Whether it’s genetics or the benefits of adopting an early skin-care regime, I’ve always looked younger than I am. Not looking my age permits a certain ego boost, especially when people are surprised to hear I’m in my mid-50s. But as I get older and the wrinkles etch deeper, mitigating the natural aging process has become more challenging, yet at the same time, easier. The medical and aesthetic options now available to women (and men) include a bewildering array of treatments for anyone with the money and desire to nip here, tuck there, and undergo subtle, or even obvious, changes to almost every part of one’s anatomy. The tools to age gracefully—some of which I employ—exist, but the debate still rages about whether and how we should use them.
Women of a certain age can be forgiven our confusion about how we can or should age in public. Witness the outcry over the firing of Lisa LaFlamme from headlining CTV’s nightly newscast, ostensibly for “going grey.” Picture a toned and tanned 55-year-old Nicole Kidman on the cover of Perfect magazine, in full articulated-muscle victory pose, a modified Vitruvian Woman for the 21st century.
Women’s desire to put their best face forward goes back millennia. Whether it’s rubbing crushed pearls onto faces in China or thanaka powder in Myanmar, soaking in saffron-infused milk baths or sugaring off body hair in ancient Egypt, using nature’s bounty to modify appearance and improve skin health isn’t new. Treatments, potions, and tonics predate Instagram and the myriad face-morphing app filters that can render people unrecognizable. But the cosmetic technology that’s developed over the past few decades has upped the anti-aging ante, offering the chance to tweak looks and go beyond ancient rituals and modern digital filters.
Unlike long-accepted ways of changing appearance by wearing braces or colouring hair, face or body treatments that can remove wrinkles or melt away fat are more fraught—often whispered about in hushed tones or not mentioned at all, even among friends. A stigma remains around choosing aesthetic medicine to counter life’s maturing process.
Vancouver is no stranger to the art and science of using medical technology in the pursuit of self-improvement. In 1987, Vancouver doctors Jean and Alastair Carruthers accidentally discovered the potential of Botox for use in the cosmetic beauty industry. The neurotoxin is derived from botulinum toxin, which in small doses temporarily prevents muscle contraction, reducing the appearance of facial wrinkles. By 2018, Botox was listed among the top five minimally invasive cosmetic treatments performed. Botox and its sister neuromodulators (including Xeomin, Nuceiva, and Dysport, as well as Daxxify, which isn’t yet approved in Canada) have become part of a booming billion-dollar industry that includes dermal fillers; body sculpting; and laser, pulsed-light, and radiofrequency therapies.
The entrepreneurs behind two Vancouver beauty businesses believe the future of aesthetic medicine is bright. For Andrea Greenway, an award-winning interior designer and one of the partners in Life Story, a new Kitsilano beauty bar focused exclusively on injectables, choosing to use this cosmetic approach is about maintaining skin health.
“We don’t want to be anti-aging. We want to embrace this graceful-aging movement,” says Greenway, who has used her design skills, coupled with partner Sara Miller’s store-construction knowledge, to fashion a sleek interior for Life Story’s West 4th Avenue location. The aim is to destigmatize injectables and empower clients. Treatments are administered by medical director Dr. Nicole Redding and her team. Redding focused on family medicine before incorporating dermatology into her practice. “We want guests to leave as their best selves, looking good and feeling proud about how they look and feel,” she notes.
Jessica Walsh, a British expat and founder of Formula Fig, approaches the beauty question from an experiential skin-care perspective. Opened in 2019 in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood, and with four locations in Canada (Los Angeles is scheduled to open in December), Formula Fig (formerly Fig Face) offers facial treatments and physician-supervised medical injectables, called Stingers, in establishments with lush pink, green, and gold interiors.
“It’s about making people feel good and comfortable in their skin,” says Walsh, who has a background in finance and fashion in London. “Good skin health is key from the beginning.”
Education and mental health screening are crucial for Dr. Kristy Bailey, medical director and founder of FCP Dermatology in Toronto. Although Life Story and Formula Fig employ trained medical staff to perform neuromodulator treatments, the injectables industry is not regulated in Canada. Anyone can do a weekend course and start wielding a syringe.
“It’s scary when you look at the side effects such as blindness and necrosis,” Bailey says. She often gives talks to other injectors and is shocked by how little basic facial anatomy they know. She also conducts mental health screenings before injecting patients and believes that cosmetic injectables, when done correctly, should only replace what’s being lost over time. “You should not be able to tell the person had anything done, just that they look good for their age, or well rested.”
Countries such as the U.K. and Australia are struggling to regulate the boom in aesthetic medical treatments, and Bailey hopes Canada will similarly work on adopting more stringent regulations stipulating that only a medical doctor can administer injections.
The psychological aspects of playing with one’s appearance have also given rise to concerns from mental health professionals. Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist and a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia, worries about the reasons people decide to stymie the natural process of aging. “Using cosmetic injectables could improve a patient’s mood and anxiety as they’re happier with their appearance,” she suggests. “That’s kind of an appropriate use, but there’s a lot of misuse and overuse.”
She continues, “I would say people with underlying anxiety, especially obsessive-compulsive disorder or what we call body dysmorphic phobia, can really get into trouble with negative consequences: their own health-care costs, how much time they’re spending on this, results that they’re not happy with. It’s like an addiction.”
Kang also questions whether middle-aged and older women are really the group being targeted by the industry. “You say ‘age with grace.’ I think it is actually targeted to younger people,” she says. “The question is also whether aging is a thing to prevent, given that it is a natural thing, in terms of anxiety, connection, self-worth. That’s part of it, too.”
Kang’s observation is borne out by Walsh, who says the clients who walk into Formula Fig are diverse in age, from mothers coming in with their daughters (and sons) to young professionals getting injections and older clients receiving facial treatments. For Walsh, this is a positive—a sign her service speaks more to a mindset than to a particular demographic.
As cosmetic injectables continue to grow in popularity, a safe and regulated industry is in everyone’s best interests. Growth is top of mind for entrepreneurs Greenway, Miller, and Walsh. They and their investors are looking to scale their businesses beyond Metro Vancouver, eventually expanding across Canada, the United States, and beyond.
“Our customer is anyone who’s got skin,” Walsh says, noting that the timing is right for busting stereotypes and ultimately leaving the choice in the hands, or on the face, of the consumer.
As for my own visage, I continue to take a little help from my cosmetic injectable friends. I have no regrets about choosing a targeted application of medically supervised aesthetic treatments over the past two years. It’s worked well to smooth over the more obvious facial wrinkles. But I’ll continue to wear my laugh lines with pride and grace.
Read more from our Winter 2022 issue.