It was a night made for eating out. The sun still hot but the glare from the Mediterranean no longer angry, the Promenade des Anglais given over to people perambulating rather than exercising, remembering that their bodies are primarily sites of pleasure, not denial. No more early-morning joggers ruining the golden hour before breakfast with their strenuous example. Now, all was well with the world again, and my only thought a bottle of Bandol. Then I saw her.
I didn’t have to stare. I could have looked away. I had a companion to converse fondly with, a menu to study, and a bread roll of the sort that only the French can bake to pull apart, a bread roll that creaks and whimpers the way mandrakes are said to do when you rip them from the ground.
But there was something so magnificently heroic about the insouciant carefulness with which she negotiated the steps into the garden, on heels that would have doubled my height had I been wearing them; something so alarming about the upward curl of her lips, as though she’d ordered the surgeon to give her a mouth with which she could blow kisses at her own eyeballs – eyeballs too far apart for her to see in any direction but sideways, like an alligator; something so heartbreaking about the way she tossed her hair, a girl again, prior to sitting herself down on buttocks from which the flesh had been so sedulously suctioned, sliced or dieted away that even over the creaking of the bread you could hear her little bones crunch, that I had no option but to lean over and say something to her.
“Excusez-moi, madame, but in the name of God, why?”
Naturally, I didn’t say anything of the sort. She was none of my business and a woman has a right to look the way she wants to look. But was it really she who wanted to look like that, or was it the man she’d joined, the man I took to be her husband? It’s hard to believe that so many years after The Female Eunuch there remain women willing to mutilate themselves to stay in favour with their men. And in truth there was no knowing, on this occasion, for whose behoof this valiant woman had subjected herself to such a drastic assault.
In pictures: Top 10 countries for cosmetic surgery
In pictures: Top 10 countries for cosmetic surgery
The USA is number one on the list of countries popular for cosmetic surgery, with a total of 1,452,356 procedures made in 2013
Brazil came in at number two on the list, with a total of 1,491,721 procedures in 2013
Mexico hosted 486,499 cosmetic surgery procedures last year, placing it at number three on the list
In 2013, Germany hosted 343,479 cosmetic procedures, placing it at number four on the list
Spain came in at number five on the list, with 213,297 cosmetic procedures in 2013
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291,954 people had cosmetic surgery in Columbia last year.
182,680 cosmetic surgery procedures took place in Italy last year, putting it at number seven on the list
Venezuela hosted 231,742 cosmetic surgery procedures in 2013, placing at number eight on the list
120,652 people had cosmetic surgery in Argentina last year
At the bottom of the list is Iran, with 118,079 cosmetic procedures performed in 2013
But if it was to interest the man, then it had failed. He had been sitting in a sort of rich man’s slouch, his feet outstretched in pale pink loafers – no socks – a lazily replete expression on his face, as though he knew life had no new thing to offer him, only more dying sun and flat champagne and, I am afraid to say – all that remodelling notwithstanding – her. He didn’t raise his eyes to her when she arrived. Perhaps he knew she wouldn’t be able to see him with her repositioned vision anyway. Or perhaps he knew an embrace was out of the question for fear her face would deliquesce in the heat of the propinquity.
She didn’t please him, anyway. Reader, she couldn’t have pleased him less. If it had been her intention to fool him into thinking she was 21 instead of – and I’m guessing conservatively – 71, she had wasted her money and her time. Not impossibly she had wasted her natural beauty too. For if there’s madness in a young woman’s paying to be disfigured, there is tragedy in an older woman’s doing it. We all age differently, I grant you. But it is a cruel fallacy to suppose that the beauty of a girl must surpass the beauty of a woman, that the blankness of expectancy is to be preferred to the marks of knowledge.
This, too, I wanted to lean across and tell my neighbour: a face that bears the history of affection can be a lovely thing; the lines of mirth and sorrow that experience etches are more engrossing – and that can mean more sensually as well intellectually and spiritually engrossing – than no lines at all; extravagant beauty is not the lot of everyone, at any age, but there is an exquisiteness that even the plainest face can possess by virtue of kindness given and received, by virtue of what the eyes – if you would only leave them alone – have registered, and by virtue of what the lips – if you would let them be themselves – have uttered.
And yet this you have chosen to sacrifice to an illusion of youthful naturalness which resembles youth in not a single aspect and is to nature what Disney’s Dumbo is to a living elephant.
Would you not have thought, reader, that sufficient women have traded their dignity and grace for this furious flower of plastic evil that surgeons call a mouth for others to know now what to expect?
And don’t tell me that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that where I see a woman deformed the woman herself sees confidence and allure, for you have only to watch her sit entrapped in her friable cosmetic cage to see that she is mortally unhappy – unable to know how to behave, for she is not a child, whatever her desperation to look like one, and never again to know whether she will be loved for herself or for what’s been practised on her.
As for him – the man for whom, perhaps, she’s done it – then let him show how well he thinks it works by having his paunch and double chin removed to suggest vigour, and his dead unillusioned eyes widened to suggest the sweet ingenuousness of a shepherd boy, ideal companion to his new young Sylvan wife.
I accept it’s none of my business. And, for all I know, the silent couple might be wondering why I am so careless of how I look as to be glugging Bandol as though it’s the last bottle on the planet and ripping at French bread as though I love making it cry. I grant them their right. But grant me mine. It saddens me, that’s all. As the poet said, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.”
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