Judy Oppenheimer


Plumped Not Pulled: Baltimore


Some 30 years ago, a 50-something acquaintance of mine made a killing in the software field and decided to spend it all on her face — a complete surgical lift, neck, chin, cheeks, eyelids, brow. The full Monty, so to speak.

I couldn’t wait to see the result — she was the first person I actually knew to have major work done. When a month or so later she invited me to a small party I showed up eagerly, dying to see what she looked like.

She looked like an egg.

Her face was pulled tight as a drum; you could bounce a dime off it. No lines whatsoever. There was something almost a bit reptilian, even ET-like about it, an impression her tightly coiffed hairdo did nothing to dispel. She had never been the most emotional person in the world; now she seemed to have no expression whatsoever.

Only her eyes were unchanged, and they looked…well, they looked her age. They peered out of her new face somewhat anxiously, as if wondering what they were doing there.

I managed to keep my own expression under control, congratulating her. But privately I was pretty horrified. Though relieved on at least one level — I knew I’d probably never have enough money for a complete facelift myself. Given that, it was comforting to know the results were far from desirable.

How times change. Needless to say, over the years I eventually got to witness far more appealing facelift results, some amazing enough that they caused me to seriously consider going that route myself. Two things held me back: a strong aversion both to general anesthesia and to cleaning out my bank account.

But the change has gone far deeper. Back in the day, facelifts were not only expensive and often no more than rather crude attempts to pull the skin back as tight as it would go, they were also considered somewhat shameful. Certainly nothing anyone talked about. Women invented excuses to stay home for the first few weeks; asking someone whether they’d undergone a facelift was considered the height of bad form.

Today the entire industry has come roaring out of the closet. I know no one over 50 who has not at least given plastic surgery some thought. And facelifts are only the beginning; there is barely a body part that isn’t considered a possible target to be shaped, tightened, pared down or buffed up. Butts, boobs, bellies, you name it. And not just for women. Man boob reduction is a common operation. Furthermore, in the last 15 years a young sister industry has risen up like a phoenix.

Injectables! Botox, Restylane, a slew of other substances. Hard as it is to believe, Botox was only approved for cosmetic use in the U.S. late in the 90s, Restylane not till 2005. Today these and a variety of other relaxers and fillers are all over the place. Not only are dermatologists and plastic surgeons using them, many beauty salons have gotten into the act.

The advantages over major surgery are obvious: Far less expense. No anesthesia. Hardly any pain. A series of injections takes under 10 minutes. You need almost no recuperation time. The main disadvantage, of course, is the Chinese dinner curse — four months later you have to do it all over again. Nonetheless millions have jumped on the bandwagon.

In a recent interview, plastic surgeon Dr. Michelle Shermak, who trained at Johns Hopkins, listed the most popular procedures currently being done in Baltimore.

“Four things are really big right now,” she said. “Minimally invasive procedures like injectables, fat crafting, Mommy makeovers and massive weight loss body surgeries. Those are the things consumers are most interested in right now.”

With injectables, Botox and Restylane were the originals, but “now the market has really taken off,” with similar products, she said.  The two work differently. “Restylane is a filler, Botox works by weakening muscles which cause wrinkles.” Relaxers are generally used on the brow, fillers lower down, on sunken cheeks, or the wrinkles surrounding the mouth.

There are still many problems that can only be solved by surgery, of course, breast augmentation and rhinoplasty (nose jobs) being the most popular. Fat grafting is “the new innovation we’re all talking about,” Dr. Shermak said.  It involves taking fat from places you don’t want it, and using it where you do, like in the face, as a filler (strange as it seems, face wrinkles are often caused by diminishing fat). A true win-win situation.

Mommy makeovers are just what they sound like. “Women come in for a tune-up after having a baby.” This can involve breast, butt, stomach lifts and tucks, and vaginal repair. Then there are the weight loss surgeries.

“A very big area. Some 200,000 a year are being done,” said Dr. Shermak. With all the publicity about the obesity epidemic, with popular shows like “The Biggest Loser,” people are trying harder than ever to lose weight these days. If you lose enough, you’re going to have a lot of loose skin to deal with. Surgery can help.

