Nancy Pelosi, plastic surgery and the expression of emotion in politics
In recent weeks, there’s been a flurry of speculation about whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 71, has had plastic surgery. But unless she has some previously undocumented condition in which one’s face gets tighter with age, the answer is obvious, plastic surgeons say.
That should surprise no one, says Samantha von Sperling, a New-York-based political image consultant: No one talks about it, but everyone does it.
“Almost everyone who is over the age of 30 who is on camera all the time … has had work done, even if it’s just a monthly chemical peel,” says Ms. Sperling. “If you want to stay competitive in the televised arena of politics, you are spending serious money on your dermatologist, aesthetician, dentist, makeup artist and maybe surgeon.”
But in their rush to look forever young, some politicians may be neglecting another, more important demand of the video age: the ability to express emotion convincingly.
After a hurricane, a president must immediately fly to the disaster area and frown with concern at flattened houses. Been accused of sexual misconduct? Look aghast (eyebrows raised in surprise, nose wrinkled with disgust) and, if that doesn’t work, try contrition (downcast gaze, inner eyebrows lifted).
Politicians, take heed: The face is integral to the expression of human emotion, and cosmetic modifications to the face - whether surgical or pharmaceutical - risk seriously limiting expressive range.
Among the leading threats is Botox, which is commonly used to erase forehead creases, says Paul Ekman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School.
“The problem with Botox is that it makes you less expressive,” says Mr. Ekman, the nation’s foremost authority on the facial expression of emotion. “It may get rid of some wrinkles and it may make you look a little younger, but you are going to be less attractive to voters. … We don’t like people whose faces don’t move.”
Voters may read immobility in the face as impassivity, explains Jack Glaser, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “If someone’s face is so swollen with Botox that they can’t raise their eyebrows when someone says something surprising, or they don’t appear to be able to smile comfortably, that could make them appear unfeeling,” he says.
Few would accuse Vice President Joseph R. Biden of being inexpressive, but during his 2008 debate against Sarah Palin, he did appear to have a case of Botox brow, Dr. Youn says. His immobile inner eyebrow and tendency to raise his outer brow when excited created a devilish expression.
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It’s no secret in Washington that many politicians look a bit more “refreshed” (the latest buzzword for plastic surgery) these days. But of course no one wants to talk about it. One of the most visible members of Congress the glamorous grandma Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is turning 69 today, yet everybody is still whispering about her dewy eyes and seamless features.
“If some politician had a bad job and suddenly looks better, I’m probably the guy who did it,” says Dr. Unger. Joe Biden? “You’ll have to ask Mr. Biden,” he responds crisply.
In the gossipy world of political plastics, there’s Joe Biden’s hair and smooth cheeks, Hillary’s firm jawline, and Arnold’s granite-like brow all subject to “refreshed” speculation. No pol wants an “Oh, my God, do I look like that?” moment, especially not in the glare of high-def TV, never mind the onslaught of new, young administration types. Bob and Elizabeth Dole had major lifts several years ago he began sprucing up when he made those Viagra ads. (The president and Michelle are too young to go under the knife, but that didn’t stop several leading surgeons from telling me they’d love to pin back his ears!)
When I called to discuss all of this with a number of top doctors, I got the same reaction as when I did a story for the New York Times magazine on psychiatry in Washington in the ’80s. The scalpel was taboo. It remains deep in the closet. And while all were willing to talk about various procedures, they stressed confidentiality and froze when asked to name names or go on the record. What to make of Nancy’s look? Classic anonymous response: “She’s so cosmetically surgeon-ed, I wish she didn’t look so good. It would be more natural,” sniffs one well-known D.C. practitioner.
But D.C. cosmetic surgeon Barry J. Cohen ventured where no other M.D. would: “I would guess she had a neck lift some time ago, although is certainly ready for another,” he wrote to me by email. “It would appear that she had the fat removed from around her eyes, but has a substantial amount of excess skin on the lower lids. She has not a line on her forehead, likely indicating a date with a vial of Botox, yet has remaining lines at her crow's feet (it wore off or was untreated). Her nasolabial folds could benefit from a filler, to soften her creases, and she would likely benefit from a peel or laser abrasion…She has her share of lines and wrinkles. Likely from all the time spent at high altitudes in her (our) private jet.”
One reason politicians are so much quieter about their work than the Hollywood set is that nobody wants to be considered vain or frivolous, especially during a period of angst. And all are fearful of ridicule or, worse, antagonizing voters back home. “Politicians are very secretive about their procedures,” says Washington’s Dr. Ronald Perlman, who has pictures on his wall of Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Rosalynn Carter, and Donald Trump although he vehemently denies ever working on any of them. “They know they need to keep up, and people remember how they look, not what they say.”
Eyelid lifts, which brighten the face and require little downtime, are his most popular surgeries. Dr. Perlman, like many other anti-aging practitioners, accommodates patients by working before- and after-hours, weekends, holidays, and during recesses and vacation breaks. Some clear their offices when security necessitates. For high-profile figures seeking total confidentiality, almost all will make house calls to remove sutures or check a lift.
A number of congresswomen and men surreptitiously opt for what dermatologist Dr. Tina West calls “a facelift in a syringe,” a lunchtime office procedure involving a variety of fillers to provide soft contours and plump up sagging, hollow cheeks. “Fillers are the key to looking younger,” she observes.
They’re ideal for politicians because they are low maintenance, can be done without a trace, and eliminate any bruising or recuperation time involved in drastic surgery. Quick-fix fillers like Restylane, Juvéderm, and Botox have also gone mainstream. “I’ll bet they have Botox parties on the floor of the US Senate in the evenings,” says Dr. Cohen. Mini facelifts or incremental tucks are also in vogue because they are relatively unnoticeable if done on a consistent basis over the years.