German Women and Botox

Melissa Knox tells how German women take an alternative approach to aging, at least for now...

The beauty of the internet is stumbling across ex-school mates in far-flung lands; this story from Essen, Germany appears before you thanks to a mutual Alma Mater, the Brearley School, in New York City.  Now let's face it, Americans tend to be a chauvinistic, so we've probably simply assumed that German women would have the same desires to erase evidence of the past as so many of us do.  But Melissa Knox begs to differ...

For the past fifteen years I’ve been living in Germany with my German husband and German-American children.  The German sense of order, the need to follow the rules, and the tendency to avoid change, especially when results cannot be predicted, has often made me impatient.  I gravitate toward the inspired optimism of American women:  “Why not?  Try it! Yes, you can!”  Many things can indeed be fixed with a little elbow grease and a dose of American pragmatism.  When I got pregnant at 45 and told my German gynecologist—who was in her early forties—that I’d try for one more pregnancy if this one worked out, she was shocked.  I told her most of my American friends had late babies—that when one, at 38, told her gynecologist she was afraid of the effect her age would have on the fetus, the doctor waved her hand:  “Ah, you’re my youngest patient.”

My German doctor openly aired her disapproval:  “We do have a different attitude toward age here.”

But when it comes to Botox, I appreciate German caution.  

Turning 56, I notice that I’m starting to look like a bulldog.  The jowls.  The menopausal glare.  The dewlap that rivals that of those Florida lizards who pop their bright red ones out, startling persons sitting around the edges of swimming pools.  

Just as I’m noticing my skin sagging, an American classmate sends me a photo and I think “Gee, she looks 32!”  I write and tell her that.  And she tells me her secret.

It’s Botox.  She joined the ranks of Kim Catrall, Kim Kardashian, Linda Evangelista, Jennifer Aniston, Simon Cowell (who says it's "like toothpaste") Courtney Cox, Anna Quindlen and . . . most folks.  You do need a disposable, or discretionary, or somewhat surplus, income.  My friend is bubbling over with enthusiasm.  Says all her friends used Botox too:  only $800 every three months.  

Between you, me, and the fencepost I don't have an income.  I have an outgo. 

How well I remember, in the days before Botox, my mother's facelift.  She was a few years younger than I am now, and booked herself a room in a little hospital somewhere on the Upper East Side where, by the time I was allowed to visit half a day after the operation, the machine that was supposed to suction gook out from under her facial skin had malfunctioned, pumping it back in.  That had apparently been sorted out by the time I arrived, but she looked even purpler and greener and yellower and but-I-made-the-other-gal-look-worser than I had expected.  She had, of course, been strongly advised to remain in bed.  She vaulted out of it while chatting with me, swung a suitcase out from under her bed, and began packing for a lakeside vacation, not wanting what was left of her face "to scare the doormen" in our apartment building.

What about me?  Please get back in bed, Mom.

She kept packing.  And she had a lovely vacation, and the skin around her chin looked the way it might have looked with Botox today . . . this was back in the late seventies . . . and if you looked very closely you could see faint white scars up around her ears.

There's no stopping her.  At 89, she didn't like her neck.  Move over, Ghost of Nora Ephron.  Mom had a neck lift done, and should get a Nobel prize for being the oldest recipient of plastic surgery except, oh, yeah, Phyllis Diller once upon a time.

I'm sticking with cucumber slices, ballet class, and horizontal gymnastics.  Happy Birthday to me. 

But I wondered why I hadn’t heard from my German friends about Botox, if everyone was using.  I called a mother of two who has a Ph.D. in Chemistry and asked what she thought of the stuff.  A pregnant silence ensued.  Then,

“But it’s a poison!”  Then she turned to her husband, “Schatzie, Weisst du . .   .”   She was asking if the stuff were available.

“Of course not!”  He’s also a Ph.D in Chemistry.  “You must have a prescription.  But why would you want to do this?”  He sounded genuinely concerned, prepared to talk me out of it.

I reassured them that I merely wanted to inform myself.  

A German doctor who does offer Botox treatments cracked, “it saves a few marriages, because when a betrayed wife looks in the mirror to find that her Botoxed lips look happy, then she feels attractive enough to smile at her husband.” 

Smiling at your husband costs nothing and can lead to good things, I have found.  The local dermatologist offers Botox, however, so somebody in the neighborhood must be using it.  Still toying with the idea, I read a few statistics, finding that a 2011 survey of 992 German women concluded that 70% would never consider Botox use. 

Then I consulted Dr. Beate Maul, a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine at Knappschaft Hospital in Essen, Germany, whose herbal concoctions smoothed my way through menopause.  She began by observing “Everything that lives, moves”—the closer to stasis an organism gets, the nearer it is to death.  Stiffening the nerves of the face with a poison like Botox, being “injected with youth” is a dangerous treatment whose negative side effects will probably not be known for decades, since Botox is a relatively new treatment.    In Germany as well as in the U.S., Botox is used to treat chronic migraines as well as “tension headaches” as well, the theory being that it relaxes muscular tension.  But, Dr. Maul observes, it “makes no sense to paralyze the body’s warning system, that is, the pain, instead of treating it.”  Besides, she remarked, “When you get a Tetanus vaccination, you protect yourself from a bacteria, Clostridium tetani, which produces the botulinum toxin, a strong nerve toxin.  When you get a Botox treatment, you voluntarily invite under your skin a nerve toxin from the same group of dangerous bacteria—the Clostridium group. 

Scary.  Even scarier when you realize that Botox treatments, while expensive, tend to be cheaper than they are in the States:

The majority of educated German women still prefer non-medical interventions for menopause and wrinkles, investing in acupuncture, Chinese medicine and homeopathic remedies rather than hormones, surgery and Botox.  But that picture may be changing.  It’s still the case that “America sneezes and the rest of the world catches a cold.”  Germans are attracted by American optimism—98% of Germans would have voted for Barack Obama if they could.  A German friend gloated that at an election night party for a big television station, ZDF, the Obama buttons sold out within an hour, and nobody bought the Romney buttons.  It’s this longing for optimism and the possibility of a quick fix that seems to be rendering “Botox madness” as Dr. Maul remarks, increasingly more popular among German women. 







Melissa Knox teaches American literature in Germany and writes a blog, "The Critical Mom"