“The entire field has exploded,” agreed Dr. Eva Simmons O’Brien, a local dermatologist who trained at Yale Medical School and Johns Hopkins. “It’s been able to piggy-back on the interest in being youthful, on the fitness bandwagon.

“People like pretty people. They like to see them. Those in sales, in high profile positions need to look good..it’s a harsh reality.”

Daily, it seems, there are more options for those in the market for a fix-up. Other popular non-surgical treatments involve ultrasound and lasers.

“Lasers help get rid of sunspots, and can be very effective for sun damage.” said Dr. Simmons O’Brien. She often employs more than one method. “I tell people it takes a village approach.”

The field is “ever changing,” she said. “It’s really 180 degrees different from 20 years ago.”

Speaking of evolution, last week in The New York Times, Maria Russo’s The Mirror essay — optimistically titled “Older Women Are the New Faces of Beauty” — promised that the world is making room for various (imperfect) versions of middle-aged beauty. True: “average-looking” Ellen DeGeneres and Diane Keaton are currently the faces of major makeup campaigns. And that’s all well and good. But it’s extremely difficult to believe that, despite a few steps in the direction of self-acceptance — or older-Diane-Keaton-acceptance — human nature won’t keep us forever fixed on plastic-surgical fixes. From the looks of it, the next 20 years could offer even more striking changes and developments in the industry.

“There’s interest in figuring out how our bodies can fix themselves,” explained Dr. Simmons O’Brien.

For the face, one new method involves taking blood from the patient, isolating platelets and injecting them back in the face, to stimulate collagen (stimulating collagen growth is the sin qua non of the injectable trade). Another, still in planning stages, involves having your own cells removed via mini-biopsy, grown in a lab, treated, suspended in a gel and sent back to the doctor for injection.

Then there’s the rest of the body. “Women are obsessed with cellulite,” she said. Ultrasound machines are now being used “to break up the fat by sonic shock waves.” But new methods are coming. “The latest machine on the block freezes the fat, then the body basically breaks it down over a period of weeks and excretes it.” Not the most appealing idea, perhaps…but one never knows where the next hot thing in the field will emerge.

As it is, we’ve never had more choices, more ability to change our physical characteristics. It doesn’t stop with our own bodies, either. In 1995, a former ad man from Kansas City, Missouri, invented something called neuticles — basically false testicles for dogs. He claims close to a half million dogs have since undergone the procedure, at various veterinary clinics throughout the country. A number of vets in Baltimore perform this operation. Men, especially, feel a need to shore up a neutered dog’s manliness, apparently. Testicle implants come in all sizes, of course, since no Great Dane is going to look right with dachshund-size balls (and vice versa).

Dogs themselves, of course, could not care less. As for their owners, and everyone else, there seems to be no limit to our urge to stay, as Bob Dylan sings, forever young. Or at least to look as if we have. And our options for pulling that off continue to expand daily.


Judy Oppenheimer is the author of a literary bio, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, and Dreams of Glory, an in-depth look at a high school football season.

Big Benefits of Facebook for Older Adults


Clearly, Facebookers over 50 experience social-networking differently from younger users. No one I know over 50 has 1,000 or more “Friends,” signs on hourly to complain about the weather, posts scores of pictures, videos and links, keeps a running list of everything they’ve eaten in a day, or turns to Facebook for diagnoses of passing aches and pains — actual entry: “I’ve had sharp pains in my stomach for three days now, what do you think that means?” This followed by scores of comments.

I know I’m right because of a small army of 20- and 30-something cousins (all female) who do these things regularly. This is also how I came to know exactly when, where and how one cousin’s boyfriend threw up for the first time in their relationship.

No question, there is a downside to Facebook for us older, possibly more private types. But there are benefits nevertheless.

Unexpected contacts. Reach-outs from old friends, possibly even former lovers (though this has yet to happen in my case). Leading to rekindled relationships of one kind or another — and at our age we need every one we can get. In at least three cases, I’ve resumed friendships that were cut off long ago, who knows why — when we were young, back in the non-social-media era, when someone moved, that usually ended things, though often there was an initial spurt of letters.

