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Your Face is a Whole Life Story

I once had a friend named Nancy who came up with startling declarations -the kind that always made you think twice. Years ago, I remember her saying – “Ultimately, we all have the faces we deserve”. When I wondered what that meant, she explained that our emotions, attitudes and insight, our joys and of course our pains, all contributed to the expressivity and design of our faces. A face is a roadmap to an identity, a guided tour of a life’s story.

I lost touch with Nancy before either of us considered taking advantage of available cosmetic techniques to, well… if not change our faces, then at least highlight our strong points and minimize distressing signs of aging.

I’ve long wanted to reconcile Nancy’s “nothing but the truth” attitude with my own wish to be as attractive a woman as possible.

I turned 40, then 50 and am now edging up towards the fearsome 60-mark. Still, I take pride in setting my own standards, in never chasing arbitrary markers of beauty or status. If I am to be admired, it must be for the creation of an original style.

If I let Botox erase some of the worry lines of my forehead or sustain the dramatic arch of my brows, if I invite some filler to heighten the hollow of my cheeks, am I betraying personal integrity? Would it be more courageous to simply let nature take its course and appear, though a little worse for wear, with uncompromised pride for all the adventures and misadventures, highs and lows I had lived through thus far?

One day, decades later, Nancy got back in touch. (It’s easy these days with Facebook). She was getting ready for her daughter’s wedding and struggling with the same dilemma: She never wanted to be a victim of the media’s campaign to have all women look a certain way. But she also wanted to feel complete joy in her appearance, total confidence greeting a new family, and lasting gratification viewing the wedding pictures for years to come.

I was soon to go off on a mini-speaking tour for a memoir I had written. Like her, I had to “face” something: I was not happy to see myself wrinkling, growing sallow and just a tad saggy. I wanted to compel an audience’s attention- on stage and off.

I had just made an appointment with Dr. Susan Bard, recommended to me for her “less is more” approach to cosmetic dermatology. In one session I reclaimed the face that I truly recognized as my own. I recommended Dr. Bard to Nancy, mother-of-the-bride-to-be, who also came away with excellent results.

Nancy and I giggled over coffee on a downtown terrace on a first day of New York spring: This painless intervention could remain our own little secret. (The results were that subtle) but then it would also be fun to share this, with others. We were smiling at each other, at familiar faces that radiated our whole life stories.

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Worshipping and Fearing the Sun-God

All-Powerful Forces can be worshipped as agents for all that is good. Or, they can be feared as agents of destruction. The sun around which our planet revolves has been cast in both the redemptive and destructive roles. Its power has never been questioned, but the way people relate to its scorching, life-giving energy has a long and varied history. It is a history with serious implications for skin health and beauty.

Sun Gods can be found throughout history in various forms. Early Egyptian beliefs associated Atum with solar powers and particularly worshipped Ra-Atum , the rays of the setting sun. South American, African and Mesopotamian cultures all have a long tradition of sun worship. Conversely, the Missing Sun denotes darkness, loss, and imprisonment in the underworld, exile and even death.

Sun tanning has not always been in fashion. Before the 1920’s, tanned skin was strictly associated with the lower classes, even slaves, who had to work outdoors. Remember how Scarlett O’Hara, the classical Southern belle went to great lengths to protect her face, décolleté and especially her hands from exposure to the sun.

But in the early part of the 20th century, the preference for fair skin began to fade. In 1903, Niels Fingen was awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the therapeutic benefits of sunlight. Its rays were a cure for Vitamin D deficiency and by the 1930’s, sun therapy was prescribed for everything from simple fatigue to tuberculosis.

Fashion and industry were not slow to capitalize on the new wave. Sun bathing as a symbol of leisure, beauty and glamour became big by the 1940’s just at the time that bathing suits grew skimpier. Hollywood and advertising went all out associating suntan with health, wealth, sophistication and of course, seduction. Tanning quickly became a five-billion-dollar-and-still- growing industry in the US alone.

Appearance of Skin Cancer 

True to its dual nature, the Sun God began to show its destructive side. Widespread sun worship produced a vast increase in cases of all three main types of skin cancer, raising lots of questions about length of advisable exposure and the effectiveness of sun blocks.

Many of us who grew up as sun worshippers now have to confront the damage all those rays have likely wreaked on our skin.

Vanguard’s founder and lead physician, Dr. Michael Shapiro devotes a large part of his practice to minimizing the consequences of that damage.

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Does Beauty = Vanity (and so what if it does)?

“It’s not vanity to feel you have a right to be beautiful.”

“Women are taught to feel we’re not good enough, that we must live up to someone else’s standards.”

Elle Macpherson, the glamorous model, made both those statements in one breath. Certainly she was aware of how the two might seem to contradict one another.

Let’s start with the obvious tension: We all want to be beautiful, but at the same time, we are aware of the danger of being manipulated by some external standard of beauty that we can never attain.

This is a clear call for establishing one’s own standard of beauty.

“It’s not vanity,” says Macpherson. But what if it really is vanity? Is vanity necessarily a bad thing? In the US, vanity gets a bad rap, but elsewhere it is understood as a vital sign of self-esteem. I remember a famous French woman writer speaking with pride of her 75-year old mentor, an iconic stage actress. The older woman would walk a mile out of her way to get to the Chanel store because it was only there that she could buy a certain pencil that made her eyes look just as she wished. Vanity? Maybe. But the story was offered as homage to the theatrical icon’s still intact self-esteem.

Macpherson claims beauty as everyone’s right. It is not always the elite who dictate standards to the masses; it is just as often the vibe and accent and creativity of the streets that sets a new standard for the fashion gurus.

Cosmetic beauty, too, is becoming more democratic, widely accessible thanks to the advances in aesthetic dermatology. Botox, fillers, chemical peels, laser treatments go a long way towards helping you establish your own standards of beauty. All these techniques not only insure your right to beauty, they give you ample choice as to how to define it for yourself.

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Meet Dr. Bard, the Derma Diva: A Mother/Daughter Tale

Last time I went to see Dr. Susan Bard, I asked her if she’d introduced her magical cosmetic techniques to her mom. Dr. Bard is in her early thirties, so I imagine her mom must be a baby boomer, just like many of my friends and myself.

She smiled, admitting that her mom, like other women I know, was reluctant to “get involved with that stuff.” Dr. Bard’s mom has lovely skin and has always been prone to a certain minimalism.  While she was always beautiful in her daughter’s eyes, Bard wanted to help her look even better. Knowing better than to play the vanity card with her mom, she tried another approach.

“Mom,” she implored, “You have to help me. I need to practice everything that I’ve learned.” The diminutive, vivacious dermatologist laughed as she told me the story. “I knew she wouldn’t do it for herself. So I was saying come on, mom, take one for the team.”

It worked. Mom consented to a little Botox to soften wrinkles around the eyes and a little filler to heighten her cheekbones.

I smile at the story but can’t leave without a final question. “Did you really need to practice on your mom?”

“Of course not. But I love this stuff and really wanted her to benefit from all that it does.”

And that’s how Dr. Bard became my “Derma Diva,” a practitioner with a growing following for her magical arts.

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