The thing no one ever tells you about middle age is that it’s the beginning of the end of dignity as you have previously known and experienced it. Adolescent store clerks start calling you Ma’m, or worse Dear. Incontinence supply catalogues mysteriously begin arriving in the mail – with your name right there on the cover next to the photos of Tranquility Briefs (sm) and hernia belts. And suddenly the term “age appropriate” is casually slung around by your hairdresser, your yogi and the bra fitter at Bloomingdale’s.
Then, as you are desperately trying to crawl up from the Fifth Circle of Hell — which by the way is Humiliation, not Anger — you suddenly slip down a couple more rings to Violence in the form of medical appointments, treatments and tests. Here tissue is flattened, squeezed, poked and punctured; orifices are regularly violated; and your inner workings are routinely nuked, drained and irradiated. All in the name of maintaining virtuous good health.
In light of the above, then, it would seem that the annual dermatological skin check is hardly likely to redline the stress meter, given that it consists of nothing more than someone eyeballing your epidermis; no needles, chemicals or surgical instruments are involved. And yet, somehow, it is this appointment I dread above all others, even the one with my gastroenterologist, the operator of an outsize colonoscopy hose in Midtown West, and whom I strongly suspect to be the evil spawn of Dr. Mengele, so watch your back.
In any case, the skin check is entirely pain-free, at least in the physical sense, so there’s no worry on that score. It’s the psychological torture of interaction with Dr. Clinka that agonizes. As with every dermatologist I have ever laid eyes on, her face is so smooth it’s nearly featureless — like an evil fetus who’s been at the airbrush too long. Her forehead doesn’t move, her eyebrows are halfway to her hairline and her skin is as tight as the casing on a Fenway frank. There is not a mark or a line or a blemish anywhere on the vast white expanse of her visage, and yet by the look of her hands she’s got be at least 110. Every year I vow to find another doctor, but then I remember she’s got the treasure map of my moles and I worry the new guy will overlook something or fail to notice a sudden increase in the size of one of the future melanomae on some part of the body I can’t see. And besides, it’s really easy to get an appointment with her on short notice. I’m guessing very few of her patients book a second visit.
Frau Doktor Clinka never “counsels” me until after the skin check in which I appear nearly naked under approximately one million candlepower of unflattering fluorescent blue lighting. How she manages to get through it without flashburns on her retinas I cannot fathom, but it could very well be she enjoys the pain, or perhaps she just prefers to keep the balance of power tipped in her favor. I suspect it’s both.
Last year we got through the body scan all right but afterward I had some trouble closing up the gown. They call it a gown, but it’s a gown in the same way the Winnebago my Uncle Buzz parks next to the gravel pit is his summer palace. Sure it’s got its own port-a-potty and satellite dish, but it’s not like you ever wonder whether the queen’ll be having her Bud Light in a glass or straight from the can when she drops by for a chat.
Anyway, there I was trying to cover as much of my personal real estate as possible with the skimpy green scrap when I asked about treatments for the ever-deepening frown lines between my eyebrows, which get more furrowed and asymmetrical every year.
“For you I wouldt recommendt zee Botox,” she began, regarding my browline as if it were mottled with a particularly virulent strain of leprosy.
Botulism toxin under the skin? Call me crazy, but no, I don’t think so. That’s a slippery slope I’m not interested in sledding on. I mean, one thing leads to another and before you know it, you find Priscilla Presley looking back at you in the mirror as you try to figure out where your face went. What’s more, the stuff has got to be toxic, and when it is eventually revealed that it causes massive brain meltdowns or brings on uncontrollable episodes of St Vitas’ Dance, I’ll be vindicated, mark my words. Anywho, what with my aversion to needles and sub-dermal WMDs, I demurred and similarly opted out of the injected fillers she was flogging at the fire sale rate of $500 a pop.
“In zat case your only options are zee surgery lift or zee topical lozion, which, unfortunately, makes for zee least effective treatment.”
