Is a little shot of Botox a crime? Debora Spar aired her grievances about aging in a recent New York Times essay “Aging and My Beauty Dilemma.” The Barnard College President ruffled some feathers with her limiting conceptions of beauty. Spar frames Botox, hair coloring, face lifts, tummy tucks, etc. as a sort of catch 22; if women are in the business, they’ve got to be hush, hush about it, and if they’re not using, they have to face the fact that their careers might soon wilt along with their faces. What she misses is the loophole that allows women to be themselves and hold onto the integrity of their bodies.
Spar is not wrong for feeling shame in an age that has not yet shed its affinity for stigmatizing the physicality of older women. That being said, the options she presents for confronting this dilemma leaves many women misguided. She leaves out the single-mother with salt and pepper hair, who has to chose between food and rent. She misses the CEO in a wheel chair, who knows that standing straight is not destiny. She doesn’t consider the mother of color who has no time to think about wrinkles when her children are dying from police brutality. And she forgets about the breast cancer survivor who has had enough poisonous chemicals for a lifetime:
I’m 61, a lawyer and Botox-free. My forehead, eyes and mouth still move freely. I’ve had surgery for breast cancer, and why anyone allows a scalpel or poison chemicals to pierce them for vanity escapes me.
In her essay about aging and beauty, Spar speaks to Barnard College’s legacy of pathologizing bodies. From the late 1920s to the mid ’70s, Barnard had a mandatory posture program, which included annual posture exams, photos, contents, and courses. Students had to strip down to their underwear for these exams. If they were told they had “bad” posture, they were placed into a body correctives class. If their posture was “good,” they took body mechanics. In a comment responding to Spar’s essay, alumna Liz Zucker wrote, women were taught “how to get into a sports car in a pencil-thin skirt without putting our tushes in the air in an unladylike way.” They were not taught that their bodies were okay just the way they were. Rather, the Barnard physical education department stressed that straight, fit bodies reflected a student’s potential to succeed. For those bodies that deviated from the rigid plumb line, there was heavy shame.
It’s been over 40 years since the posture program was phased out, yet Spar’s essay reminds us that pathologizing women’s bodies is still a relevant conversation (even at a women’s college, one of the most liberating spaces for women and gender nonconforming folks to openly express their minds and bodies). Barnard likes to embrace the slogan “Bold, Beautiful, Barnard.” It’s time for Debora Spar to write bolder-and to acknowledge that women don’t need to look a certain way to matter in this world.