Meet Mitch McCabe, a filmmaker who dives deep into the allure of the anti-aging industry in Youth Knows No Pain. She attempts to answer the question: why are we so obsessed with turning back the clock?
The confessional-style documentary, which premiered on HBO last night (schedule of upcoming screenings can be found here) follows McCabe (who narrates the film) n her quest to uncover why so many people will subject themselves to injections, surgeries, and peels to regain the appearance of youth. It is a siren song that McCabe is well aware of: At the age of 38, she reveals she has been scrutinizing her body ever since she came across her father's slides from his plastic surgery practice.
Refreshingly free of moralizing, McCabe establishes early on that she, too, struggles with the idea of aging. Setting a precedent for the rest of the film, she begins by analyzing how much money she dedicates to the pursuit of youth:
I found it amazing to watch her dollar costs unfold. McCabe, a smart woman who acknowledges up front that she is not making a wise decision, still cops to being close to $70,000 in debt, makes about $30,000 a year as a temp, yet finds $200 every six weeks to keep her gray hairs at bay.
As the viewer is reeling from the cost, McCabe says, "I may drop my health care coverage, but I'd never stop covering my gray. It may be insane, but it's the truth."
And...it is. Covering gray isn't something I am currently dealing with (and I think a silver afro would be kind of fierce), but I could completely relate to making bad financial decisions in the pursuit of beauty or fashion. How much money have I given to Zappos that could really be earning interest in my Roth IRA? Yet and still, I find myself trading long term financial security for a series of short term beauty boosts.
Looking specifically at the dollars and cents of it all, I am reminded of a series called the Cost of Beauty. PHDork examines the price women pay in pursuit of prettiness, noting:
[W]e can fairly surmise that the majority of harpies–70%–spend between $101 and $1000 per annum on beauty costs. Those numbers fit with both the mean and the median.
As to what sucks up all of those HarpyBuxx (they're not just good for abortions anymore!): our lovely, lovely tresses: 43% of expenditures go towards hair cuts, coloring, or other services. Make-up takes up another 29%. The rest:
Hair removal: 8%
Other products: 7%
Appliances: 2% [...]
A number of you expressed surprise at your spending, comparing it to X months of rent or groceries. It does add up: what else you might spend $613, or even nearly $800 a year on?
What else indeed? Most of us will never know. We're too hooked on beauty pimps and their products.
One person, who comes to illustrate how far people will go in their quest to find the surgical fountain of youth is Sherry Mecom from Texas.
(Is it just me, or does Sherry sound a lot like Ruby from the Style network?)
Sherry seems determined to use money to correct the past. She was once overweight until she had gastric bypass; she continually works on her body; and she is obsessed with the waterfalls and LG dishwashers she procures for her home. She alludes to a poor upbringing and being unhappy, but it feels like she is unsatisfied. Instead, she plans the next big purchase in her quest for a total life upgrade.
In the course of her travels, McCabe meets another daughter of a plastic surgeon - Erica Rose. However, the things that Erica has internalized about self-improvement differ dramatically from Mitch's low key messages from her father:
The quest for perfection is punishing, and not just for women. Youth Knows No Pain also reaches out to men in pursuit of camouflaging their ages. Men have their own hang ups, that just manifest differently and at an older age. The focus is more on hair transplants, face lifts, and lipo, less about botox and wrinkle creams. In an interview with New York Magazine, McCabe discusses some of the more obvious gender differences:
The women in the film were self-critical, and it was the men who were judgmental of others. What other gender differences did you notice?
We asked women why they were scared of aging, and everyone said, "Being alone. Being alone." You never heard that from men. Society is changing so much, and it's becoming more competitive and we have to stay in the workplace longer. Aging is affecting men in different ways, especially if they're in sales or something. When it comes to aging, men are concerned about being destitute, or in a nursing home. And being alone, but more in the sense of not having someone to take care of them.
However, it is interesting to note that the men seem more invested in critiquing the looks of others. While the women show a lot of competitiveness over beauty and aging (there's a great scene where McCabe asks the doctor if she has less wrinkles than one of his other, slightly obnoxious clients (cough, Mary Rambin, cough), and then cheers when he agrees), the men see no problem with informing women exactly what is wrong with them. Gary Baldassarre, one of the patients profiled, is documenting his own journey to regain his hair through a really graphic hair transplant operation. Yet, he sees no issue armchair analyzing women on television:
Another man, Norman Deesing, is an interview subject because he paid more than $50,000 to essentially look like Jack Nicholson. However, he has no qualms about turning to McCabe at some point during filming and pointing out to her that she's "let herself go [...] from the neck up." Admirably, McCabe brushes off the comment.
After the first hour of the documentary, the focus shifts a little from exploring what is happening to exploring why we seek these remedies. Who wants to go to a Botox party, being injected by a dentist who carries around the toxin in a cooler? Why do we pay so much money to distort our faces? Part of the answer lies in our need to conform to what society says is appropriate:
While most of our issues may stem from low self-esteem, "internet celebrity" Julia Allison's offhanded comment about "having an expiration date" struck hard. While she doesn't seem inclined at all to fight this idea of disposable women, it accurately summarizes the feelings of a lot of women in the documentary. They want to stay young in order to be relevant, to be seen as beautiful, to have access to society. It is this fear of obsolescence that drives the industry, which goes hand in hand with a fear of mortality. Some women, like How Not To Look Old author Charla Krupp, have acknowledged their enemy and have committed to fight literally to the death:
I laughed when I heard Dolly Parton unabashedly admit she was going to "get nipped and tucked until [she] is in a pine box," but for some reason, every time I watch this clip of Krupp, chills run up my spine. Are we really moving toward an era when it will be unacceptable to show any signs of aging?
And what happens when the potions and creams and procedures stop working?
Near the end of the documentary, McCabe sits down with Sherry. It has been three years since they first met, and Sherry went through a rough year. Sherry often uses plastic surgery as a mood boost, and after a bout with depression is actively planning her next procedures. McCabe switches between the first and third meeting to provide some insight into Sherry's development, while Sherry openly discloses her fears about not having the money to keep up the fight against time:
Youth Knows No Pain was engrossing, depressing, and thought-provoking, made even more poignant by the candid self-examination of its creator. After chronicling her memories of her father and her longtime fascination with mortality, she ends the film with an astonishing admission: after all that she's seen during filming the documentary, McCabe decided to take the plunge and start on injectables like Botox herself.
"What about spirituality? Inner peace?...Well, that didn't work." After struggling to make sense of why women subject themselves to beauty treatments instead of aging gracefully, she succumbs to the promises of younger looking skin and a small chance at cheating time.
McCabe's documentary ends with her undergoing different bizarre treatments. Watching her take a needle through the mouth in order to puff up some flesh in her cheek, I kept coming back to her opening admission: It may be insane, but it's the truth.
Youth Knows No Pain [HBO]
Youth Knows No Pain - Full Schedule [HBO]
The Cost Of Beauty, Part 1: The Research [The Pursuit of Harpyness]
The Cost Of Beauty, Part 2: The Numbers [The Pursuit of Harpyness]
The Cost of Beauty, Part 3: The Alternatives [The Pursuit of Harpyness]
Youth Knows No Pain Examines Anti-Aging Industry [New York]