There comes a time in a woman’s life when everything starts to sag. For me, that journey southward didn’t start with my breasts, or even my butt, but under my eyes, as ever more noticeable bags emerged and grew puffier and droopier as the years passed. I tried reminding myself that superficial signs of age didn’t matter, especially as I saw friends getting sick around me, dealing with chemo and matters of life and death. (Another sign of my age.) I tried volunteering, tried being grateful for all the blessings in my life. Yet whatever I did, I continued to care too much that my eye bags were doubling, two under each eye, along with my chin.
I envied women who were brave enough, bold enough to just fix what they didn’t like. I have cousins who have gotten their eyes done and more (the under-eye bag problem runs in my DNA). I noticed that certain friends seemed to be going backward in time while I was moving farther ahead.
I yearn to be the kind of woman who embraces aging boldly and honestly, more Frances McDormand than Renee Zellweger.
Yet something has always held me back from doing an eye lift, or, as it’s more formally called, blepharoplasty—where a surgeon removes those little fat pads beneath the eyes or cuts away the excess skin above the eyes, or both. I yearn to be the kind of woman who embraces aging boldly and honestly, more Frances McDormand than Renee Zellweger. I want to stay true to my feminist values. I worry that if I allow hubris to lead me into surgery, I might end up dead from an anesthesia mishap, a punishment from the universe for caring too much about my looks. Then there was the question of where it would all end. What if an eye job led to a jowl job led to a neck job led to lasering the backs of my increasingly sun-freckled hands?
I’m not ready to go down that road, at least not yet. And so I decided to do what women have been doing for decades: haunting beauty counters for a magic fix in a bottle, jar, or tube. I submitted to free makeovers that were anything but free. I bought so many products that I had to get a second makeup bag. And I discovered that it’s one thing to let strangers test serums and concealers and wrinkle erasers on your face when you’re 25, and quite another when you’re 55.
Bellying Up to the Beauty Counter
This past fall, I found myself in a cosmetics shop in Greenwich Village, feet swinging as I sat atop a high stool, my husband by my side, looking amused and skeptical. We’d been walking to nowhere in particular, window-shopping, when we noticed a pile of delectable-looking cupcakes piled in a basket outside one quaint establishment. A closer look revealed that they were made of soap, and as I leaned in to inhale their scent, a dark-haired woman appeared and said, in an enticing Mediterranean accent: “You are interested in our products? Come inside.”
Before I could protest, she took me by the arm, and 30 seconds later, I found myself in the aforementioned position, as she used what looked like a giant gold syringe to squirt out a pea-sized drop of a pale pink unguent onto the pad of her ring finger. “I have just the thing to get rid of that … puffiness,” she promised, indicating the area beneath my eyes. I didn’t have time to be affronted. Instead, I let her dab, then suddenly she was waving her hand frantically in front of my face to dry the substance, which was already creating a tightening sensation on my skin. “We’re not going to buy anything,” I warned her. “I have lots of products at home.”
I looked in the mirror and felt astonished—and hopeful.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she assured me, continuing to fan my eye. “All you need to do is put this on before you go to sleep, once a week, and the puffiness will disappear. Take a look!” she said with a flourish, holding up a mirror.
I am not a woman who is easily taken in. But as I examined my eyes, it’s no exaggeration to say that I felt astonished, and suddenly hopeful. For the bag under the eye where she had applied the potion had completely vanished. The downside is that the flaccid flaws of my as-yet untouched eye now appeared all the more extreme.
Would I Fork Over $400 for a Skin Cream?
And indeed, other customers were noticing—pointing even—because the difference between my puffy and smooth eye was that stark. “Can you do the other one?” I wanted to know. “And how much does it cost?” Whatever the price, it had to be less than surgery.
“Four hundred dollars,” she said, and simultaneously, my husband and I both rose from our chairs. “We’re going,” he said, with a laugh. The saleswoman protested; she had to finish my face, and, indeed, I couldn’t walk around with eyes that didn’t match. And so I sat down as she explained that the serum would pay for itself since I need only use a tiny drop once a week. “It lasts for a year!” she promised. “Think about how much you spend on creams you replace every few months. I did some calculating in my head and didn’t get anywhere near $400, but I couldn’t stop looking at myself in the mirror, at the smooth skin beneath my eyes, at how refreshed, awake, and, yes, how much younger I looked.
‘If I were you, I’d do surgery,’ said my friend.
Reader, I bought the potion, which was called Yubari King Wrinkle Eraser by Hermetise. Not only did my husband not scoff when I took out my credit card, he said he’d like to use it, too. “Oh no, you’re not,” I replied. I intended to keep every precious drop for myself.
