Psychologists and anthropologists have long tried to nail down what makes us perceive one face as beautiful and another not. There are theories about the math of it, the “Golden Ratio”—how, if you take careful measurements of the lines and triangles formed by a beautiful face, they will add up to the same proportions first noted by the Greeks to be aesthetically pleasing. More recently, a scientist named Michael Cunningham took it upon himself to study the faces of 50 women, half of whom were finalists in an international beauty pageant. In “Measuring the Physical in Physical Attractiveness” (italics mine), he wrote that the width of an eye, if it is to be part of a beautiful face, should be precisely three-tenths the width of the face, and the chin ought to be just one-fifth the height of the face, while the total area of the nose had better be less than 5 percent of the total area of the face or … you is ugly!
In the end, the science of beauty seems to point to a few general parameters: We tend to like large eyes, high cheekbones, a small nose, a large smile, and a small chin. What the scientific literature doesn’t mention is that we like it all to be as young as possible. This wasn’t always the case. The Gibson Girl ideal of the early twentieth century, writes Daniel Delis Hill in Advertising to the American Woman, had the features of a mature, fully formed woman: “heavy lidded eyes accented with thick lashes; fine, high eyebrows, pronounced cheekbones and firm jawlines.” In the forties and fifties, the most successful models of the day—Dovima, Lisa Fonssagrives, Suzy Parker—were elegant, haughty, aristocratic, especially when photographed by Irving Penn or Richard Avedon. The sixties and seventies brought a sea change that created a younger beauty ideal, but the aesthetic was more casual than adolescent.
But in the last ten years, perhaps with the coming of Britney Spears, the age of the ideal has dropped precipitously. Now both fashion and celebrity magazines are filled with images of teenagers—whether they’re Eastern European models or tanned California reality stars. Their faces are plump and dewy and flushed with youth. As thin as their bodies are, they still haven’t entirely shed the baby fat in their faces. This, it seems, is what women in their forties and fifties are now after: baby fat.
It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when or how a new aesthetic is born, but it seems clear that once we became obsessed with the baby face of the teenage girl, the world of dermatology came up with more and better ways for us to achieve the plumpness of youth. We’ve moved way beyond simply injecting bovine collagen into our lips. Today there’s a dizzying nanotechnological world of hyaluronic acid and collagen fillers—Zyplast, Cosmoderm, Perlane, Juvéderm, Evolence, Sculptra—each with a different “bead” size targeted to fill every wrinkle on the face (microscopic for the lines around the eyes, heavier gauge for a cheek or nasolabial fold). With these tools, a woman can dramatically alter her face without going anywhere near a surgeon’s office. All that’s required are twice-a-year injection appointments with a cosmetic dermatologist. And then, when a friend comments on her appearance, she’ll respond, without guile, “Plastic surgery? Me? Heavens, no!”
Time is not kind to a face. In Dr. David Rosenberg’s consultation room, a high-tech mini-theater dominated by a big recliner that looks like a seat in first class, we are scrolling through women’s faces on a flat-screen TV. “Here’s another one,” he says, as he manipulates the screen from his laptop. She’s a very attractive woman, 54 years old. “What she’s developing is descent,” he says. “The jowls have made the jawline more square. A little bit of hooding on the upper lids.” Descent. Falling. Your face is falling. The sky might as well be falling. “We all have our pretty days, and some people are more beautiful than others,” says Rosenberg. “But we all age the same way. Our necks get loose, and our eyes get tired.”
Rosenberg is a fit, compact, and stylish 41-year-old with a sweet, almost feminine nature. He has three children with his wife, Jessica Lattman, who is also a plastic surgeon. And hilariously enough, he has a crooked beak—he needs a nose job!
Today alone, starting twelve hours earlier, Rosenberg met with 50 people in this room, showing them pictures of themselves as they are and as they could be. He is the beneficiary of a whisper campaign among a certain New York–Euro society-fashion crowd for his subtle face-lifts and coveted nose jobs. (He did three times as many nose jobs this year than last.) The fashion magazines have been writing about him. In fact, just a few days after I met him, I had dinner with a good friend who is the publisher of one of those magazines. When I told her I was working on a piece about plastic surgery, she leaned in and whispered, “You must talk to David Rosenberg.” Then my friend, who will turn 60 next spring, confessed that she had just plunked down a $4,000 deposit and will be going under Rosenberg’s knife for a face-lift later this year. All told, it will cost her $30,000, including recovery in a fancy hotel and a private nurse attending to her every need.