing right out.

Dying ditsy

By the time my mom was 90, she was a prune mentally as well as physically, incapable of sustained conversation. Confused by Alzheimer's and senile dementia (exacerbated, in my opinion, by her inherently ditzy nature), bedridden by two broken hips and internal infections, she was in no condition -- physical or mental -- to think about her face.

A few days before her death, I had gotten a call from a friend in the States that Mom was in the hospital again with an infection in her feeding tube. As this was my mom’s second hospitalization within two weeks, I understood the gist of the conversation, even though Gina was vague, calling from a phone with my dad standing next to her. (My dad was deaf by then and unable to make a phone call on his own). Sounded like Mom really WAS dying this time.

June 22, 2008

The prune

My mother's chatter about a facelift always remained chatter, since my father didn’t have the money for one and my mother was in and out of hospitals for more important reasons much of her adult life. A frivolous facelift was never a serious consideration. But that didn’t stop her from talking about one, well into her 80s.

I should point out that my family has a healthy dose of longevity genes. Not only did my paternal grandmother live till almost 99, but her sister ALSO lived to 98 (in spite of diabetes and an amputated leg), and another sister to 94. This record of nonagenarians on my father's side of the family meant that the likelihood of my living to a ripe old Rose Kennedy-kind-of-age was high. And what's the point of looking like a prune for the last 40 years of your life?

June 20, 2008

Model mom

In the end, it all began with my my dead mother. She actually wound up making the decision about my facelift. I made the phone call that set things in motion a few months after she died, but her imprint was unmistakable.

My mother had died on May 1, 2001, at the age of 91. Silvia had been beautiful as a young woman, an occasional model in her native Manhattan, tall and slender with a "horsey" build and fabulous cheekbones. She loved wearing expensive clothes and elaborate hats and striking jewelry. She CARED about the way she looked.

From the time she had hit her 50s, she had talked about getting a facelift. She wasn't blessed with good skin, she had always been an outdoors girl and to hell with the sunscreen, and it all caught up with her. She wrinkled early and deeply, her skin lost its elasticity, and the flesh above one eye drooped so much on one side that it looked like she was perpetually squinting. Sometimes she would ask me, "If you had to choose, which would you preserve after 40, your face or your figure?" I didn’t think about it much, having neither an exceptional face or figure to preserve. My mother didn’t have to make a choice: her figure remained lean and model-like until the day she died.

The knife and me

Living in a country where you live and breathe architectural and cultural beauty every day, you find yourself nudged toward the quest for the Holy Grail of Grace and Glamour. When you embark on such a beauty quest after the age of 50, you know that massages, face creams and spa treatments are not going to do the trick. It’s got to be the sword, er, knife. Yes, it all gets down to the knife . . . "going under the knife."

I’m one of those people who turns pale at the smell of alcohol and faints at the sight of a needle. A simple blood test is a major ordeal for me. Surgery and I do not get along, and therefore we’ve kept our distance for most of the last 50+ years, with the exception of a tonsillectomy, a wisdom tooth extraction, and a couple of broken wrists. The very thought of subjecting myself to surgery for VANITY’s sake is more than anathema, it is pure insanity.

Yet, in spite of my fears, the prospect of cosmetic surgery was beginning to formulate in the back of my mind. Like pasta in Italy and politics in France, it was raising its knife-and-needle-filled head in conversations with my female peers on my annual trips to the U.S. It was THERE, dormant, awaiting the catalyst that would bring it out of the dark recesses of my increasingly wrinkled face.

June 19, 2008

No return to beauty

I have seen bella figura in many guises. I have lived in Milan, the country’s business capital in Lombardy; in Bologna, the large regional capital of Emilia-Romagna; and in Treviso, a small provincial capital 12 miles from Venice. Right now I live in Busto Arsizio, Varese, Italy, a small city of about 100,000 some 20 miles north of Milan. It is a quintessential provincial city of Northern Italy.

Nevertheless, for me the onus of bella figura is a good reason NOT to do something. This obsession is all about appearance, surface, superficiality -- what other people think about you, not so much what you think about yourself. It’s a small town mentality blown up to country-wide proportions. In the U.S., maybe Hollywood and the fashion and cosmetics industries are obsessed with superficial externalities, but I am not.

Besides, I don't have the vanity pretensions of many women who started out as great beauties. I was never drop-dead gorgeous so I had no urge to return to something that never existed. My hair is a chemically-assisted brown, my eyes are brown, my figure could charitably be described as average, and I am short by current standards. I don’t want to resurrect a make-believe past, or attract younger men, or do as Pamela Harriman did when she pulled her face together so she could get herself a third husband (it worked for her, though).

June 18, 2008

It costs to be beautiful

I have never given a moment’s thought to my lack of resemblance to Monica Bellucci. In spite of having lived in Europe since 1986 (most of that time in Italy but eight years in Southern France) I don’t think Italian standards of beauty, or even bella figura, have a lot to do with me. Okay, I carry an Italian passport. Okay, Italy has more UNESCO-certified treasures than any other country in the world, meaning that the culture here knows a thing or two about beauty. Okay, Italian women spend more per capita on clothes, gold jewelry, watches, and furs than anyone else, so they have every reason to look better than the unfortunate mortals who were not born Italian. Bella figura permeates society, male and female alike. That’s why fashion designers wield such power here. That’s why women (and men!) generally take great pains with their appearance, even when going to the supermarket or walking their dog.

