Putting My Best Face Forward

April 14, 2008

"Needle," the doctor said, warning me just as he slid the sharp point beneath my skin. He pushed the plunger. "Medicine."

I wanted to bolt, to jump out of the chair and run out of his office. My heart pounded and my breath came in short bursts as the panic heightened.

What was I doing?

I asked myself that question over and over as he leaned over me with an ice pack and smiled. I wasn't sick -- not physically, anyway. Mentally, though, I felt like I had completely taken leave of my senses.

"What would you do to get this job?" No one had asked me that question. No one but me, and I knew the answer: anything ethical. I had been trying, and failing, for years to land a tenure-track position in English. I'd had a few interviews over the years, but I knew I had been typecast as an adjunct.

In fact, during my last interview, the vice president at a small college in New England where I had been a finalist had asked: "What makes you think you'd be a good full-time colleague after working part time all those years?" My answer -- that relying on years of part-time teaching to support myself and my family had already proved how hard I was willing to work -- had gained me no traction.

And in the meantime I was getting older. I found myself a "home" as an adjunct at a college on the West Coast. Twice over several years, full-time positions in my department opened up. I applied both times but never even made it to the shortlist.

The administration's hiring choices suggested that it preferred candidates under 40. Administrators seemed to believe that men and women under 40 were better teachers: more creative, more energetic, more attractive. And attractiveness counts among students. Attractive instructors are popular instructors. Popular instructors fill classes. More students mean more revenue.

When a third position opened, I decided to apply one last time. If I was ignored again, I planned to quit. But I had a small hope because the college had a new administration, one that had made no comments about age.

I spent a month preparing my application packet. I had friends read versions of my cover letter, and I diligently incorporated their advice. I met with a colleague and picked her brain for two hours about how to format my application, what information and supplemental materials to include, and what to leave out. I carefully selected what color and weight paper to use. I worked as hard on the packet as on a book proposal.

I turned it in. A few weeks later, I got an e-mail message from the search committee. I had made the first cut.

Now the nervousness set in. I wrote up my answers to the supplementary questions the committee sent out. I turned my answers in on a Friday. The following Tuesday, I got a telephone call: The committee wanted to interview me the next week.

"I feel like I'm on a reality-TV show," I told friends. "I'm still on the island, and I'm waiting to see if I'm going to be voted off."

The next day after class, I sat in the adjunct office staring at an ad in the "Lifestyles" section of my local newspaper for Botox and Restylane. I picked up the phone and made an appointment at the doctor's office for that Friday.

"The interview is next Wednesday," I told the doctor when I arrived. "What can you do?"

He explained how Botox and dermal fillers work. I didn't even ask how much the procedure would cost. Part of me thought that if I knew the price, I would back out. Instead, when he asked if I wanted him to get started, I just said yes. I couldn't help but notice that his face was smooth and pink and unlined, though his hands were studded with age spots.

I am not a vain person. I am not in search of an endless fountain of youth. I have spent my middle years feeling slightly sorry for people who have felt the need to have their skin stretched tight as drumheads. I thought anyone who would voluntarily have botulinum toxin injected into herself or himself was a nincompoop. I also thought it was a waste of money; years of living as an adjunct have inscribed on me a Depression-era mentality that impels me to drive a 20-year-old car, buy my clothes at thrift shops, and scrounge up basic household goods at the local Dollar Store.

"Most people would just buy a suit," I told myself as I fought back tears at each stab of the needle. Instead, I bought into the former administration's idea that I had to look young. Every injection betrayed my belief that aging is normal, that it should be worn with pride, that women should not turn themselves into time-frozen fantasy objects while men garner value with age -- or so I had thought, until I later discovered that many more men than women have cosmetic "work" done to help them in their search for new positions.

In fact, a 2002 article in The Wall Street Journal, "Why Appearance Matters in a Post-50 Job Search," said, "Career coaches acknowledge that looking younger -- or looking less old -- can shorten a job search if you go about it in a sensible way and have realistic expectations." The article quoted statistics that showed 30 percent of men and 14 percent of women "who had cosmetic surgery in 2001 say the decision was work-related." The percentages are holding steady at that rate.

As I tried not to squirm in the doctor's chair, though, unaware of those statistics, I felt like nothing more than a stereotypical bimbo Barbie who had finally succumbed to having myself shaped, like an antique doll being restored, into a vision of what someone else thought I should be.

Two hours later, when the doctor was done and the receptionist told me the cost, I quite literally almost fainted. Could I write it off as a job-search expense, I wondered? I went home and pulled a turtleneck over my face. I felt like a freak. I felt like everyone would look at me and know what I had done.

To my surprise, no one except a student said anything. That Monday in class she kept staring at me and finally cocked her head and said, "You look different, somehow. Like you got a lot of rest this weekend. You look really pretty." I told her I was wearing new makeup, which wasn't a lie, just an omission. Then, on Wednesday, I went for my interview.

All I know is this: By the time I walked into that room, I felt confident. I felt assured. I had studied, done my research, and brainstormed; I knew my stuff.

And, for whatever it was worth, I knew that I couldn't look any better than I did that day. The scar on my face from a long-ago fall? Gone. My crow's-feet? Disappeared. The wrinkled brow that the doctor had tutted about, warning me that furrows would convey a message of uncertainty? Vanished.

And after five days of deep breaths and furtive glances in the mirror, I didn't miss them.

"Don't get me wrong," a colleague in another department told me after the interview. "I'm happily married. But you look fantastic today. If that counted for anything."

Maybe it did. I got the job. Since then, I've thought about whether I would get more Botox or fillers. I don't know. Plumping my face is not going to make me work any harder than I already do. It's not going to make me a better colleague. But in a few years, when I'm that much older, I'll be up for tenure. People will be watching. They will have the power to vote me in or out. And I want to stay on the island.

Norma Desmond is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a college in the West.