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Hand Rejuvenation: Women turn to cosmetic surgery to turn back the hands of time

June 3, 2010 |

In the Royal Society in London hangs a portrait by Henry Moore of the Nobel prize-winning scientist Dorothy Hodgkin. Instead of her face, Moore decided to draw just her gnarled and knobbly hands, worn by 68 years of work, motherhood and life, saying that “after the head and the face, hands are the most expressive part of the human body”.

Three decades on, a passing cosmetic surgeon may glance at the picture and say: “Boy, does that lady need a hand lift.”

For modern culture too, revels in depicting the weathered hands of maturing women, but not in a good way. Out has gone the tenderness of Moore, replaced by the mocking viciousness of the tabloids and the gossip mags.

Last week Sarah Jessica Parker’s appearance at the premiere of her blockbusting film was celebrated in the British press with this headline: “Sarah Jessica Parker shows off her incredibly bony hands”. Her acting, producing or entreprenuerial skills were forgotten in endless close-ups of a body part that inspired every Hallowe’en adjective from “wizened” to “skeletal”.

The same treatment is meted out to the appendages of Pamela Stephenson, Faye Dunaway, Teri Hatcher, Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, and any woman in the public eye whose face is not deemed to match her fingers. For many celebrities their hands are now their portraits in the attic – suffering the ravages of time that their face is magically spared. Oscar Wilde said that a man’s face is his autobiography, “a woman’s face is her work of fiction”. He might add, now, that a woman’s hands are their brutal documentary.

So, enter, the rise in hand-lifts, or to use the cosmetic surgery jargon, “hand rejuvenation”. Hands have long been the last frontier in anti-ageing surgery, because of their technical difficulty, says Patrick Mallucci, consultant plastic surgeon at the Royal Free Hospital in London. And this has given rise to the modern phenomenon of mis-matched hands and face.

“Hands are seen, for women, as a stigma of ageing. But the difficulty with hands is that you are quite limited in what you can do. Unlike the face, you can’t nip and tuck.”

A “lift”, when skin is stretched back and the scar hidden beneath the hairline, is impossible as it would disable the hand. Same with Botox. The problem with hands is different: fat loss. Babies are born with such plump mitts that you can hardly see their wrists. “But as you age the skin thins and you lose a lot of volume of fat underneath. You start to see the veins and the gullies where the tendons run,” Mallucci says.

Or, as one tabloid put it about Angelina Jolie’s “skeletal” hands, with lots of close-up pictures, they “have more bulging veins than Clint Eastwood” (a man twice her age). Slenderness, sun exposure and gym workouts don’t help either, although these are among the most common vices of the sort of woman who takes a lot of care over her appearance.

And cosmetics, varnish or jewellery aren’t fooling anyone. A study in the Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in 2006 showed photos of hands of different ages to 100 women and asked readers to guess the age. Some of the same photos were digitally altered to add varnish or rings, or remove veins, blemishes, or wrinkles. Nothing made any difference to the assessment of the hands’ age, except one thing alone: the removal of prominent veins, which took five to ten years off.

So the new treatments focus on fattening the hand – either by injecting the woman’s own fat from somewhere else, such as her thighs, or by “mesotherapy” – the injection of artificial fillers such as those used on the face. At around pounds 400 a time, the treatment will need to be repeated every year or so.

But, as the doctors working in this field admit, it is a demand that has been led by the success of cosmetic treatments to the face. Professor Anthony Elliott, author of Making the Cut, says: “It was Karl Marx [who] noted that the expansionist logic of capitalism knows no limit; neither it seems does cosmetic surgery. If the face looked its age, the appearance of the hands would not jar. It is a good business model: by doing facial work, the industry builds in consumer desire for more.”

At SurgiCare, another network of clinics, the director of aesthetic medicine, Jonquille Chantrey, speaks to me after doing four hand “rejuvenations” – injections of filler – that morning. “If your face is well-preserved over time, and your hands ignored, then you can tell your age from your hands. People are becoming much more savvy about that.

“It’s a natural progression. I think people are looking for a full-body rejuvenation and hands are one of the last places where we can achieve that. I would estimate demand has gone up by 20 to 30 per cent on last year.”

Dr Lucy Glancey, the medical director of Glancey Medical Associates, a network of clinics across the UK, says that hands are now “very popular” among women in their forties and upwards. “For most people the priority will be their face. But because that has become so successful, there’s this discrepancy between the hands and the face. You are almost forced into a situation where the hands give your age away.”

One of her patients is a 55-year-old woman called Marie. She has, in the past ten years, had quite a lot of work done on her face. Her body was preternaturally young, thanks to a daily gym regime. Her hands, veined and wrinkled as nature intended, “were the one part that was falling down”.

Marie says: “I saw a photo in a magazine of Faye Dunaway, and her face looked lovely, but her hands looked absolutely dreadful. I suppose I had that image in my head, subconsciously. When I put my hands up to my face, I just felt it necessary for them to be as good as that.”

After the course of injections in her hands, it took time for Marie to get used to the unfamiliar contours. Hands are second to the face as your most identifiable feature. People often have strongly evocative memories of their mother’s hands. Possibly you know “the back of your hand” even better than your own face, given how much you see them.

“It took at least five years, minimum, off my hands,” Marie says. “For the first couple of weeks, I thought ‘Oh, they look a bit odd’. But put it this way, I’m now 55, and I’m going out with someone who is 39.”

There is, for those who resist the cult of youth, a regret to the increasing success of hand rejuvenation. Previously, a woman’s hands were forced to grip on to reality. They were authentic, in a way that the duplicitous face was not. Now the “Frankenstein’s monster” effect of a traditional cosmetic surgery, with mismatched assemblage of body parts, is being smoothed out. The prospect is of a droid-like octogenarian with a body perfectly passable as a 25-year-old, no claw-like giveaways.

Vivian Diller is a psychotherapist and author of a new book, Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change. She is also a former model, who counsels many consumers and practitioners in the cosmetic surgery industry. “It’s like when you get new furniture in your home, suddenly the carpets look old. Upgrade one part of your body, it highlights the age of the other. It is a slippery slope. Hand treatment begs the question: where does it stop? The ankle? The skin under your arm? Your whole body?

“I have a client who is a cosmetic surgeon. He talks about how strange it is to treat an 80-year-old who has the breasts of a 20-year old. Body parts are out of sync. How do women feel when parts of their body look young and other parts don’t? The psychology of this is not being talked about.”

And perhaps they are not being talked about because the deeper forces at work are too strange for an individual woman to express. She waves them – and age – away.


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