Politics & Policy

Botox Nation

Meet the man and woman behind America's number-one non-surgical cosmetic procedure.

I met “Ma and Pa Botox” last week. They are Canadian ophthalmologist Jean Carruthers and her husband, British-born dermatologist Alastair. They were in New York to present a paper on the safety of Botox for cosmetic use at the big skin game in town: the summer meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Drs. Jean and Alistair are the couple who say they figured out the beautifying potential of Botox, the trade name for the Botulinum Toxin Type A. That’s the toxin secreted by the bacteria that causes botulism, the deadly paralytic illness. Injecting Botox in teeny, tiny doses to smooth wrinkles and unfurrow brows became the number-one non-surgical cosmetic procedure in the United States in 2003.

That’s quite different from the use for which the substance was originally developed in 1946 by Dr. Edward Schantz, a young Army officer stationed at Fort Deitrich in Maryland. It was intended for biological warfare. At one point the U.S. Office of Strategic Services even planned to arm Chinese prostitutes with botulism capsules to off high-ranking Japanese officers partaking of their services.

Now Botox is used therapeutically for more than 20 different disorders, from cerebral palsy to excessive sweating. The first medical use for Botox was on patients with uncontrollable facial spasms and eye twitches. That’s where Dr. Carruthers, the ophthalmologist, comes in. In 1987, one of her patients requested ongoing treatments with the drug even after the twitching stopped because the shots smoothed away the wrinkle between her eyes. “She would have this relaxed, untroubled expression,” Dr. Jean recalls, remembering what led to her “aha” moment. “Needless to say, I was eager to share this interesting cosmetic result with my husband.”

“Yes, you can say it was over pillow talk that one of the world’s most popular drugs was discovered,” remembers Dr. Alistair. Dr. Jean had the drug and Dr. Alistair had the patients on whom he could try it. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t Archimedes leaping out of his bath, but try to tell Teresa Heinz Kerry it wasn’t pretty important.

As a matter of fact, I couldn’t resist asking the doctors–who are probably the world’s leading experts on who is and who isn’t using–whether John Kerry’s somewhat smoothed visage six months back could have been the result of some serious Botox treatments. Remember in January how he seemed to change almost overnight from a wrinkled old man to an old smoothie? Personally, I didn’t think Botox could work its magic so quickly, especially on wrinkles that deeply embedded. And lately Kerry seems to have done a typical about-face; in his new role as resolute old soldier, he’s been once again looking almost as worn as his shipmates, who probably couldn’t afford Botox.

Now, Drs. Jean and Alistair are far too smooth to give opinions about the dermatological dalliances of presidential candidates, but they assured me that Botox could indeed make one look that much better that quickly.

But then, they seem to see no end to the wonders of Botox in making people not only look better but feel better too. “It’s quick! It’s effective! It can be done over lunch hour! And not only does it make people look unstressed but it seems to de-stress them as well. I have had patients tell me that after a treatment they feel as if a knot of tension has been smoothed from the brow,” Dr. Alistair commented in his mellifluous tones.

When I mentioned that I thought it was the baby boomers’ desire to stay forever young and their endless vanity that was surely fueling the Botox boom, Dr. Jean frowned, but just a little. “Vanity?” she said. “Vanity? I think that is a pejorative word for people who are trying to be the best they can be. There are many studies that show that people who care for their appearance have less cardiovascular disease, are healthier, happier….”

And her husband chimed in: “We have had patients who’ve done better in their jobs because of Botox. A nursery-school teacher who always looked like she was frowning…she frightened the children. When the wrinkle between her eyes was smoothed, the children were much happier…”

But hey, would it have been so bad for those kindergarteners to learn the awful truth that people do get wrinkles when they get older and that even nice people don’t always have smooth and smiley faces?

And, if you must know the real skinny, the effects of Botox last only three or four months, and treatments can cost up to a $1,000 a session–in other words it’s a big financial commitment. Do the doctors therefore envision a world in which the well-to-do will keep their wrinkles at bay while others won’t be able to? Sort of like the two Americas John Edwards is always talking about: One group is worried and looks it; the other, even when their taxes are raised, appears to be worry-free.

At that point, the doctors’ public-relations woman suggested it was time to end our interview. They had to go on to a celebratory cocktail party.

Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I have to admit I have been shot up with Botox a couple of times, and I know a lot of people who have had the same treatment. Personally, I never thought it did that much for them, or for me. But then, there are those who know me well who say that even a weapon of mass destruction would have trouble stopping me from making some of my more typical expressions–like frowning, snarling, and sneering!

Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.

Myrna BlythMyrna Blyth is senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media. She is the former editor-in-chief and publishing director of Ladies’ Home Journal. She was the founding editor and ...


The Latest