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Skin Deep

Age and beauty, the Hollywood way.

Feb 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 22 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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I Feel Bad About My Neck

And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

by Nora Ephron

Knopf, 160 pp., $19.95

Nora Ephron's latest book, a collection of essays by the 65-year-old author of the screenplays for When Harry Met Sally . . . and Sleepless in Seattle, catapulted to the top of the bestseller lists when it was published, and remains in the vicinity. That's because it seems to combine two genres irresistible to readers of Ephron's sex (female), age (getting up there), and socioeconomic class (extremely high-end): The Plastic Surgery Autobiographical Horror Story (exemplified by New York Times shopping columnist Alex Kuczynski's Restylane-splattered Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery), and Lusty Meno pause Lit (exemplified by Gail Sheehy's Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life, which comes in a large-print edition for those seasoned souls whose eyesight isn't as strong as their libidos).

Ephron does not fail to deliver on the former score, although briefly. In a 15-page chapter titled "On Maintenance" (originally an article in O magazine), she details an array of procedures she uses to prolong youth's illusion, ranging from the unexceptionable, such as her two-tone hair-dye jobs that occupy at least three boredom-inducing hours of her time every six weeks, to what she describes as the "pathetic": having all the fillings in her teeth replaced with white material, undergoing regular injections of Restylane ("it sort of fills in the saggy parts" of her chin), experimenting with Botox (the botulism derivative that paralyzes your forehead into wrinkle-free marmoreality).

All this attention to what Ephron calls putting one's "finger in the dike" has a Thorstein Veblenesque status component because it is fearfully expensive (the tooth thing alone apparently set Ephron back $20,000) and you can thus one-up your less affluent neighbors and readers because you can afford it and they can't. Much of it also has a pain component, such as the once-a-month "threading" that Ephron undergoes to remove a mustache from her upper lip and inhibit bushy eyebrows. She writes: "Threading involves thread--garden-variety sewing thread--a long strand of which is twisted and maneuvered in a sort of cat's cradle configuration so as to remove hair in a way that is quick and painful (although not, I should point out, as painful as, say, labor)." Accounts of ritualized masochism--enduring excruciating and humiliating dolors on a regular basis--used to be reserved for pornography but are now a standard feature of beautification-attuned autobiographical literature.

From Story of O to O magazine, one might say.

The result of this vast expenditure of time, money, and agony on herself is . . . a perfectly attractive if not astonishingly good-looking older woman, Ephron's photos reveal. Or so they would reveal if she didn't swathe her upmost parts in black turtleneck sweaters, floaty, hijab-like scarves, and that pricey 'do whose bangs swing to her nose, so as to reveal little of her face except her eyes. Ephron titled her book (and another of its component essays) I Feel Bad About My Neck because she genuinely hates her neck. It's got an ugly surgical scar on it, she explains, or maybe it's just plain wrinkled. In any event, she seems to cover it compulsively these days because you can do quite a bit with your face but, short of a full-bore facelift, there's nothing that hair dye and injected substances can do to give your neck the illusion of youth.

"Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth," she writes.

These aperçus have been the focus of all the recent attention paid to Ephron's book, as well as its impressive sales (it is hard to imagine any young woman being the slightest bit interested in I Feel Bad About My Neck or its author). The book has also generated the usual horrified feminist moralizing, such as this rhetorical question asked by the Washington Post's Libby Copeland: "When do we get to abandon this exhausting doggypaddle and sink into a dignified old age?" Ephron is having none of that. There is nothing especially dignified about old age as far as she is concerned:

There are all sorts of books written for older women. They are, as far as I can tell, uniformly upbeat and full of bromides and homilies about how pleasant life can be once one is free from all the nagging obligations of children, monthly periods, and in some cases, full-time jobs. I find these books to be utterly useless, just as I found all the books I once read about menopause utterly useless. Why do people write books that say that it's better to be older than younger? It's not better.