I was all over the topical option, and I said so. “It sounds like a beach vacation,” I offered in the same way you might throw the last scrap of beef jerky from your rucksack at the feet of a particularly peckish alligator.
With a sigh, she extracted a tiny pink sample tube of Retin-A from her cabinet of curiosities. It looked like it had been klepped from Barbie’s Dream House, except of course everyone knows Barbie doesn’t need wrinkle cream. Bitch.
“So vat you do is take this amount every day and rub it on your face after zee moisturizing und sunscreening which of course you do not use even after I tell you zat you must.” She squeezed a white blob the size of a pea onto my index finger.
“Right here?” I asked indicating the trenches above my nose.
“No, all over. And I vould recommendt your neck und chest too.”
“All over? Do I really need it all over my face? What are you saying? Is it really that bad?” I whined, but got no answer, just a knowing smile, at least I think it was a smile. The only muscles in her face that still seem to be fully functional are the ones controlling her lower lip.
This year I vowed things would be different. In the wake of last year’s horror show, I’d been using the magical Retin-A, which the pharmacist charges a mere $200 a tube for, on every inch of exposed skin, coating my body in zinc oxide then swaddling myself on the beach in August and wearing ridiculous floppy hats year round with Jackie O shades to help me stop squinting. And so, fish-belly white, rejuvenated, exfoliated and depilitated, I was ready for my close-up as I entered the examining room.
I was a fool, however, to think the good doctor had been asleep at the switch for the past year. Right away I realized that like all evil geniuses, she’d been hatching new plots to take the mortification level of the all-over skin check to previously undreamed-of, stratospheric new heights. This year’s flash of brilliance: paper bikinis.
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a disposable undergarment, let alone had the pleasure of slipping into one, but just in case you’re not familiar with these items, they consist of a three-inch wide scrap of itchy fiberglass-infused tissue paper with skinny white elastic threaded through either end as a “waistband.” To say that these are universally unflattering is as mild as understatement gets, because unless you’re dancing for the Bolshoi, you are going to look like a sumo wrestler after a pig roast and a three-week Ding Dong binge in this rig.
Still, there is an upside. With the paper bikini, La Clinka can now scope out my entire ass without having to yank down my underpants as I lie splayed on my stomach, an act that has a distinctly weird porno vibe about it. Every year I half expect her to give me a little spank when she’s done and am always afraid the scene is being secretly videotaped for some deviant web site, like Dermo Doc Spank Fest.com or BottomsUp.net, which is why I always wear my sunglasses during the exam. The doctor never objects, which makes me doubly suspicious. Sure there’s money in Botox and micro-dermabrasion, but the real dough’s in porno. Everybody knows that.
Of sweatsuits, French manicures, Vinny the Chin and tiny little women with big demands.
Having strolled the avenues and byways of this planet for more decades than I will ever admit to, I have seen a fair sampling of humanity. In airports, grocery stores, doctor’s offices and even the occasional holding cell, I frequently find myself cheek by jowl with people from every walk of life, social strata and ethnic group.
By dint of living in New York, I even encounter the odd celebrity, as, for example, I did on one of the upper floors of the Plaza Hotel in 1989. This was my first ever celebrity sighting, so it sticks in my memory. I was actually there to look at corporate meeting rooms when lo and behold, I spied the original Mrs. Trump, Ivana, standing by the elevators with a hapless flunky who was looking more like a whipped dog than an uptown interior decorator as a result of the tongue lashing he was receiving about the progress and direction of renovations to the hotel. If memory serves, Ivana was about the size of a toothbrush and was repeating the same thing over and over, “No, no, NO, I vant goldt!” Truly a moment for the ages.
Anyhow, I share this by way of noting that she looked fabulous — exquisitely tailored pantsuit, coordinating stilettos, Louis Vuitton binder and a beehive that Patsy Stone would have killed for. Her lipstick was intact despite the fact that she had clearly been flapping her gums for some little time, and you could have sliced a baguette on the creases of her trousers. Ivana the Terrible was, in a word, glamorous.
