There's a thing that looks like a lighted cave, which takes pictures of all the skin damage you can't normally see. It works rather like a modern guillotine -- you put your head inside and it neatly slices off your self-esteem. There's a big spaceship-looking thing that you sit inside; it measures body fat.
At a plastic surgery and skin care fair, a sort of plast-ravaganza, if you will, machines have been put in charge of calibrating imperfection.
Run by the Washington Plastic Surgery Group, it takes place one night recently in a northern Bethesda hotel ballroom filled with hundreds of women who have received invitations fancy enough for a wedding. It's free. There are wine, cheese and pastries. There's a Botox booth and a breast implant booth, and a salesman who tosses an implant from hand to hand as if it were a droopy baseball. There's a booth with a sign that says, "Enter to win microlaser peel package."
They call this "Women's Night Out . . . An Evening of Beauty," and throughout, beauty is regarded as a place to get back to, like a mystical Eden or the first blush of love. Many of the attendees are middle-aged. The registration tables are staffed with teenagers from a modeling agency, whose supple skin and glossy hair feel like a reproach.
In the middle of the ballroom are four plastic surgeons from Washington Plastics, which has several offices in the Washington area and does a brisk business in breast implants. The group's founder is an upbeat surgeon named Barry Cohen, who has self-published a book that includes the before-and-after photos of a woman who got Botox at 26 and a glossary with terms such as "banana roll" and "malar bags."
Cohen says that so far this year, his practice has augmented 1,500 women. He personally has done 485 in the past 10 months, he says, and has gotten the procedure down to 20 minutes.
"It's not uncommon to do eight augs, nine augs in a day," he says. "I only did three today, but I had to come here."
"It's not all about speed, though -- it's about quality," says his colleague, Adam Tattelbaum.
"As a group, we do 20-plus percent of the implants around the Beltway," Cohen says.
"It's not about the numbers," says Tattelbaum.
Cohen surveys the ballroom with a pleased look and pronounces the evening's turnout "bigger than my bar mitzvah."
There's a booth devoted to cosmetic tattooing and a sign that says, "Purchase Permanent Makeup Tonight And Receive 25% Off." A middle-aged blonde is talking to a medical assistant and tattooist named Teres Wright.
"I'm all fake! I've had it all done!" Wright says. "My lips are done. My eyebrows are done. My eyeliner's done." She says she loves always having her "face on."
"There's a little bit of oozing at first but that subsides," she says. She gestures to her teenage daughter. "Megan has it," she says.
"I was 15," Megan Wright says. "I begged for it."
The young women here say it's never too early to start. Stick your head inside that facial analysis machine and find out how much bigger your pores are than everyone else's. Mid-twenties is perfect for a chemical peel, microdermabrasion, laser hair removal. The truth is, once it's possible to fix everything, everything needs fixing.
A 23-year-old Washington Plastics receptionist named Oriana Belfiore can already predict what she'll need one day based on her study of older relatives.
"Upper and lower blephs," she says, meaning eyelid surgery. "Once I start getting old and they get wrinkly."
The room is a continuum -- beauty and health bound together and dubbed "wellness" under the notion that a good-looking woman is a good-feeling woman. Women sit in chairs having a liquid glycolic peel rubbed on their faces. It seems just a tiny hop from that to microdermabrasion, which is just a mere skip to laser hair removal, which is a short stroll to getting a little Restylane injected into your face (damn those nasolabial folds!) and getting your ears pinned back, and as long as you're lying down, you may as well slip in some implants, make your breasts the way they were before the breastfeeding. Just a little lift, right? Get them back to the way they were, right?
Any minute now we expect to see Heather Locklear, poster woman for the looking-great-for-her-age movement. She'll spin her blond hair over her shoulders and say, "Because I'm worth it."
Meanwhile, in disparate parts of the room, one imagines cruel interior monologues running, what-if monologues -- monologues of bargaining and disappointment.
"I just found out you're not supposed to put moisturizer around your eyes," says a woman who's long been putting moisturizer around her eyes.
A young woman walks up to the Bod Pod, that funny spaceship-looking, body-fat-measuring thing, and asks what it does. She says: "Oh, my God, nooooo!"
A beautiful, middle-aged woman named Alicia Ras pushes her nostrils toward the ceiling with one finger.
"I always wanted to do my nose," she says.
"No, you did not," says her daughter, Angi.
(You there, with the superior expression. Don't tell us you've never thought about it. Every woman who has ever been told her nose has "character" has wondered what that word is code for.)
One of the most popular corners is where the facial analysis machine sits. It's called VISIA. It has a screen that shows photographs of your skin and compares it with the skin of other women your age. It tells you, for example, how your wrinkles rate.
A middle-aged woman sticks her head in and the aesthetician, Nilo Tehrani, studies the screen. She points to a number she says indicates evidence of bacteria.
"Wow! That's the highest I've ever seen!" she says. She points to another number. "All this is skin damage."
Afterward, Tehrani tells each woman not to fear. She gives everyone her card. We can fix it, she says.