We also get great stories. Fantastic tales one would have no way of knowing without the option of flipping through the posts and photos of everyone we’ve ever met, or at least those who have yet to close down that option (and it’s mostly older users who don’t, because we’re less likely to know how).

Yes, I know it sounds stalkeresque, and probably is, but all my life I’ve had a complete fascination with learning, let’s just call it, the rest of the story. How things turned out. For everyone? Well, yeah, pretty much. Old friends, of course, from childhood and college, but old acquaintances, too. Neighbors, former colleagues, classmates…their kids, friends of my kids, parents of friends of my kids, kids of their kids, friends of my friends…the list can go on indefinitely.

Probably seems just a mite obsessive, hell, probably is. But this interest isn’t something that takes up all that much of my time; just fuels the occasional foray. Once a month, maybe. Twice, tops. Honest. (Though why am I reminded of Steve Martin’s famous riff on using pot: “Never at dusk”? Of course, if I put that on Facebook, my younger Friends wouldn’t get it.)

But it’s a genial, mild sort of habit. I’m delighted when I see photographs of babies, grandkids, etc. — signs of happiness. I’m pleased when I note marks of career success in  my kids’ generation — impressive jobs, high degrees. I’m intrigued when I see the changes time has wrought; even more so when, as in the case of a few, there seems to have been no change whatsoever. How can my old friend Nadine still look that good?

But I have to admit I’m downright ecstatic when I turn up a knockout story. And I have found a few. Two in particular stand out:

*A friend from childhood who went to Hebrew school with me, with whom I actually shared a bat-mitzvah, as well as a fanatical devotion to Elvis, who when last seen was married, mother of two, and a seemingly typical disgruntled suburbanite, now lives in Japan with an Italian boyfriend and makes an apparently more than decent living channeling a guru from Venus, who offers counseling over the net.

*A neighbor who lived down the block from me back in the ’80s, whose son was a friend of one of my kids, who during that time of rising feminist awareness had thrown herself full force into the role of adoring wife, staring at her (rather dull, moon-faced) husband whenever he spoke with the soulful stare made famous by Nancy Reagan, referring to him in awed tones at all times, has not only (you probably saw this coming) switched gender allegiances completely and is roaring the glad news to the rooftops, but seems to have lost all sense of decorum — blogs and photos attest to sequential relationships with at least three different women in as many months.

It’s no surprise in today’s world to see someone discovering, or deciding finally to act upon, long buried predilections. It’s common enough to produce a giant yawn in most cases. Not this time, though. I, in fact, would happily defy anyone who lived in our neighborhood back then to pinpoint anyone less likely to have made such a sea change. My son, the one who knew the family best, when asked to guess which mother of a friend had jumped ship hetero, listed no less than 12 possibilities, without ever hitting on the right name.

Both these stories are quite real; you can’t make this stuff up. One struggles to understand, to fill in the gap between then and now. A, the channeler — well, she was always a bit daring as a kid. Up for the new. The first in our crowd to let a boy unbutton her sweater, for instance. It’s not a direct line between sexual experimentation and Venusian godheads, but maybe there’s some connection. Either that or the stultifying boredom of our Hebrew school classes prompted her to seek other religious options? It always amazes me how many of us remained Jewish after that experience, or, at least, eschewed Christianity. A. too, of course. In fact, she opted to eschew planet earth entirely.

And as for D — clearly she’s manifesting the same enthusiasm for current partners as she did back in the day for her husband. Only the object has changed, not her modus operandi. One can’t help wondering, of course, how she chose to announce her new lifestyle to her extremely conservative, socially well-placed spouse.

Have there been any situations I ran into on Facebook that were not quite as much, well, fun? Why, yes, there was one, and honesty demands I share it, too. For years I wondered what had happened to H., a close friend of mine throughout college. I’d Googled, even LexisNexised her, at one point, to no avail. This was no minor acquaintance or friend of a friend. This was a girl I’d shared many things with, including two or three boyfriends. Our ways had diverged after college, but I’d never stopped hoping I’d find her eventually.

