Let’s face it, Botox won’t make us happier. Recent studies have claimed that freezing emotional expression through using Botox has a positive effect on depression. Is it true? That injecting Botox can actually change the way we feel, and not just our body image but also the very emotionswe experience within ourselves?
Motion is Emotion
The new studies revive the old “motion is emotion” theory to suggest if someone cannot make certain expressions, such as frowning. This person is less likely to feel discontent or depressed. The brain, the argument goes, will not read muscular movement associated with anger as present, so will not feel angry. Aesthetic procedures that freeze our expressions can thus affect our emotional lives. Should the depressed be reaching for the Botox?
Most of us think that our facial expressions reflect our feelings, experiences, age, and perhaps when we last went to buy makeup. We also tend to think people’s faces express their more general take on the world. If a face is frowning, this often is associated with anger, we may recognise this association and begin to actually feel angry inside. Others may then react to us as if we were angry, producing a reinforcement cycle where people frown back at us and we are caught in a perpetual spiral of rage.
This theory goes back to the early 20th century, when psychologist and philosopher William James argued that “a man does not cry because he is sad, he is sad because he cries”. Emotion here is seen as a reaction in the body, a set of muscular and chemical events. Recent studies have revived these ideas, claiming that freezing emotional expression through using Botox has a positive effect on depression. Journalists are being briefed that Botox may even prove a universal panacea for depression as a facial motion previously associated with anger is no longer possible, which will make us all happier.
Maybe a bit of a premature conclusion. All this is based on a very simplistic understanding of emotion. Within the laboratory, a face with a frown may be read as quickly as an angry one, yet our real-world experiences of each other are nearly always in interaction. Our brains pick up cues of how someone else might be thinking and feeling on a second-by-second basis. We do not see a couple of frown lines, a couple of furrows and process “sad face”, “happy face” but rather pick up cues from a mixture of facial expression, gait, voice cadence, posture, context, eye movement, as well as the fantasies and projections we bring with us to every social exchange.
The Horror of the Uncanny
The new “Botox theory” ignores this complexity, seeing emotion as little more than the awareness of a set of physical reactions. It also neglects something crucial described by writers for centuries: the horror of the uncanny. We experience this when we see an actress or woman of a certain age and feel that something is wrong. Perhaps she has the plumped out cheeks of early youth, the ironed-out forehead of Botox, yet also middle-age crow’s feet. If the work is good, we may not know explicitly what is wrong, but we sense instantly that something is awry. There is a gap between the mask we see and what we expect to be in its place.
The plastic surgery industry wants to get rid of our angry faces to make us happier, but this forecloses the real issue. People can tell when something is not right with facial expression, and that will leave people feeling more alienated, more alone, more paranoid than ever. Botox might block us from making the expressions we used to make when angry, but it can never get rid of our internal worlds. If there is anger there, why not think about it rather than try to excise it? The Botox route, denies the legitimacy of a human’ s anger, as if de-ageing and depoliticising had become one and the same thing.