The Aging Face

On viewing my wrinkles through Proust, Rembrandt, and plastic surgery textbooks

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In the very last volume of Proust’s very long novel, the narrator attends an afternoon party where everyone seems to be wearing a mask. He can recognize the voices of his long-ago friends and acquaintances, but their words issue from faces that are all strangely slackened and faded, or hardened and rigidified. They seem to be wearing powdered wigs. Even his host, having disguised himself in the same manner as his guests, appears to have taken on the role of one of the very last stages of the Ages of Man.

What has happened, of course, is the passage of time. These people have aged.

This quality of the aging face, in so many respects like a living mask, was something I had hardly considered until I began to notice the fine crosshatching beneath my own eyes and the first tracing of lines across my forehead. It was disconcerting, these creeping forerunners of age — of aging. The only face I had ever known as my own — a face resolutely unwrinkled for over three decades — was somehow being impinged upon, irreversibly. I knew that, unlike a spate of pimples or the red peel of sunburn, these new lines and creases were here to stay, and they would only grow more pronounced.

As I considered the changes in my own face, my eyes were soon drawn to the lines in other people’s faces, as if searching for a benchmark of normalcy, a point of comparison. What I discovered, though, was the variability of a phenomenon I had never before bothered to notice. Some brows, I now saw, were entirely furrowed, really ploughed-in deep parallel lines that never even began to fade when the eyebrows lowered, as if that fairy Queen Mab who hectors sleepers had driven a team of oxen back and forth over the course of many nights. On the face of a still pink-cheeked colleague, the three vertical slashes across the brow seemed to me like scars, the marks of some violent accident. Others, still, bore only faint traces, the sole suggestion of age on a youthful face — and my eyes would flicker back to these less certain marks, waiting to see if they did in fact belie age in a person who otherwise seemed untouched by time. So many faces appeared more cobwebbed than lined, while others seemed momentarily smudged — as if the vaguest impression of their own palm had remained upon their forehead. How unfixed the face was. How perpetually the lines of age would continue to shape it.

Apparently, the question of the aging face was, for a long time, something that concerned the layperson far more than the scientific community. As a 1985 article in The British Journal of Dermatology observed, “Judging by the space allotted to the wrinkle in the dermatological literature, it is beneath notice by serious professionals.” And indeed, having satisfied themselves earlier in the century that the wrinkle was not an affliction, most of the scientific community pursued grander topics. However, the article went on to note, “laymen have a tremendous interest in wrinkles, and in the United States, more than a billion dollars is spent annually in concealing or counteracting wrinkles.” It became evident, as I cast around for answers to my question, that it is indeed this now multibillion-dollar quest to conceal or counteract wrinkles that has driven most of the relatively recent scientific research on the curious way that time engraves itself on the human face. As the authors of Plastic Surgery, Vol. II put it: “An understanding of the anatomical changes associated with aging is required in order to design effective procedures to rejuvenate…the aging face.” In other words, if you want to lift and smooth the aging face, you need to know what makes it droop and wrinkle.

And from what I could see as I scanned the literature, mostly comprising journals and textbooks with Aesthetic, Cosmetic, Surgical, or Plastic in the title, we do know. We now know how the face ages. The nutshell explanation typically amounts to a moderately complex sentence about decreasing skin elasticity and facial volume, perhaps even something about gravity, while the more comprehensive version requires at least a textbook chapter and a solid tutorial on the three basic layers of the skin, as well as the fat, muscle, and connective tissue that plump and animate it. There were versions of this in just about every plastic surgery textbook I skimmed through. But my favorite among these tutorials on the aging face may be that provided by the authors of Surgical Anatomy of the Face, who conclude their efficient run-through of the changes that occur from approximately age 30 to 70 by referring their readers to a few 17th-century oil paintings. “These changes,” they note, “can be clearly seen in the sequential self-portraits of Rembrandt.” And indeed, in the four that the authors have selected, we can trace the Dutch master’s transformation from soft, luminescent youth to jowly, faded old man. More precisely, we can observe as “the melolabial lines deepen, forehead lines appear, and undulation of the mandibular line becomes noticeable,” observe “the nasal tip descend, and the rhytids of the forehead, the perioral area, and the neck deepen,” observe as “the jowls increase,” and follow the “loss of the cervicomental angle.” And, finally, in considering the self-portrait of 1669, the year of the painter’s death, we can survey what amounts to the continuous “progression of the previous changes.”

