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"Penthouse Pet arrested for heading global methamphetamine ring."
The model in the headline was one of sweetest people I met during my four-year stint managing a cosmetic surgery clinic. Simone had the kind of life enviable to a 19-year-old girl: the Mercedes with a driver, endless cash and a body that headed Ed Hardy campaigns. She was also generous, talkative and once gave me her card suggesting we “hang out sometime.”
The news of her arrest three years after I’d last seen her saddened me as I realized that her life was all noise, no substance.
After high school, most of my peers sold shoes or tended bars. I accepted a receptionist position at a cosmetic surgery clinic.
Other than nail polish and hair dye, I had very little knowledge of the ways a woman could enhance themselves but I caught up pretty quickly. In between stacking pamphlets and sorting files, I answered the phone and provided the information on the procedures the female surgeon offered. Looking back, how anyone took anti-aging advice from a baby-faced teen is beyond me.
My role was to promise our clients that Botox and other “non-invasive” procedures (even though some required multiple injections and 48 hours of painful downtime) were safe, and most importantly the solution to their problems. I loved my job and I’d developed an encyclopedic knowledge of nips and tucks to reassure these patients.
Two weeks in to my gig, the clinic’s manager turned to me: “Let’s plump up your lips.” I’d never thought of my lips before, I didn’t know if they were big, small, wide or normal. But I was curious to try the procedure I’d been pushing over the phone.
I soon learnt that A. free lips were a perk of the job supplied from feisty drug company representatives and B. it was never too young to begin the cosmetic surgery journey. I secretly wished that I was older to really appreciate the benefits of my new job.
My first procedure stung. The four injections of the numbing agent in to my gums were ironically painful, but without, I was assured the product would feel as though I had injected fire. Two days of a swollen face, one sleepless night and countless ice-blocks later, I had a pornstar pout.
It’s a very personal choice, I told my horrified boyfriend, echoing the line that I’d feed countless patients. "Fish lips!" my girlfriends cried; they weren’t concerned, it was treated as fabulous novelty to talk about at parties. My mother just stared at me, confused. “What on earth have you done to your face?”
A week later, I tried Botox. This is preventative, the nurse assured me, you’ll learn to frown less and have fewer lines later; the earlier you start it the better really. "We’ve got enough in this vial to do a brow lift, too," she smiled. "Take a look at the chart." The only thing I had to do was choose between flared, straight or arched. It was all too easy.
The procedure itself felt like tiny ant bites across my forehead and brow, and there was no downtime. Three days later I felt as though wet newspaper had been slapped on my forehead. The results were comical; a teenager with a trout pout and a frozen face.
I left that clinic (not before I’d sampled their laser and chemical peels) and began working for another surgeon famous for liposuction and his quick hands.
As the first point of contact in the clinic, drug reps showered me with boozy lunches and cute lip-shaped notepads but that was only the start; they were hungry to pour their products into my face and for me to tell our patients that they were the only solution.
I happily agreed, and -- before the age of 21 -- I’d tried all of the lip fillers, lasers and peels along with my regular three-month dose of Botox and brow lift. In a year I’d become a "Double Stapler" -– the term I coined for patients whose files had grown so thick they required extra reinforcement.
At no point did anyone -– staff, reps, patients -- question the necessity of my cosmetic "work."
“It’s like selling tickets to Paris, and never going yourself. I’m doing this for the experience” I explained to my mother when I’d shown up to her house with yet another "enhancement" under my belt.
“You look strange” she replied bluntly.
The more patients I met, especially the Double Staplers, the more I questioned my own procedures. The number of post break-up clients storming the door was astounding. I learned pretty quickly that the decision to enhance oneself cosmetically was usually to elevate emotional discomfort. A superficial Band-Aid for an emotional scar.
Cosmetic surgery is also addictive; we actually had to "cut off" some patients. The Doctor and I invented creative ways of weening Double Staplers off their favorite product -- one woman’s vice was Botox. The Doctor injected her with tiny inconsequential amounts, just so she could safely have her fix every two weeks. This woman was a doctor herself.
After witnessing some of the worst cases of self-esteem and general madness (a patient suggested cosmetic ways I could avoid “aging hands”; I was 20 at the time), I promised myself I’d never be a patient once I’d left my job.
For every ugly story, there was a beautiful one. The reconstruction of a woman’s breasts after cancer is an incredible gift. Witnessing a woman crying with gratitude after the Doctor healed her self-mutilation scars for her wedding day reduced me to tears. I was most proud of our program that filled out the disintegrated faces of HIV patients.
The group of giggly make-up artists who came in together regularly shared their anecdotes on life and relationships in the waiting room. I don’t doubt that their treatments simply made them feel and look good. A mum and daughter got matching boob jobs, and it was tacky albeit sweet watching them hobble to a taxi with their arms linked.
Given my experience, I am surprisingly ambivalent about cosmetic surgery today. It is really a very personal decision. I’ve never witnessed surgery magically shaving years off a patient, I’ve only seen it make a person look good for their age. And 19 is probably not the age to start this battle.
Most importantly I’ve learnt that the ability to fix one’s life cannot be found in a syringe; just ask Simone. I think about her from time to time, and wonder where she is. I hope that she has finally found some peace away from all of that noise, and is treating herself well.