ON THE EVE OF MY FORTIETH BIRTHDAY, I found myself in a Midwest hotel with a bottle of Hendrick’s gin. True, the hotel boasted a state-of-the-art fitness center, and my room had a fridge, but I was in the middle of Ohio, for chrissake, and furthermore I was in the company of a mob of conservative mini-van driving women with perfect hair, perfect makeup, and perfect wedding bands. It was the first time I celebrated a birthday alone, and I was surrounded by the type of women I always swore I’d never become.
Sitting on my king bed, I suspected I had made a mistake coming to this writers’ conference when I read the first line of the brochure: “Catholic in our faith, global in our mission.” My email in-bin provided a second unwelcome clue: my one-on-one session was scheduled with a man who worked for a publishing company that represented books with catchy titles like The Faithful and the Flawed, Your Phone Connection Vs. Your Prayer Connection, and The Trinity Diet. I cancelled my appointment. Someone overflowing with the holy spirit could have my spot.
At the registration table in the lobby, I was surrounded by what appeared to be suburban mommy bloggers and frumpy granny writers: the room overflowed with flat-ironed hair, penciled eyebrows and a disproportionate number of blondes. They all picked up their information packets and then sat down on the couches, meeting, greeting, chatting. I hesitated. Should I join them, make some new friends? I thought perhaps I should hang out in the bar instead. Maybe I’d find the other degenerates in there, you know, the tattooed writers and socialists and gays with inappropriate senses of humor and foul mouths, the ones more than ready for a drink at two o’ clock on a Thursday afternoon. I changed my mind and hid in my room until dinner; if the bar ended up being full of drunken soccer moms, it could be a scary sight.
I used to insist I would age gracefully, that the phrase “plastic surgery” would never escape my lips, which would never be injected with collagen. During the height of my teenage soap opera addiction, I watched a character from The Young and the Restless, Katherine Chancellor, receive an on-air facelift. A written warning flashed across the screen, followed by scalpels, bloody flesh, heavy bandages and later, bruising. I was mortified that a beautiful woman would elect to have someone loosen the skin on her face with a knife and then yank it up like a pair of knee socks.
As I get older, procedures like laser skin resurfacing and facelifts no longer bring to my mind torture methods from old school horror movies. Rather, these treatments fall into the suspense or adventure comedy genre, like when I recently found myself engrossed in an older friend’s story about flying to Costa Rica for a bargain facelift. I was on the edge of my seat, asking, “And then what happened?”
“It was fabulous!” she raved, recounting her experience as more like a vacation than a major surgery, complete with handsome doctors with sexy accents, euphoria-inducing drugs and cocktails on the beach. All that was missing were the slides.
I didn’t meet any women at the conference who had facelifts, or if they did, we didn’t talk about it. But I did have more in common with the mommy bloggers than I imagined. We were all women with body issues, food issues and self esteem issues, trying to find balance in our lives, saving our money to buy the next anti-aging cream or an awesome pair of girly shoes, and escaping our day-to-days to immerse ourselves in something we each loved to do: write. We read each others’ humor blogs, giggled when the priest said grace before the meals (which was the only time God showed up) and saved each other seats at lunch like we were in high school.
One mother of two with a painted face, Jamie, advocated for me at the dinner table, helping me explain my innumerable food allergies to the catering manager (without apologizing nine times in one sentence). She was funny and supportive, and even took the stage during amateur comic night at the conference, an act of bravery that I deeply admired. Jamie said she refuses to leave her house without makeup, and I had a flash of judgment before I realized, wait a minute, I won’t leave my house without makeup, either! Another gal I met wrote for The Man Show on Comedy Central, every episode of which included girls with big boobs and bikinis bouncing up and down on a trampoline. That, I can definitely appreciate.
About to turn forty, and in a four-star hotel for four days with four hundred women, I celebrated my birthday by sharing a drink and laughter in the bar with my new friends, and I pondered whether my similarities to the other women outweighed the differences. I won’t pop out any kids, I can’t straighten my hair without resembling Gilda Radner, and since I haven’t had eyebrows my whole life, I don’t plan to start drawing them on now. However, I recently became a proud owner of Ellen DeGeneres-endorsed eye serum, and last year a dermatologist lasered some spots off my face. She did it for free the first time, because she knows those laser treatments are as addictive as crack. She stands to make a lot of money off my vanity.
And as for the facelift, I haven’t made up my mind yet. Ask me when I turn 50.