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There is something unexpectedly humanist about a 21st-century textbook for plastic surgeons shoring up its technical discussion with a series of oils on canvas from nearly 400 years ago. “Same as it ever was,” the authors seem to be saying, as Rembrandt van Rijn’s dark, liquid eyes gaze steadily at us, even as the face they look out from coarsens and creases, growing ever more distant from the initial downy cheeks of youth. Rembrandt himself was endlessly fascinated by the human face. While he painted other objects without preparation or study, he might sketch a face ten different ways before putting it on canvas. He had learned from da Vinci that the character of a face is expressed less in its innate shape than in its movements—and that, even when it’s not animated, the face retains the history of the emotions that have passed over it in the lines and creases that expression leaves behind. It was his own face, over time, that he depicted more than any other. From 1626 until his death in 1669, over 90 sketches, etchings, and paintings of his own face appear. Rembrandt, in effect, recorded the history of his face, attending each year to its minute changes — the permanent furrowing of the brow, the lines etched from nostrils to mouth, the mottled skin beneath his eyes — tracing its mysterious but inevitable transformation. I imagine that Rembrandt spent a great deal of time scrutinizing the lines and furrows on his own and others’ faces.

In the brightly-lit community theater dressing rooms of my childhood, we delighted in scrunching our foreheads so as to trace the new lines with a makeup pencil, creating what we were sure were portraits of our far-off, decrepit selves. To my somewhat morbid delight, Clinical Facial Analysis provides something like a makeup artist’s gallery of the aging face, displaying in photographic close-ups each theatrical effect of the degeneration of the materials of the human face. I can study the “forehead transverse furrows” we once penciled across each other’s brows, now etched for all time upon the brow of a 65-year-old woman whose eyes are no less liquid and alive than those of Rembrandt. There, too, are the once dynamic, now fixed wrinkles that fan out from the corners of our eyes, that curve from the nostrils to the corners of the mouth, that are carved from the corners of the mouth to the chin, and are impressed vertically between the eyes. As if in an Ovidian tale, our emotions have been transformed into crow’s feet, laugh lines and marionette lines, and an indefatigable set of short indentations called “elevens.”

From paging through Clinical Facial Analysis, I have learned that these lines and furrows we traced with pencil on our young, theatrically contorted faces are in fact generally called “mimetic wrinkles.” In the plastic surgeon’s taxonomy of facial wrinkles, mimetic wrinkles are those that, as da Vinci and Rembrandt intuited, are essentially caused by repetition. They are what emotion leaves behind. With each contraction of the facial muscles, our skin folds. Mimetic wrinkles, then, are like a record of all the times we’ve moved the muscles in our face, the muscles we move most often wearing the deepest grooves in the increasingly slack material of the face. As the elastic fibers in the dermis, the thick middle of the skin’s three layers, degenerate with age, our scowls, our smiles, our single raised eyebrows are no longer brief, dynamic flashes upon the face. They become, in the words of the plastic surgeon, static.

My perusal of textbooks for the student of plastic surgery brought home to me, too, that these mimetic wrinkles I’d fixated on aren’t all that transform the aging face. One can’t overlook its hollows, its odd pouches of flesh, or its sagging skin, all of which result from slight atrophy of the connective tissue. CFA, for instance, presents the grinning face of a woman in profile to illustrate the classic “witch’s chin,” a knobby point that protrudes as if a fairytale villain were emerging, as the soft tissue of the chin pad flattens and droops. Perhaps most moving to me is the “tear trough,” which is hollowed out beneath the eyes, as if decades of salt tears had eroded the soft flesh. In truth, it is the attenuation of ligaments that has allowed the fat and soft tissue just below the eyes to sag; in their absence, blood vessels just beneath the surface shade the tear trough purplish blue, accentuating its hollows. The sagging fat and tissue now hang loosely beneath these tear troughs, in what are called “festoons,” as if this effect of aging were a garish decoration. “The cunning manipulation of time,” as Proust would have it.

