Leg Waxing And Life Everlasting

My mother did not exfoliate. In her medicine cabinet she had a big white jar of Pond's cold cream and a big blue jar of Noxzema. That's as much care and feeding as her face ever got. As for my grandmothers, the one with skin like tissue paper and the one with skin like saddle leather: I imagine soap and water did the job.

How surprised those women would be to discover the amount of maintenance the human face requires today. Exfoliation, antioxidizing, moisturizing, revitalizing and toning. Retinol, alphahydroxy acids, plant estrogens and herbal peels. This is why the cosmetics business had sales of almost $7 billion last year, because a sizable number of us, in tending our bodies, have lost our minds.

Simple self-reliance has given way to a team approach: stylists, colorists, trainers, facialists, waxers. ("The most famous waxer in New York," boasts Leah, one of the army of Russian immigrant women who ply the beauty trade in Manhattan, as though she were Rembrandt and a hairy calf her canvas.) In two decades I went from a person who got by with a bar of Ivory and a bottle of Pert Plus to someone who has accumulated mousse, gel, pomade, volumizers, buffers, bronzers and polishers. The shower looks like a salad bar: banana and papaya conditioners, mint and basil shampoos. In the New York metropolitan area alone there are 4,000 Korean nail parlors, which offer silk wraps, acrylic wraps, nail tips, manicures and pedicures. My friend Joan says that her mother has never had a pedicure, because she does not want another human being sitting at her feet. This is obviously not a widespread sentiment.

It's popular to insist that all this is the purview of a spoiled bourgeoisie, Joan Rivers by way of Ivana Trump. But there is as much navel-gazing on QVC as in Neiman Marcus or at Canyon Ranch. Nighttime-soaps actress Victoria Principal says brightly in a cable infomercial promoting her namesake line of skin-care products, "It's science's answer to the Fountain of Youth." Worth noting: Ponce de Leon himself found only Florida.

Every cheesy commercial is for a miracle enzyme that eats fat or a paste that removes troublesome facial hair; every cable network has a woman leading others like her in the dance of cardio fitness meant to mimic actual activity. (Or, as the farmer in Pennsylvania once said when he saw me power-walking, "You wouldn't have to bother with that if you'd do a day's work.") There is not only exercise; there is a professional class of people to assist in exercise, to correct the form, to count the reps, to adjust the weight. Cross-training shoes, yoga pants, pulse monitors. Pecs, delts, glutes. The world is full of amateur anatomists studying their own musculature, and products that didn't even exist 10 years ago.

Perhaps this is a function of hyperannuated vanity, the feeling that the face is infinitely more desirable and important than anything lurking in the mind behind it. Perhaps Americans have become self- obsessive, unable to see past their own gleaming white incisors and painted toes. Hair plugs, Botox, collagen, dermabrasion: perhaps what all this really reflects is a fear of death. (Think about that the next time you're having your hair highlighted.) Taken together, the rise of the funeral parlor, the invention of the StairMaster and the ascendancy of the low-fat diet have had this pernicious effect: the subconscious belief that we will live forever.

Mortality was once a more integral part of everyday life than hair-care products, and a more natural one, too. Young people and old ones, the suddenly ill and the chronically infirm, died in their beds at home and were laid out in the parlor, carried to the church and buried in the churchyard by the people who loved them. In most towns and neighborhoods there was one very old woman who lived into her 90s, outlived her children and their children, too. Death was a commonplace part of life.

But many childhood diseases have been cured, thank God. Life expectancy stretches into the 70s, and a significant number of Americans are now over the age of 90. Mortality no longer dwells among us. People who become ill are whisked away to hospitals to die out of sight, and people who die are whisked away to funeral homes, to be reincarnated briefly as waxen overdressed versions of themselves. Death seems, not part of life, but a brief interruption stage-managed by strangers in suits, so that it scarcely seems real at all. As Jessica Mitford described it in her classic accusation of a book, "The American Way of Death," the end of life has become a "grotesque cloud-cuckoo-land where the trappings of Gracious Living are transformed, as in a nightmare, into the trappings of Gracious Dying." It would be little wonder if there was a creeping belief that such an anemic process--all appearance, no reality--could be forestalled indefinitely by light weights and high fiber.

The youth produced by scalpel and laser is of a particularly arid sort, as much like the bloom of the real thing as the decor of those funeral homes is like a real live living room. But if the abs are tight, the eyes unlined, the hands unspotted, the hairline intact, if 55 is the new 40, then can't the inevitable be, if not avoided, at least indefinitely deferred? The answer is, of course, no. As Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was said to have told a friend when she became ill, "Why in the world did I do all those push-ups?"

Nonetheless, the greatest growth industry in this country is the one dedicated to the mirage of good grooming as the road to immortality. Immigrants past built bridges and schools, gilded the cherubim in the corners of churches. Today an entire immigrant class makes a living painting toenails and opening pores. Advances in science and medicine have combined to offer this: the tattooing of permanent eyeliner, the bleaching of teeth, the lasering of sun spots. The waning days of a great nation can be charted only in hindsight. But surely it is a danger sign of some sort when a country is no longer able to care for its own cuticles.