Several years ago, when I was a New York naïf, I noticed that my brunch companion’s face wasn’t budging as I imparted details of an egregious romantic encounter. Her laughter didn’t reach her eyes; the familiar furrow of sympathy was missing from her forehead. I asked her, with jovial incredulity, “What, did you get Botox?” “Yes,” she replied, her expression placid but her voice murderous. Emily Post was surely turning decorously in her grave.
Changing medical and aesthetic sensibilities have added new wrinkles to the art of polite comportment. No matter how easily the dialogue of physical admiration trips off our tongues—“Have you been working out?” “Your butt looks amazing in those jeans!”—we’re often paralyzed when it comes to commenting on surgical or chemical alterations.
Good work deserves praise, and those who invest in the best doctors and most advanced procedures crave recognition. But surgery retains the stain of self-loathing more nakedly than the rest of our waxing and plucking rituals. Divining who wants to be noticed and who wants to pass invisible through the reddened and inflamed stage of microdermabrasion is a knotty proposition. The easiest distinction falls along gender lines: Never mention a man’s enhancements. Men are the creatures who created a market for Grecian Formula, a product that colors graying locks gradually, to avoid detection. If he’s proud of his calf implants or taut eyelids, he’ll want you to think they’re nature’s work.
Women long ago embraced the surprise value of a newly tinted mane. I have one friend who has been moaning since college about getting a breast reduction; another fantasizes about sucking the fat from beneath her chin. Money is the only obstacle. When one day they appear with shrunken rack and fat-free wattle, I’ll know just what to say: “Yay!”
But usually it’s best to approach the subject on cat’s paws. In the case of some of the lesser procedures, a specific compliment may serve as a conversational sally. “Your skin looks beautiful,” you can tell someone who has clearly just had an encounter with a syringe full of botulinum toxin. Chances are, she’ll confess. If she just smiles, tell her you’ve been considering burning off a layer of skin to achieve the same effect that she gets “naturally.”
The admission of your own surgical desires may also be a useful tactic when talking with that tribe of women among whom this sort of thing is de rigueur. Their cosmetic maintenance reflects their ability to defy the mortal ravages of time, rather than dissatisfaction with what they have. Questions like “Have you lost weight?” or “Is that a new haircut?” serve as code for “Who did your eyes?” But be warned: Comparing notes is only kosher if you are an insider.
If skin refurbishment is truly well done, it shouldn’t be obvious. But how to address more invasive procedures? This is where a covenant of politesse comes into play. It is always up to the patient to break the news, no matter how agonizingly clear it is that she has a new schnoz or breasts. She has fought a fearsome battle with her own body. To comment on it is to acknowledge that her insecurities are transparent.
The same goes for the horrifying examples of surgery gone awry: We must keep a lid on it and try not to stare. If she confesses that she’s unhappy about her appearance, tell her it’s not as bad as she thinks. Assure her that she’s beautiful as is, and doesn’t need any more work.
One of the only times it’s safe to ask a friend if she’s gone under the knife is when you are absolutely sure she hasn’t. Try “You look ten years younger! Have you had something done?” It will bring a glow of pleasure to the cheeks, a rosy tint to the lips. It may even provide better results than surgery itself.