If one of Britain's most famous beauties felt she had to have a facelift, what hope for the rest of us? writes Emma Cook
"OH NO. Not Julie Christie," came the collective female wail as news flew across the Atlantic that our very own Julie, erstwhile Sixties babe radical, had at last submitted to the surgeon's knife at the grand old age of 57. "Now the face has been lifted she doesn't seem so special any more," mourned one newspaper. Did we mind when Elizabeth Hurley's lips inflated like hot air balloons over- night? Not a jot. But Julie's different. Not only is she a famous "natural" beauty, but she's perceived to be "principled". Along with Helen Mirren and Francesa Annis, she is an actress that ordinary women have invested their faith in. Most of us admire their ageing faces and strong ethics, somehow believing that the two are connected.

Christie moaned, by way of justification, that meeting Hollywood actresses was disillusioning when, "You know they're older than you and you look like their mother." To be fair, this is surely understandable: in such a competitive world based on looks, it's hardly surprising that beautiful actresses will go to great lengths to preserve them, regardless of personal politics. But what's interesting is why a certain sector of youngish British women feel vaguely betrayed that this particular celebrity has gone under the knife.

"I did think, 'Oh no' because she had seemed so real and normal. She's girlishly pretty even at her age. You think, if a woman like that is doing it, what hope do the rest of us have?", says Rachel, 35 and a counsellor. More and more women feel the only hope is surgery. At younger ages too. Professor David Sharpe, president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, says, "I see much younger people. Between 35 and 40, they're much less tolerant of wrinkles. The average age has dropped from around 55 to 45 in the last five years." He adds that, for upper and lower eyelid surgery, he's seeing a lot more British women in their late thirties.

Any younger than this, though, and female attitudes are still uncompromising. According to Jackie Sullivan, clinical director at the Surgical Advisory Service, it's the still older women who are more liberal minded when it comes to the odd nip and tuck. "The younger girls are, the more conservative!" she says. "They accept the idea that surgery is available, but they're disapproving. Whereas the women brought up in the Sixties, now in their forties, are far less judgmental."

Among the women I spoke to, ranging from age 20 to 65, a rather inevitable truth emerged. Sympathy towards surgery depended very much on personal familiarity with the ageing process. Those that were well acquainted with the onset of wrinkles - or knew they were just around the corner - were far less rigid in their views. While younger girls may feel dissatisfied with certain features, like their noses or stomachs, the idea of paying to keep the visual signs of age at bay seemed generally inconceivable. As one fortysomething said darkly, 'Nobody believes they're going to age until it happens to them.'"

The twentysomething response was pretty unsympathetic. "I think it's really sad," says Jayne, a 23-year-old researcher. "You've obviously become obsessed and you're not secure. To have a facelift, at any age, you've lost perspective. You'd have to be really desperate and unhappy." Her friend Ruth, 22 and a student, says, "I'd look up to someone like Julie Christie a lot more it she didn't have surgery. It would show more confidence about ageing gracefully." Kate, 22 and a marketing trainee, agrees: "To go through that you must feel totally bad about yourself. I would never have anything done." When prompted about the prospect of ageing herself, her views did soften slightly. Uggh, she admits. "I'd hate to look in the mirror and see the wrinkles appearing. That must be awful. I can't imagine it, but maybe I will feel differently in ten years time..."

For women in their thirties, the issues are far less clear cut. Too young and probably too disapproving of surgery, this lot are more likely to secretly contemplate it but publicly condemn it. Looking 40 in the face, the signals are sent out that it's not good enough to be attractive and old. Even when you're celebrated as one of the great British beauties. Joanna Briscoe, author of Skin, a hair-raising novel about ageing and cosmetic surgery, says of Julie Christie, "It's a matter of moving the goalposts for everyone else. It's also very English to say, 'Oh God, not her'. Americans wouldn't know what we were talking about. But we've always rejected that Stepford wife look that you can tell a mile off."

Still, though, the fear of ageing remains, whether you're American or British. As Jackie Sullivan says, "It's not the wrinkles, but what they signify. It's about realising that you're nearer to death than birth." Rachel, the 35-year-old, says, "In your heart of hearts you want to think you can age and still look young, even though - politically - you'd like to be able to get old and look old." She also admits, "As I've got older, I wouldn't rule it out. Even five years ago, I would have put my hand on my heart and said, 'No way'. Now I'm 35 and already I can't take male attention for granted. In my imagination, I think if I had a wand I'd change my looks. Maybe it's only a step from the wand to the scalpel."

Becky, 31 and a publicity manager, says, "Often I've looked at myself and thought, I'd love to have this bit sliced off and lifted. But there's something bizarre about going under the knife when you're healthy and everything's functioning." Susi Rogol, editor of Good Times, a magazine for the over fifties, also disapproves, while still entertaining the fantasy. "On a once a week basis I think, I really should have a facelift and I'd look wonderful. I've dreamt about it. I've sat there in front of the mirror and wondered what it would be like if I hitched a bit up here or there. In the end, though, I really couldn't justify it to myself or anybody else."

Last year, journalist and author Angela Neustatter did just that when she had an eye-job, something she would never have countenanced in her younger days. Her reason was because she was, "sick of looking so tired." She is still surprised by the depth of disapproval she has encountered - especially from younger women. "It seems amazing to me how puritanical the younger feminists are when they haven't encountered the dilemmas of the ageing process," she says. "Why, as women, do we have to be so fierce about this?" Neustatter admits that she was "frightfully hard line about it before I did it", and nervous about "sisters putting the knife in" as a consequence. Like many other women, her views about appearance have altered with age. "I actually think that if you can look good and feel good, and go out into the world as an older woman, then that's a positive thing for other people to see."

You may not agree with this shift in perspective now, but chances are in ten years' time you certainly will.