And by gumbo, there she was one day on Facebook, looking instantly recognizable. She too had gone a semi-religious route, studying something Eastern from the looks of it, which involved doling out Oneness blessings. I was thrilled to find her and sent a long email, reminding her of our connection, our mutual friends, and a few of our experiences.

She replied almost at once. She was pleased to hear from me, remembered several of our friends, recalled a trip to New York I mentioned, but there was one teensy problem she felt she had to share.

She didn’t remember me. At all. Exactly where had we met? Was it high school? Europe?

I am fully prepared, at all times, to find out I’ve registered not at all on someone’s memory screen. I happen to have one of those truly annoyingly adhesive memories myself, the kind that recalls incidents, conversations, arguments going back to childhood. As far as people go, I rarely forget anyone I’ve had even a passing connection to.

But others are different, I know this. Still — this wasn’t a onetime neighbor, a minor acquaintance. This was H! Quickly I wrote back, listing more friends, more details…it was undoubtedly just a momentary lapse on her part; any minute something would click and everything would come flooding back!

She replied again, just as graciously. Yes, now that she thought about it, she remembered even more of the people I mentioned. My emails were bringing it all back.

With one exception. Try as she could, she had no memory of me whatsoever.

Not only that, “I don’t think I have a problem with my memory,” she added. In other words, it wasn’t just that she’d forgotten me — she didn’t think it was particularly notable that she had. Either that or she was trying politely to let me know she thought something was wildly askew with my own memory.

So Facebook has brought me two great stories  — enough to spice up any dinner party — and a smack in the face (which actually doesn’t work badly at a dinner party either).

Overall, definitely a beneficial effect.

Judy Oppenheimer is the author of a literary bio, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, and Dreams of Glory, an in-depth look at a high school football season.

Behind the Counselor’s Door: What Your Teens Aren’t Telling You in 2012


Teens live in another country from the rest of us  — always have. Parents may get glimpses, but most of that world is always going to stay hidden. Probably the only adults who come close to getting a look are those who deal with the age group throughout the day, in a way parents never do. 

So, to find out what kinds of problems Baltimore kids are facing these days, it seemed like a good idea to ask high school counselors, who at least occasionally get reports back from the front — the country we all lived in once, but now barely remember.

No counselor wanted to give their name — “Hey, this is Smalltimore,” said one. “Everyone knows everyone.” But other than that, they were willing to talk. What goes on with kids these days? Are their problems all that different from our problems in the past? Is there really anything new under the sun? 

Well, actually, yes. The technology revolution has changed the landscape almost beyond recognition. All the counselors agreed about that; agreed, too, that there was almost no way to stay on top of this exploding universe.

“The cyber world is way out of our control,” admitted a longtime counselor at one Baltimore private school (we’ll call him Private School I). And parents have a hard time getting a grip on this. “Technology, it’s like a generation gap. The gap is wide, and as soon as we learn what they were doing a month ago, it’s changed.”

“[Sitting in front of a screen,] you can just about say any bloody thing you want. So a lot of impulse control falls by the wayside,” he said. “[At Private School I,] we talk about it all the time. We say, ‘Remember, everyone on the planet can read it once you put it in there; you hit send, the entire world can see what you wrote.’”

There are other dangers, said a counselor from another Baltimore private school (we’ll call her Private School II). “Kids are so open, they access each other’s Facebook page, never thinking they need to watch their password. What if something happens to that friendship? And the other person is feeling vindictive?”

Perhaps the biggest change technology has brought — and the hardest for parents to grasp — is the inter-connectivity. What with cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and the like, teens today are plugged into each other in a way that would have seemed like pure science fiction one short generation ago. “Very different from what we had. It’s more intense, more ever present, and there’s the expectation that you respond immediately. So you’re on hyper alert,” said Private School I.

“Parents are aware but don’t know the extent,” said Private School II. “If the kids don’t have their cell phone they feel disconnected. If they miss something posted on Twitter, who broke up with who, they feel behind.” She believes our brains lack the capacity to keep up with this stuff. “That connectedness  — it adds stress.”

