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Pelosi, plastic surgery and the expression of emotion in politics

- - Monday, November 7, 2011

In recent weeks, there's been a flurry of speculation about whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 71, has had plastic surgery. But unless she has some previously undocumented condition in which one's face gets tighter with age, the answer is obvious, plastic surgeons say.

"A woman her age shouldn't look that good," says Dr. Anthony Youn, a Detroit-based plastic surgeon. "It appears that she has had a good amount of surgery ... probably an eyelid lift and even a facelift."

That should surprise no one, says Samantha von Sperling, a New-York-based political image consultant: No one talks about it, but everyone does it.

"Almost everyone who is over the age of 30 who is on camera all the time ... has had work done, even if it's just a monthly chemical peel," says Ms. Sperling. "If you want to stay competitive in the televised arena of politics, you are spending serious money on your dermatologist, aesthetician, dentist, makeup artist and maybe surgeon."

But in their rush to look forever young, some politicians may be neglecting another, more important demand of the video age: the ability to express emotion convincingly.

After a hurricane, a president must immediately fly to the disaster area and frown with concern at flattened houses. Been accused of sexual misconduct? Look aghast (eyebrows raised in surprise, nose wrinkled with disgust) and, if that doesn't work, try contrition (downcast gaze, inner eyebrows lifted).

Politicians, take heed: The face is integral to the expression of human emotion, and cosmetic modifications to the face - whether surgical or pharmaceutical - risk seriously limiting expressive range.

Among the leading threats is Botox, which is commonly used to erase forehead creases, says Paul Ekman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School.

"The problem with Botox is that it makes you less expressive," says Mr. Ekman, the nation's foremost authority on the facial expression of emotion. "It may get rid of some wrinkles and it may make you look a little younger, but you are going to be less attractive to voters. ... We don't like people whose faces don't move."

Voters may read immobility in the face as impassivity, explains Jack Glaser, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "If someone's face is so swollen with Botox that they can't raise their eyebrows when someone says something surprising, or they don't appear to be able to smile comfortably, that could make them appear unfeeling," he says.

No less important than emotional expression is the ability to use our 43 facial muscles to punctuate speech - adding emphasis with widened eyes, for example. Without those tools "voters are not going to pay as much attention to you," says Mr. Ekman. "They will tend to drift off into their own thoughts, if you have a less expressive face when talking."

Few would accuse Vice President Joseph R. Biden of being inexpressive, but during his 2008 debate against Sarah Palin, he did appear to have a case of Botox brow, Dr. Youn says. His immobile inner eyebrow and tendency to raise his outer brow when excited created a devilish expression.

"That arched eyebrow almost made him look evil," says Dr. Youn.

Luckily, Botox's effects wear off within five months, and Mr. Biden's forehead is back to its usual lively self, says Dr. Youn.

Blessed with beautiful bone structure, Mrs. Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota appear not to have gone under the knife - and have retained their ability to emote effectively as a result, Mr. Ekman says.

The two have, however, very likely had chemical peels or laser treatments to stay fresh-faced, says Dr. Youn. "Chemical peels and laser treatments are very non-invasive, and they can have them done at lunch hour and look just fine afterward," he says.

While Botox mutes emotional expression, some cosmetic procedures can actually make certain feelings easier to read, says Mr. Ekman. For instance, the frown lines that seem to have recently disappeared from Mrs. Pelosi's face "make you look down or sour when you really aren't," he says.

Another common procedure, eyelid lifts, keep older politicians from always seeming bored or tired, he says.

But while we want our politicians to be fresh-faced, we expect them to come by their youthful good looks naturally, says Drew Westen, an Emory University professor who studies emotion in politics.

"[Having plastic surgery] would be readily interpreted by many as both a sign of vanity and being out of touch in an age in which so many of their constituents are struggling just to get by," says Mr. Westen, author of the much-discussed book "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."

But for aging female politicians in our youth-obsessed culture, looking your age isn't just a cosmetic disadvantage; it's often interpreted as a sign of advancing senescence - like buttoning up your coat wrong, or wearing two different shoes. So Mrs. Pelosi's best bet may be to get plenty of cosmetic surgery, and deny it every step of the way.

"She looks fantastic, which says, 'If I can keep myself together at this age, you'd better believe I can keep the country together too,' " Ms. Sperling says.