June 17, 2008

From white to tan, with curves

Five centuries after the Renaissance, white-powdered faces have given way to golden tans all over the body (no strap marks, please!). Botticelli’s Venus and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa gave way to 1950s and 60s icons like Sophia Loren, Gina Lollabrigida, and Claudia Cardinale (my namesake, but no other similarity, alas), all still with round breasts and buttocks and long hair -- not necessarily blonde. Today, Monica Bellucci is a contemporary representative of the world attraction of this kind of beauty standard. She was named the most desirable woman in the world in a men’s survey a few years ago (www.AskMen.com).

From central Italy (Umbria), she embodies the best of the beauty standards of North and South Italy, which are historically different. If Florentine and Venetian women were blonde Botticellis, Southern Italians have always exalted classic Mediterranean beauties -- curvaceous, full-lipped, dark-haired and sultry. Northern Italians instead gravitate to "European" standards with fair skin, light eyes, and chiseled features à la top model-turned-singer-turned-wife-of-French-president Carla Bruni or slender, long-limbed prima ballerina emeritus Carla Fracchi. Bellucci has both: full lips, fine features, sparkling Latin eyes, slender body and seductive curves.

June 16, 2008

White faces, round butts

Because of their great builds and -- I don’t know -- because of pride in their femininity, Italians move well in clothes. An Italian woman’s walk is distinctly different from American or Northern European women, who have an athletic stride. Italians undulate with their hips, showing off well-cut feminine fashion to best advantage. Psychologists can argue that this marked sensuality is an indication of a certain insecurity: unsure of their own position in the world, they crave the approval of men and move in ways that will elicit that approval. I don’t know about that; to me, their flowing gait is far more attractive than my own choppy pace, and they look so damn GOOD when they move. They have always looked good.

To put things in historical perspective, Italians have been setting international beauty standards for centuries, just as they dominate the worlds of art, fashion and design today. The term "Renaissance beauty" was invented here, applying to Florentine women with white-powdered faces (which probably alleviated the need for facelifts, had they been available back then), red lips and cheeks, round breasts and buttocks, and long hair parted down the middle and ornately-coiffed.

June 15, 2008

Bella figura

Angela likes to emphasize the fact that I live in Italy, "where EVERYTHING is bella figura." The term translates as "keeping up public appearances," but also applies to the literal figure they present. Italian women are more concerned with their figure than their face, and facelifts in Italy take a back burner to liposuction, breast implants and other body-based interventions. The one facial plastic surgery that is very popular in Italy is a nose job; maybe Roman noses aren’t as fashionable now as they were in ancient times?

The reason for the predominance of body-oriented cosmetic surgery is simple: if asked to name the defining element of their beauty, Italian women are likely to mention "elegance" or "style" more than a specific physical feature like eyes, teeth, or hair, and they follow the fashion trends of the moment more slavishly than their counterparts in other countries. Clothes look good on Italian women because they are well-built. They are taller and curvier than they were as recently as 20 years ago, as measured by the ratio between waist and hips, but they wear on average one size smaller than they did back then. They are also thinner than the European average, and about half as likely to be obese. In fact, they are in better shape than their French counterparts, in spite of the latter’s celebrity from the book "French women don’t get fat."

Much credit for this health and beauty is due to the famous "dieta Mediterranea", a diet emphasizing olive oil, complex carbohydrates such as pasta and rice, fresh fruit and vegetables, while low in red meat, animal fats and refined sugars. Junk food takes up entire aisles of American supermarkets; in Italy you have to look hard to find the junk food area. It exists, of course, and is expanding thanks to globalization, but is still a fraction of what you will find in the United States. The Mediterranean diet has a lot to do with good skin, attractive bodies, and general health: Italy’s population is the most aged in Europe, and Italian women live longer than women anywhere else on the continent.

June 14, 2008

Baby boomer blues

Facelifts have become a status symbol for women in our generation, according to Angela. Angela is an American friend of mine who is exactly my age (at the prime of baby boomerdom). At our age, you either start looking at the mirror with analytic alarm or you start avoiding the mirror. I’d been doing the latter ever since I hit 50. But growing numbers of my fellow baby boomers have not opted for the ostrich defense.

More than a million lifts are performed in the U.S. alone each year, and the number has been growing annually, thanks to women -- and a small percentage of men -- around my age who have more money and more medical options than any previous generation. Angela went on to say, "But unless you are disfigured as the result of an accident, fire, etc., or have a job where looking youthful is essential (e.g., news media people), I don't see the point."

Maybe I'll feel differently once I start to wrinkle, but I doubt it. My appearance is not that important to me. I should point out that Angela had a round, kewpie-doll adorable face as a young woman, and she still has a round, wrinkle-free face in middle age. Great skin and a plump facial structure help, of course.

June 10, 2008

So I decided to record my experience

When I was thinking about getting a facelift, I looked for books that would explain the experience so I would be prepared for what lay ahead. The books all seemed to fall into one of two categories: technical texts written by plastic surgeons, or breathless burbles about the wonders of a new face by famous, or almost famous (and in any case publicly-prominent) celebrities. Since I didn’t want the former and didn’t fit the latter, I decided to keep my own records of my adventure, thinking that other women might be as curious as I about what a facelift is REALLY like.

These entries won't take you through the process scalpel stroke by scalpel stroke. Nor will they supply a list of the best doctors in France and Italy whom you might want to consult. But it does help you understand what the effects of a facelift might be, and it suggests how you can identify the surgeon most appropriate for you. Plus, hopefully, it’s fun to read.

June 9, 2008

French facelift?

My mother died on May 1, 2001, and I decided to get a facelift in part to honor her memory. Because I live in Europe, it made sense to have my operation on this side of the Atlantic.I thought about writing a book after that fateful decision, but I am not one of the Rich & Famous, so agents and publishers were not interested in my story. But friends, acquaintances, business colleagues and women in my orbit were definitely interested, so I have decided to share with them -- and you -- more details of my adventures.