Last week, I wrote that women of my generation had believed that Fay Weldon's 1986 novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil (which tells how a hulking, dowdy housewife transforms herself into the petite, blonde mirror-image of her husband's mistress) was an apocalyptic parable about empowerment, but now it just seems like a prophetic story. A mere week later, that itself seems like an understatement: now the novel's an everyday tale of your average woman hitting the menopause.
Channel 4's Ten Years Younger has just kicked off with 42-year-old nurse Heather Williams being transformed from a cosy Pauline Quirk-type figure into a taut, toothy Joanna Trollope lookalike after £50,000 of cosmetic surgery. Now, if I remember rightly, this programme used to take tired, weathered mums to the dentist, dermatologist and a top hair stylist for a bit of general buffing, before sending them back out on the streets with some slap, fancy boots and a blow-dry. Nowadays it's five hours of surgery with a lathe and a floorboard-sander before they carve out your inner Stepford Wife.
The beauty game's being played for much higher stakes these days and far more people are having a flutter. New figures reveal that the number of Britons having cosmetic surgery increased by a third in just one year, up from 16,367 procedures in 2004 to 22,041 in 2005, enough to arouse paranoia in the breast of every woman. Julie Christie explained some years ago that she had reluctantly had her chin-line tautened because she was the only woman in Hollywood growing older. At the time I remember thanking my lucky stars that I didn't live in LA. Now Julie Christie's reality is every woman's near-future.
I don't know a single woman who doesn't dread the steadily increasing pressure to arrest, if not reverse, the verboten physical signs of ageing. Every female friend I spoke to last week agreed that it's no longer enough to have a pension fund; we should be salting away money for cosmetic surgical procedures that will soon be de rigueur. You know that if you plough your furrow down the "natural" route, you'll be turning up to school reunions in 10 years' time and find half your contemporaries still look like sixth-formers.
And while we're on the subject - yes, I admit it, I've had my teeth whitened (but only because I was beginning to look like Shane MacGowan, having not visited the dentist for eight years), thereby setting off a domino effect of panic in all my female acquaintances. Four have signed up for the procedure already, so you can imagine what it would be like if one of us had a facelift. And here's a thing. People always say of their cosmetic surgery, "I did it for myself," and, "If it makes you feel better, where's the harm?" But no action is so blissfully isolated. Your chemical peel and brow-lift makes your mates look older, and the graceful thing to do is take responsibility for this fact.
The extraordinary thing is the collapse of women's will and morale in the face of the oncoming cosmetic dreadnought. We see our defeat as inevitable. Many women have fraternised with the enemy for so long that it's too late to kick up a fuss. If you've been having Botox and collagen fillers, you can't become outraged when women sign up for big surgical procedures. I am sure this is why my generation has found no swashbuckling feminist champion raging with anti-cosmetic polemic.
But, sweet Jesus, do we need her? A femme fatale with a nose the size of Concorde's, an arse the size of Russia, a brain the size of the planet and laughter lines that look like the Marianas Trench, emerging from the ranks to do battle on womankind's behalf. Most writers and thinkers are too compromised by the beauty treatments already undertaken or those they plan to embark on. Even the impressive journalist and one-time founder of Spare Rib, Rosie Boycott, agreed to an intensive programme of cosmetic procedures under the auspices of the Daily Mail last year. And who can blame her?
Gloria Steinem and Erica Jong both look like they've been seeing a top-rate dermatologist for decades, while Shere Hite looks, er, plain spooky. Meanwhile Naomi Wolf, pretty-as-a-picture author of The Beauty Myth, has abandoned cajoling the sisterhood to ignore society's narrow models of pulchritude in favour of pushing her father's home-baked homilies.
As womankind stares in the mirror and contemplates the iniquities of The Beauty Imperative (the title of my new book, if only I weren't too much of a surrendered wife to write it), there's one consol- ation: men are beginning to feel the heat too. The number of men undergoing cosmetic surgery almost doubled in the last year, from 1,348 procedures in 2004 to 2,440 in 2005.
I was invited to participate in a studio discussion about cosmetic surgery on Channel 4 News on Monday and found myself in the curious position of defending inner beauty, intellect and the odd wrinkle à la Helen Mirren - and deeply hoping I meant it - while a male journalist from Arena magazine argued that £20,000 of invasive procedures (veneers, Botox and liposuction from his man-breasts) had vastly improved his life. I was incredulous to see an intelligent man cede his sex's traditional stronghold. If women envied men for anything at all, it was for their ability to look in a mirror and see something far more gorgeous than reality staring back at them. Not for them the "Ugh, look at my cellulite, I want to shoot myself" school of insecurity - until now.
Sadly, the discussion ended before I was able to point out that, if this trend continued, not only would the Anna Fords of news broadcasting be extinct, they would have been joined in the dinosaurs' graveyard by all the Jon Snows.