The next morning, out walking with a friend, I confessed to my frivolous purchase. “Egg whites would probably do the same thing,” she offered. Then the topic turned to surgery. She loved her Botox, and, indeed, her skin looked smooth and utterly line-free. “Would you do surgery if you were me?” I asked, pointing to my eyes. She surveyed my face. “If I were you, I’d do it.” Ouch.
It’s no wonder I turned to the Yubari King that night, though a week hadn’t yet passed. But when I depressed the plunger of the golden syringe, instead of a tiny drop of pink serum landing on the tip of my ring finger, a blob of the stuff squirted out the top, landing on the floor—at least $75 worth of product by my estimation. Frantic, I scooped it up (five second rule!) and patted it under my eyes, on my forehead, my eyelids—wherever I had puffiness or wrinkles. Then I set to work fiddling with the thing, twisting it one way and another, unscrewing the bottom and screwing it on again. But I could never get it to function correctly, and taking it back to that Greenwich Village cosmetics store has become another item on my to-do list.
Trying the Local Beauty Bazaar to Ditch Under-Eye Puffiness
You’d think I would become discouraged, but instead I made my way to another store, my neighborhood Sephora, heading straight to a gaggle of sales people sitting around big mirrors rimmed with bright lights. “I’m looking for something to hide my under-eye bags—you know, the circles,” I said. One woman yawned, and looked at her nails, which were long and sparkly and manicured to a point in taxi-cab yellow.
“Are you looking for skin care or concealer?” she asked.
My bags, once again, had nearly vanished.
I hopped up on the stool as she declared, “What you need is a concealer that doesn’t settle into your wrinkles.” I agreed. As a middle-aged woman, I’ve learned that the more concealer I wear, the older I look. Like cement drying in the sun, it brings out wrinkles I never knew I had. I told her as much, and she showed me a tiny black tube with a promising name: Dr. Brandt’s No More Baggage. “You have to put this on first, before the concealer.” And then she began dab-dab-dabbing, and instructed me to look in the mirror. My bags, once again, had nearly vanished, perhaps not as completely as with the $400 serum but this tube cost ten times less—only $40, a relative bargain.
“Now let’s try the concealer,” she said, which was called Born This Way Multi-use Sculpting Concealer by Two-Faced.
I wasn’t convinced but felt so pleased about the No More Baggage that I bought both plus a sparkly moss-green eye pencil. The next evening, I applied everything before heading over to a friend’s for dinner. When she opened the door, she gave me a hug, then stepped back and said, “You’re wearing so much makeup!”
Not the response I was hoping for.
Was Surgery Really the Solution?
Soon enough, I was at the office of a new dermatologist, waiting to get my yearly skin check. There was nothing to do but browse the brochures in the bins on her wall—Botox, Juvederm, Retin-A. When the dermatologist entered and introduced herself, I held up one of the Botox brochures and asked, “Could this help me look younger?”
She shook her head. “Not really. Your forehead is fine and you don’t have ‘marionette’ lines under your nose, though a little Botox could help your smile lines …” she began.
“I don’t mind my smile lines,” I said. “It’s my bags I don’t like.” She nodded. “For your eyes, the only thing you can do is surgery. You’re a good candidate.” Then she wrote down the name of a doctor and handed it over. “He wrote the textbook,” she confided. “He’s expensive, but worth it.”
At a certain point, there’s only so much makeup can do.
There I was again, caught in the same dilemma—to cut or not to cut, going around and around. I distracted myself by going into Blue Mercury, a smaller cosmetics chain than Sephora, and one where I hoped the sales associates might not make me feel quite so … old.
Katie was indeed lovely. At 26, nearly 30 years my junior, she was poised and encouraging and didn’t stare at her nails. “You look so glow-y!” I enthused, eager to connect. “What are you using?” While she could have said, “Honey, I’m 26—this is just what I look like,” instead, she introduced me to Nars Illuminating Powder in Orgasm, which had little flecks that made her skin look luminous and made mine look a bit shiny. I bought it—and more. And I learned that even the best under-eye bag remover only lasts for a few hours (if you can get it out of the container, that is). I decided that no matter how excellent the concealer, it makes my face look older.
Most important, I realized that at a certain point, there’s only so much that makeup can do. When you are middle-aged, there’s nothing like low lighting to take care of a wrinkle or two or even a set of prominent under-eye bags.
As for that piece of paper with the plastic surgeon’s name scribbled on it, I stuck it between the pages of my date book, a few months into the future. Maybe by then I’ll be ready. Most likely I won’t. But perhaps I’ll have gotten closer to achieving the equanimity to turn down the lights and just go with the inexorable aging process, to care less and smile more, despite the lines, despite my baggage.
Paula Derrow was articles director at Self magazine for 11 years and edited the anthology, (Delacorte, 2009), Her writing has been published in Refinery29, Tablet, Purple Clover, , Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Woman’s Day, More, Cosmo, Dailyworth.com and the New York TimesModern Love column (twice!)