And then there are the alterations to the very fabric of the canvas itself. It is to this, the outermost layer of the skin, that the purveyors of exfoliants and moisturizers dedicate their sales pitches. Having lost precious lipids over the years, this thinnest layer no longer binds and retains water as well as it once did, whence the fine lines and scales that must be continually assuaged with products like Moisture Surge Extended Thirst Relief, Hydra Life Pro-Youth Sorbet Creme, and Miracle Worker™ Miraculous Anti-Aging Moisturizer. But skin care is not like dental care: regular flossing and brushing really might stave off cavities forever, but even the most dutiful moisturizing routine is just prolonging the inevitable. Eventually, an effect known as “crinkling,” like tissue paper that has been folded and unfolded many times, is general to the aging face, wrought by the disintegration of the elastic fibers that pulled the epidermis tight to the dermis. The sun, too, leaves its own gradual impression on the cheeks and necks of every one of us who lives out our lives beneath it. Over time, its ultraviolet rays misshape proteins in the elastic fibers of the dermis. The resulting crisscross of diamonds and rhomboids are called “glyphic” wrinkles, as if they were shapes to be deciphered, fortunes to be read in reverse.

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Top left: Self-Portrait with Gorget (1629), Rembrandt at 23. Top right: Self-Portrait with Beret (1640), Rembrandt at 34. Bottom left: Self-Portrait with Beret (1655), Rembrandt at 49. Bottom right: Self-Portrait (1659), Rembrandt at 53.

As for why this all happens — why muscles eventually atrophy and elastic fibers degenerate — it seems to me only common sense. Of course we can’t live forever. The grass must grow and children must die, as Proust reflects, reaching for his Victor Hugo. Evolutionary biologists have put forth convincing enough theories about why the body eventually gives out, about the diminishing returns of somatic maintenance. What seems more affecting to me is how it happens — how the body droops and wrinkles and withers, and eventually fails. Even at the cellular level, it’s strangely moving. How, after perhaps 30 years of near perfect renewal, the cells of the human body begin to show what is, effectively, the wear and tear of the years. Something happens to our stem cells, those otherwise self-perpetuating entities responsible for renewing every bone and tissue in our body. Molecular damage accumulates within them over decades, not unlike stiff joints and clogged arteries, incontinence and cataracts accumulating in a senior citizen. It takes some of these stem cells out of commission, leaving fewer of them to divide, fewer of them to perform their slow, continual doubling. As the stem cells blink out across the firmament of the human body, so, eventually, goes the body.

In that 1985 article from British Journal of Dermatology, the researchers observe so-called “crinkling” skin under the microscope. In youthful skin, they remind us, the elastic fibers appear as a “fine candelabra-like network.” But what they see now, as they bend toward the microscope, is that these fine candelabras have been replaced by what they can only describe as “clumped masses of amorphous…material.” Old age, beneath the microscope, sounds like nothing so much as the ruined ballroom of youth.

And yet, at that so-called masked ball that the narrator attends so very late in Proust’s novel, what seems like a great gift to him is the way that time — his enduring obsession — is made visible in the aging body. “I…became aware for the first time,” he writes, “as a result of the metamorphoses that had been produced in all these people, of all the time that had passed in their lives.” This, for Proust, whose book, after all, is titled In Search of Lost Time, is not a bad thing. If the face we once knew has been disguised, the years it carries have been revealed. The question then becomes, it seems to me, one of wanting to acknowledge all the time that has passed in one’s life. Maybe that’s the most difficult part of accepting this mask that time is sculpting for us. Time has something to show for the years, I’ll think, catching sight of my face in the harsh fluorescence of a public restroom or the darkly reflective glass of a front door. But do I? •

Additional art from Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait With Wide-Awake Hat (1632) and Self-Portrait With Beret (1665)

Alyssa Pelish writes and edits in New York. Her essays, articles, fiction, and reviews have appeared in Harper’s, Slate, Science, The Quarterly Conversation, Denver Quarterly, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others.
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