Come out with your hands up
When it comes to reversing the ageing process, it's the last frontier. Susan Daly on the only body part immune to the magic of cosmetic surgery
Remember that old kiddies' rhyme,"Heads, shoulders, knees and toes"? We didn't know it then, twirling around on our dainty little toes and smooth, youthful pins, but that rhyme was prophetic.
In the age of body consciousness, we've come to obsess over every minute part of ourselves. It started with facelifts. The nip and tuck is no longer the preserve of the ageing Hollywood starlet: it's now a high-street commodity.
In Ireland, we spend roughly the same amount on cosmetic procedures a year -- €55m -- as we do on our supposed national obsession, tea bags.
As the spotlight on the perfect figure grows stronger, no body part is safe from scrutiny. The focus now intensifies steadily from head to toe. Demi Moore got a kneelift when she decided her patellas were less than perfect. Fashion victims found fault with their feet and started injecting derma fillers into their soles to help them stand upright in skyscraper stilettos.
Now it's hands that are under fire. Sarah Jessica Parker, often pilloried for her unconventional looks, is taking a battering for her "bony" fingers. Pictures of her at the recent premiere of Sex and the City 2 were accompanied by bitchy critiques of the "bulging veins" on her hands and arms. The usual unmerciful comments about having the face of a horse were replaced by jibes about having the hands of a man.
Marie Claire magazine found her mitts so unsightly that they did a complete Photoshop job on them for the cover of their June edition. They were plumped up and smoothed out, with no protruding knuckles and no throbbing veins.
Cameron Diaz and Angelina Jolie have also suffered the barbs of the 'granny hands' police for having less than dainty digits. In a mild foreshadow of what was to come, Diaz was lambasted some years back for turning up to the Oscars with chipped nail polish. Anything but top-to-toe perfection is inexcusable on the red carpet.
Now she's accused of sacrificing her hands to her surfing hobby, letting them shrivel up and roughen in the sea and sun of the Californian coast. Jolie's skinny hands are often ringfenced as proof that it may not be possible to be too rich, but it is possible to be too thin.
This sudden focus on the hands is certainly linked with the overall body-beautiful obsession. Even Kate Moss has used a hand double for close-up shots in a Rimmel make-up advertisement. Ironically, the ad was for Renew and Lift foundation. The tagline? Look and feel years younger.
Social critic and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Bodies, says: "Our bodies are increasingly being experienced as objects to be honed and worked on. What I am seeing is franticness about having to get a body. I wish we could treat our bodies as the place we live from, rather than regard it as a place to be worked on, as though it were a disagreeable old kitchen in need of renovation and update."
The result is that an aggressive anti-ageing campaign on the face and body shows up a pair of withering hands like never before. Madonna, for example, has the body of a teenager, the face of a twentysomething, but the hands of a middle-aged woman. Her hands are the age they should be, but they look weird because they don't match the rest of her preternaturally youthful bits and bobs.
Columnist Julie Burchill, writing to "celebrate" Madonna's 50th birthday in 2008, said: "I know I'm fat, but I have to say that if I spent four hours a day working out, I'd want to look a damn sight hotter than Madonna does; those vile, veiny hands, that sad stringy neck -- yuck."
That's the sisterhood for you.
Teri Hatcher, incidentally the same age as SJP at 45, has similarly been roasted for letting the appearance of her hands betray her full age. They might be holding back the years on their faces, but the hands are giving the game away.
Comedian Lucille Ball once suggested that the secret to staying young-looking was to live well, eat slowly and "lie about your age". That's not so easy when your hands are doing the talking for you.
Cosmetic doctor Katherine Mulrooney, of The Clinic in Dublin's Sandymount Green, says she's not surprised hands have become the telltale mark of a person's true age and lifestyle. "People were mostly concerned with their face, neck and chest area up to now," she says. "But the hands are constantly being used and abused. The poor old hands get a terrible hammering."
Even exercise -- so vital for a celebrity's slim-line credentials -- is a vice when it comes to how it makes the hands look. Overzealous cardio workouts increase blood flow and can lead to enlarged veins. Coupled with low body fat, they are both more prominent and easily noticed.
Up until recently, not much could be done about it. Josephine Allen, manicurist to stars such as Julia Roberts and Heidi Klum, says the most she could give her clients was this homespun gem: "If you want to look younger, hold your hands up -- sit with them raised during dinner so the blood flows down and veins appear smaller."
Hands are just too difficult to operate on. The practicalities are that hands can't afford to be frozen or made any way immobile by the traditional surgical 'lifts'. The increasing demand for youthful paws to match frozen-in-time faces, however, has motivated the cosmetic industry to find alternatives.
What it has come up with are topical treatments to treat sun damage, and injectable fillers or fat from elsewhere on a person's body to plump out the hands and make them look fuller and less gaunt.
"The hands are one of the most sun-exposed sites," says Dr Mulrooney. "Photo damage counts for a lot of the manifestation of skin-ageing; collagen breaks down, the hand appears more bony, the skin crepey and the skin acquires sun-damage brown spots. What has happened now is that the more they do to rejuvenate their faces, the more they notice their hands by contrast."
Dr Mulrooney says fillers injected between the metacarpals are becoming popular, as are intense pulsed light (IPL) lasers or fractionalised lasers carried out over a course of a couple of months to treat unwanted pigmentation. A full hand makeover will run you into thousands of euro.
"At the moment, it's a bit like the toe surgery some people have to fit into their fancy designer shoes," she says. "It's never going to be as massive a thing as Botox, but there's definitely a demand for it."
Vivian Diller, a psychotherapist who wrote about women's feelings on ageing in her recent book Face It, wonders, though, if the eternal pursuit for youth is as good for our mind as for our toned-up body parts.
"I have a client who is a cosmetic surgeon," she says. "He talks about how strange it is to treat an 80-year-old who has the breasts of a 20-year old. Body parts are out of sync. How do women feel when parts of their body look young and other parts don't? The psychology of this is not being talked about."
For those not yet willing to put their hands in a doctor's hands, you can take the less worrisome precautions of sunblock and moisturising.
Or if the damage is done, constantly wearing a pair of white cotton gloves might make you look as if you're auditioning for My Fair Lady, but you'll be keeping your hands -- and age -- to yourself.