Technology may have changed things, but the traditional teenage problems are still around, of course. Substance abuse, for instance.

“I’m amazed at the amount of marijuana use,” said Private School II, who’s been in the field close to 20 years. “With the push for legalization, the lid is off.” Perhaps, too, the fact that so many parents of today’s teens have used it themselves has made a difference. Alcohol use has also risen, she thinks.

And of course, as always with adolescents, sex is part of the picture. But here, too, there’s been a change. Gay teens, for instance, are more likely to be open — and to be accepted — than in the past. Things aren’t perfect yet, but as sex advisor Dan Savage says, it really is getting better.

“I believe this generation is going to teach us something about acceptance,” said Private School II. “About the whole gay thing, but also with minorities, even class and privilege.” Her school, she said, tries to be sensitive to all types of kids, including the transgendered. “We have unisex bathrooms, for those who are questioning their gender. Private schools can be protective that way.”

Parents may struggle with accepting their kids are gay, but have an especially hard time dealing with transgender issues. “It’s hard for  people to wrap their heads around,” Private School II said. “I tell the kids, you have to give parents time to grieve, over the loss of traditional family.”

Today’s teens seem far more comfortable exploring (and accepting) varying forms of sexuality. “For some time, it’s all been about hookups; nobody dates,” said Private School II. “But now, if it’s not possible to hook up at a party, it’s okay to hook up with your friend — no matter what sex.”

A counselor from a Baltimore County public high school, though, insisted most teens there are more interested in going to college than in sex. At his former post, a different Baltimore County public high school, he had run into far more “hypersexualized kids,” he said; at his current high school, he believes students are less into relationships, and able to keep from acting out sexually. “It might be on their minds, but they’re able to keep their behavior in check,” he said.

This came as a bit of a surprise to this reporter,who still has vague memories of her own teenage years, and who’d always believed hypersexuality was as much a part of adolescence as acne. She’s willing to concede, though, that some schools today might be different.

All the counselors agreed the biggest problem facing high school kids today has little to do with technology, drugs or sex. Instead it is stress, pure and simple. According to them, stress levels are off the charts.

“This college entrance stuff has gotten crazy,” said Private School I, who’s been in the field 38 years. “It’s incredibly more stressful, way more intense, than it used to be. And the acceleration, the AP stuff, the over-scheduling — piano, soccer. Much worse.”

The pressure has led to a rise in depression, he believes. It also leads to more cases of “academic integrity” (actually, lack of it) — cheating, plagiarism.

The public high school counselor agreed. “The major issue I see is this expectation that students need to go to the best college, and to do that they need the best grades in the hardest classes. So those students end up overextending themselves, run themselves ragged, develop stress, depression.”

Private School I concurred. “I think kids are really overextending themselves. I see a good bit of teenage depression and I think this is part of it,” she said.

Parents, the counselors agreed, have a lot to do with this escalation; maybe it’s because of the economic picture, but there’s more anxiety about getting into college, more pressure being exerted.

There is, however, some good news. Eating disorders are down, or at least, not up. Private School I reports proudly there have been no suicides at his school in over a decade. (After two, in a two-year period, the school “brought in the best mental health advisors Johns Hopkins could offer,” to help figure out what to do; the answer was to involve parents far more.)

And despite the fact it’s become something of a cause de jour in the media, all three counselors reported very little problem with bullying. “We don’t focus on bullies, we focus on the bystander,” explained Private School II. “The 90 percent in the middle who can stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right.’ Those are the ones we want to empower.”

Another bright spot? “I’m seeing a real uptick in political interest, kids involved in non-violent protest,” said Private School I. “Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement have had a positive effect.”

My age group felt there could never be a generation gap as huge as the one between us and our parents — we, after all, had the culture wars, as well as sex, drugs and rock and roll. But as it turns out, two guys tinkering with electronics in a garage managed to kick off an even bigger gap, one parents struggle to bridge today.

You can only wonder what the next gap will consist of, what these kids will face with their own kids — the only sure thing being that no one will see it coming.


Judy Oppenheimer is a freelance writer based in D.C.