Welcome to the Zoom Age of Personal Beauty

Over the the past year, medical spas, aestheticians and other beauty providers have reported an uptick in Philadelphians looking to tweak their appearances. Here's how I, too, learned to stop worrying and love cheek burpees.

Cosmetic treatments are on the rise in Philadelphia. / Photograph by Jonathan Pushnik

On a Tuesday morning in late fall, I found myself on the floor of my bedroom, kneading the hard part of my knuckles into the floppy bits beneath my chin while a perky young woman observed me via Zoom.

“Don’t be afraid of applying some pressure,” she said in a chipper British accent. Her own floppy chin parts were non-existent, and her skin was bouncy and dreamy. “It’s okay if you look a bit ridiculous. Really dig in.”

As I glanced at myself on my computer monitor, I verified that yes, I absolutely looked ridiculous. And yet I continued to knead away at my skin for another 45 minutes as part of a face workout from a company called FaceGym, highly recommended by several friends in my general range of early midlife. They promised it could correct what I believed was my most serious facial flaw, my saggy jowls.

It’s not that I wanted to reverse the aging process or stop time. I just didn’t want to look like Jack Nicholson yet. And so there I was on a video call, working up quite a serious sweat doing things called cheek burpees and face whipping, which involves both smooshing and pinching.

Not a day passes that I don’t grasp the skin around my mouth and push it back toward my ears before I activate the camera on a Zoom. It’s always in that time right before a video meeting, when the camera catches you totally unaware, before you artfully cock your head and widen your eyes. It’s that moment that always gets me. I wish there was a German word for the split second when you catch your face in repose and realize you look nothing like the way you picture yourself in your head.

My ridiculous sweaty face workout hasn’t been my only deep dive into the rabbit hole of beautification modifications this year. Far from it. Never in the 41-year history of my face have I been so aware of every clogged pore, stray eyebrow hair, fine line and off-color tooth as I became during the pandemic, or, as I’ve come to think of it, the Zoom Age of Personal Vanity.

I know the whole purpose of the video call is to make us feel connected to other people, so we can focus on what they’re saying and doing. But really: Every single one of us is wondering whether those two grooves in the middle of our forehead somehow got deeper and more prominent overnight.

“People are seeing their faces more than ever before, and in a new way,” says plastic surgeon Julie Shtraks of Bloom Facial Plastic Surgery in Bryn Mawr, citing Zoom for the overwhelming interest she’s seen from Philly-area residents in the past year who line her office, looking for a little something to melt away the years. But Zoom isn’t the only culprit: “Constant visibility on social media, in combination with an increased social acceptance of cosmetic procedures, plays a major role, too.”

Oh, right: This year of intense facial scrutiny comes after about a decade of Instagram’s prominence. The presence of filters and influencers and the need to constantly document every family breakfast mean the average woman is thinking much more about her face than she was in previous generations — and feels much more inclined to change it.

Now add in the fact that it’s easier than ever to fix up your face. There are more options at every price point, and the stigma once associated with injectables and fillers has been replaced, at least in my circles, with enthusiastic chatter at the playground as moms compare what’s been injected where.

“I think it’s less about vanity and more about people identifying things that negatively impact their self-confidence and feeling empowered and unashamed to do something about it,” says Shtraks. Spoken like a true plastic surgeon.

Whatever you want to call it, you can’t deny it’s happening. In the past year, medical spas, aestheticians, and other beauty providers have reported an uptick in Philadelphians looking to tweak their appearances — maybe in an effort to buy back some of the time we lost during the pandemic, or an attempt to re-create the “amplification” effect on Zoom that makes your skin look a bit tighter and brighter.

In a group chat, one professional mom confessed: “The accumulation of video calls is unlocking new strains of vanity in me.” She’s now acutely aware of a puffiness and discoloration on one of her eyelids and driven to distraction (and expensive fits of online shopping) trying to fix it. It’s not, she said “something I ever noticed about myself or ever would have noticed were it not for the many, many hours of seeing my own face on calls.”

If she has to deal with much more remote work, she said in the chat, she’s seriously considering Botox. At which point, the other moms who had already done Botox chimed in approvingly.

Believe me, I get it. In the past 18 months, I’ve gotten Botox, too — and whitened my teeth, and considered something called CoolSculpting, which is supposed to freeze off unwanted fat. (I stopped considering it when I read that supermodel Linda Evangelista filed suit against the company, claiming the treatment caused her to grow fat in strange and unexpected places on her body.)

It didn’t stop there. I’ve had my eyebrows tinted and sculpted to make my eyes pop and subtly change the appearance of my face. At Lash Bash on Sansom, I stuttered as I told my lash artist that I didn’t want to look like a Kardashian or a Russian prostitute, but I did want to ensure that on my upcoming book tour, I’d look like a real-life Instagram filter. My artist was the Michelangelo of lashes, and she understood the exact volume I wanted in eye fringe, leaving me looking like Audrey Hepburn, or maybe a baby deer.