Sure she was old school, but as we all know, there are infinite ways to do glamour. Just last week I saw a gorgeous African American woman of Amazonian proportions on the subway. She was sporting canary yellow leggings, matching thigh high boots and bag, and was rocking a coordinating manicure and a gold streaked Lady Godiva weave. The color was fabulous with her skin, there was not one hair out of place, and she was sublimely confident. I longed to ask her where she’d scored the footwear, as it’s so very difficult to find high style boots with wide shafts, but reconsidered after hearing her excoriate the man standing next to her who had the effrontery to stare. It was an extremely admiring stare, and rightly so, but since she took exception I decided to keep still.
In the event I have any male readers left at this point, let me point out that glamour is not an exclusively female domain. Recently, at the corner bodega of all places, I spotted a hipster guy in high tops, jeans, a white shirt and a vintage tuxedo jacket. He was buying gourmet beef jerky, coffee and Red Bull, so although I shuddered at the state of his gastrointestinal tract, he nonetheless had an elegant je ne sais quoi that would have stood him in good stead in almost any social setting — until the Red Bull and cowhide made their presence known, symphonically, several hours hence, anyway.
The point of all this is that glamour is many things to many people. What makes me feel good (three inch heels, a pencil skirt and a martini) may not work for you, especially if you prefer yoga pants and a t-shirt. Provided both fit properly, the pants have been hemmed so as not to drag on the ground, and your dirty hair is pulled back in a tidy ponytail, this can work. At the gym. Where it doesn’t work is at Bloomingdale’s, jury duty or parent teacher conferences, which are just a few of the places I have spotted this “look.”
And then of course there are the pajama pants. If you recall, appearing in public in your sleepwear used to be a pretty solid strategy for your insanity defense. These days, however, you can’t swing a cat on the street without hitting some schmuck in penguin patterned loungewear. It’s sad really. Sad to see grown-up people with jobs and mortgages walking around town looking like they’re on a day pass from a nearby facility where no one’s allowed to have shoelaces or belts.
But as bad as the slovenliness is, the near nudity is even worse: thongs on the beach, muffin tops oozing over skinny jeans and the dreadful tank top that inflicts backne, tattoos and scraggly chest wisps on a blameless public. It’s as if we’ve all stumbled into a D-list Abercrombie shoot featuring a bunch of Kardashians, a couple of Wahlberg wannabes and assorted wardrobe malfunctions being passed off as fashion. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have the image of Kim’s bum seared on my consciousness for the rest of my life, and yet I cannot seem to escape it.
At the risk of sounding like my grandmother, I can remember a time when people bothered about their appearance, and society as a whole had certain expectations. Men wore hats, women wore stockings, everyone wore underwear. You couldn’t see it of course, but you just knew it was there, largely because all fabrics other than flannel were scratchy and unpleasant next to the skin. Underwear provided a necessary buffer zone between the more delicate areas and abrasive tropical wools, heavily starched linens and that miracle of drip-dry miracles, rayon. and rightly so.
These days, it seems not a week goes by that we’re not assaulted by the sight of some starlet’s deforested lady parts, a random pedestrian’s whale tail, or highly compensated movie stars dressed for a day
in the sandbox at work. I mean, c’mon Adam, we love you, but isn’t it time to shave and put on your big boy suit? I know you’ve got one.
So listen folks, it’s a new year and time for a fresh start. Toss out all those baggy surrender t-shirts, childish pajama pants (you know you’ve worn them to the grocery store) and ill-fitting sweat items. Slip into some stretchy new undergarments, coordinated separates and shiny shoes and show the world your glamorous bad self for a change. I guarantee you’ll get treated better on airplanes, at work and in restaurants (admit it, you do want to eat in places where it matters). As an added bonus, I can stop beating this dead horse and start writing important posts wherein I demonstrate how ontogeny really does recapitulate phylogeny or discuss whether Spinoza’s reconciliation of the mind-body problem still holds water. Or maybe I’ll just go back to flogging recipes. Either way, it’s win-win for us all.