By Morra Aarons-Mele
Updated: Dec 21, 2018 @ 6:22 pm
Tony Luong

I started getting Botox when I was 26 because I have a congenital frown line. My mom has it, and so did my grandfather. It created a ridge right between my eyes with two deep vertical lines. When I concentrated or got lost in thought, the frown line apparently made me look angry. People would always ask, "are you mad," or “what’s wrong?” This was 2003, before the term “resting bitch face” had been popularized, as a pat way to mark women as too serious, or even rude, while they’re literally sitting silently. I remember feeling betrayed by my face, as if it was making decisions without my approval.

I was working as a political consultant in Washington, D.C., and soon learned that “angry” isn’t a good look for a woman in that world. I was a young manager on male-dominated teams, and struggled to assert authority. I found making decisions that impacted many people near impossible, and felt imposter syndrome almost constantly. Being asked “what’s wrong?” as I sat in a meeting and thought through a decision before blurting anything out only added to my sense that I was playing a role. And, maybe, I wasn’t pulling it off.

My mother had started getting Botox treatments for her frown line when the injectable first came out in 2002, and suggested I try it. I knew how her frown line had impacted me as a child (I always thought she was mad at me!) and knew that its erasure gave my mom peace of mind. I wanted that. So I tried some Botox shots when I visited her in Miami, and was thrilled at the result. No more frown lines! My face appeared more open, less judgemental. And people, I think, perceived me more kindly. There was no more asking if I was mad, or what was wrong. So when I’d see the frown lines coming back, which usually happened every six or eight months, I’d get a quick treatment if I could afford the $500. Increasingly, as I grew in my career, I could. Getting Botox felt like a better use of my discretionary income than other purchases. Its effects were positive, I thought, an investment in myself and my professional success. I came to anticipate the fresh face that came with every session.

But then, what had begun in my twenties as a way to neutralize my expression became something else: an attempt to radiate well being, health and, above all, control. Between those two motivations, and a few different ones along the way, I’ve been getting Botox for the last 15 years.

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Like any medication, there are risks to Botox. It’s possibly poison. But in five minutes, it takes off my edges and provides smooth skin that can be tough to quit. It pleases the patriarchy — to look sweet instead of serious, and excuse anyone from considering whether something maybe IS wrong — which I swear helps me make more money in my business.

Tony Luong

When I hit my mid-thirties, my career reached a new level. I was photographed more, and felt I was more in the public eye as an entrepreneur and expert on women and social change. As a keen observer of women and power, I knew looking good makes a difference. The frown line was one thing, but I couldn’t escape media depictions of successful women approaching middle age who had no lines at all. Consider The Good Wife: Julianna Margulies’ unruly curls from ER were gone, and to match her newly sleek hair, her face as Alicia Florrick was practically silken.

The women I’d see on business trips to New York City from my home in suburban Boston (where, frankly, Botox and cosmetic enhancements are less popular) also had the unlined appearance of the kind of good health that favors a very lucky few, and more likely comes from high disposable income and a good dermatologist. I wanted to be like them. These women were powerful and beautiful. They had life under control, it seemed to me. Their looks made me question if they were calmer on the inside than I was. Perhaps if my face were as smooth, my inside life would be less turbulent?

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I remember sitting at a client’s fundraising dinner on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and observing all the still, ageless faces. And even though I had frankly little disposable income, I decided on a strategy. I’d emulate those women as best I could, for the several days a week I might need to. I splurged on a few designer outfits and expensive handbags via eBay and consignment stores, blowouts, and again, Botox.

I felt more glamorous, like the true grown-up and actualized version of my professional self. I liked it. I considered the treatments a business expense.

By 38, my skin was aging faster than I expected. I’m a fair-skinned, freckled redhead who has spent too much time in the sun. I’d been free of Botox for about 18 months, while I was pregnant with and then nursing my third child. I decided I needed a lift — some birthday Botox — as I prepared to shift back into full time work. I was newly living in L.A. and didn’t know where to go, so I did something highly ill-advised: I made an appointment based solely on Yelp reviews. The doctor looked like a caricature of California plastic surgery, with a face that hadn’t moved in years. And for three months after, neither would mine. I longed to look angry; instead I was stuck with “Botox Brow,” eternally surprised.

For several years in my late-thirties and early forties, I also got Botox in my neck (with a frightening needle that dwarfed the ones used for cosmetic tweaks), because I was told it would help with my almost-daily migraines. This time the shots were administered by a dentist or orthodontist. It cost a fortune, over $1,200, but it would reduce the tension by about half for a few months at a time. After 18 months, my doctor casually mentioned that some anti-depressants can be “activating.” I switched mine and, lo and behold, stopped clenching my jaw. The migraines went away, and I went back to treating Botox as a beauty splurge and not a health one.

Tony Luong

Now, my pain is under control. But the aging process has crept up on me in the meantime. I have three small children, a business to run, and little free time. The cost-benefit analysis seems to work as well as ever: in 15 minutes, I’m a younger-, sweeter-looking version of myself. The Botox that used to be for my angry frown line alone, now covers my crows feet and forehead wrinkles, too. Instead of two times a year to look a bit calmer, I get it every eight months, to look my age, which is 42.

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Each time feels like a little reboost on life. Sometimes it goes wrong and an eyebrow lifts too high, but mostly, now that I’m a boss and a mother, I love that no one asks me “are you mad at me?” Looking back on my 15 years with the drug, I realize I feel about Botox like I do about my antidepressants, or the Xanax I take for flying anxiety: it smooths me out. When it comes to aging, all the healthy eating and expensive skin care in the world is only a salve. A quick shot freezes me in time, at least for a few months  — and I’m definitely not mad about that.