I have an entire drawer dedicated to serums and lotions and tightening creams and brightening oils. It jangles like a carpenter’s toolbox as my husband washes his face with water, smiles at himself in the mirror, and considers his skin-care regime complete.

At this point in your reading, you may have already googled me, seeing as you’re wondering, in a stage whisper, “What’s wrong with her face? Is she a mutant?”

The short answer is: nothing. The long answer: everything.

I’m a 41-year-old woman, a mother of two kids. I’m reaching the age at which females often become invisible in society, and if I’m going to disappear, I sure as hell intend to look my best on the way out.

My husband, over on his uncluttered side of the vanity, thinks I’m nuts. “You’re gorgeous,” he says. “I can’t see the difference.” “You injected what into your face?” I sigh and tune him out, because none of this is for him. It’s for me. It’s the one thing I’m at all self-involved about.

I’m not the only one. My book club and I used to talk about books and the news and politics and our children and maybe our husbands. Now, we start most conversations with, “Don’t you think I could use a little Botox?” or “I would like these folds around my mouth to be a little less like the Grand Canyon.”

Sheri David, the Best of Philly-winning eyebrow sculptor, is now so hard to book that I need to try to get on her calendar a month in advance. She says it’s not my imagination; Philadelphians are newly fixated on their looks. “It wasn’t like this before the pandemic,” she tells me. “Everyone is becoming obsessed with their eyes, especially with how their brows look, since it’s the only thing you can see when you’re wearing a mask and they really want them to pop.”

While women (and men) might previously have felt the need to keep their work private, we now live in an age of oversharing and self-documentation. As a result, people are readily admitting that the glow-up is due, not to more sleep and lots of water, but to Juvéderm and microblading — which then gives others permission to indulge as well.

“Cosmetic surgery has really been destigmatized over the years, and people feel comfortable sharing their experiences,” says Shtraks. And when the sharing is accompanied by likes and “WOWs!” in the comment section, what was once seen as superficial now reads as self-care.

“Addressing the things that bother you takes those things off your emotional plate so you can focus on what really matters to you. A little confidence boost goes a long way,” Shtraks adds, sounding more like a therapist than a surgeon. (Hey, if a forehead’s worth of Botox and a few therapy sessions cost about the same, why not go with the one that makes you look hotter for half a year?)

When I went to see Shtraks, I hadn’t gotten Botox in about six years — not since my wedding. When she asked what I wanted to do, I pinched the skin at my temples with my fingers. “Smooth this out,” I said about my forehead. Then I stuck my chin out like a curious turtle emerging from its shell. “And something about the chin flaps, maybe?”

I was swiftly informed that jawline maintenance requires much more than a couple of shots and is quite a bit pricier. (That’s how I got into the Face Gym.) But my forehead? Those lines were an easy fix.

“We are going to start small,” Shtraks told me. “A little goes a long way. Let it settle, and let’s check in in about two weeks. It can be a slippery slope.”

She was right. Once I saw the results on my shiny-smooth forehead, the wrinkles vanquished to the dustbin rubbish fire of 2020, I wanted more. But Shtraks got her start in Beverly Hills. She knew better. She’s said no to women much more aggressive than me. She made me wait a couple of weeks to let it all settle like a carefully baked soufflé, then asked if I still wanted more.

“Yes,” I said.

“I think you’re fine,” she responded.

It’s good to have people in your life who will tell you no.

God bless those little injections. I’m much less critical of my face on video calls or television appearances now. In fact, I even like it most of the time. And the fake lashes: wowee. There are no words for how glamorous I felt every single day from the moment I walked into the bathroom in the morning and looked in the mirror. And I adored basking in all the compliments.

“I love your eye makeup,” friends would say.

“Oh, I’m not wearing any,” I would respond coyly, and then tell them everything I’d learned about the world of falsie lashes. My friends were similarly forthcoming, sharing stories about the spray tans they tried out, the new teeth whitening gel, the strange Korean skin-care line they ordered from Instagram late at night. Four of my friends have gotten braces during the pandemic!

Still, as much as I loved those lashes, I couldn’t maintain them. You can no longer sleep on your belly or go in the pool or rub your eyes first thing in the morning, lest you prematurely shed little lashes all over your home, your children and your husband. Refills run more than $100 every couple of weeks. I’d have to get a new side hustle if I wanted to keep up my lash game. Back to drugstore mascara for me.

I’m still in the throes of my honeymoon phase with the Botox. I’ll keep kneading my face and video-calling my facial trainer as long as I see some discernible difference in my jawline. But I’ve also started to do camera-off Zoom calls. I often lie and tell the other party my wi-fi bandwidth is too low for streaming video. More often than not, they sigh in relief as they turn off their own cameras, happy to get a break from staring at themselves.

We weren’t meant to live in front of a mirror for eight hours a day.

But until we can all turn off our screens, I’ll continue my cheek burpees.

For more on cosmetic treatments, read our Ultimate Guide to Beauty Treatments in Philadelphia. Published as “Put Your Best Face Forward” in the February 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.