the botoxed heart

by nikki meredith

My husband wouldn’t smile at me. To be fair, he, more accurately, couldn’t smile at me. He was hit in the mouth with a hockey stick and required stitches both inside and outside. He’s a long time hockey player so over the years he’s had many injuries – this wasn’t even close to the worst (black eyes, cracked ribs, broken teeth) — but this one was the most painful for me. I had to get through each day without that particular physical manifestation of love and approval from him and it was as effective as an anti-Prozac. I realized that given the choice: no sex for a month; no smile for a week, I’d choose the first. It didn’t matter one wit that he might have been smiling on the inside, my heart hurt.

I thought about this experience recently when I read a New York Times report in about a study that seemed to demonstrate that Botox not only neutralizes how one looks, it neutralizes how one feels, particularly how one feels empathy. At issue is ”embodied cognition” — the way in which facial feedback helps people perceive emotion. In one experiment, women who had been injected with Botox were asked to look at a set of photographs of human eyes and match them with human emotions. Women with Botox were significantly less accurate at decoding both positive and negative facial expressions than the women in the control group.

As more and more people, both men and women, have Botox injected at earlier and earlier ages (according to Allure, some leading dermatologists often start their patients on Botox as early as age 25) I wonder what effect this neutralizing of expression will have on relationships. We are, as a culture, ridiculed for our easy smiles and there is no more banal symbol of this than the smiley face. But life has taught me to cherish this trait. (The easy smile, not the smiley face.) In the last year of my mother’s life dementia had robbed her of the ability to speak; in fact, it had robbed her of her ability to do just about anything. She had regressed to preverbal babyhood. But when I walked in the door after any kind of absence, as soon as she saw me, her eyes would brighten and she would smile, a deep smile of recognition. This was the same welcoming smile she gave me as a child arriving home from school, home from summer camp and when I was older, home from college. It was the same smile that greeted me as an adult with a family of my own. I counted on it. Beginning with my adolescence, my mother and I fought, sometimes we fought a lot, but all of this animus was suspended in our first moments together when she shined her light on me. I needed this validation from her my whole life; I needed it even more when she had nothing else to give.

What if my mother had been in the Botox generation? What if she had paid a doctor to neutralize her expression? Smooth-out her smile lines? She wasn’t and she didn’t and for that I am so very grateful.