London - Like many women, I always vowed I would never have anything done to my face as I got older.
“You won’t catch me messing with Mother Nature,” I would announce airily to anyone prepared to listen. “I won’t be putting poison into my body. I shall grow old gracefully, embrace my age, learn to love my wrinkles.”
Yeah, right. Then I actually started getting old. And I don’t mean just a bit old: I mean the kind of old where you wake up in the morning and the creases no longer fade after a few minutes, but hang around until teatime like unwanted guests. Not the wrong side of 35, but the wrong side of 45. There is a world of difference.
Being a bit old is easily remedied. You just get a few early nights, a blowdry and maybe a new foundation and you’re sorted.
Being properly old is when not even your trusty pot of industrial-strength concealer can erase the dark spots; when no amount of light-reflecting particles can banish the bags under your eyes.
It’s when the corners of your mouth start to turn down - even when you’re smiling. And when your forehead becomes fixed in a permanent expression of extreme crossness. That, ladies, is old.
And when you get to that stage - the stage where you no longer recognise the person staring back at you in the mirror - it’s surprising how quickly those high falutin’ morals fly out the window. The lure of the needle becomes harder and harder to resist - especially when everyone’s at it.
Truth is, there is nothing quite as effective as Botox when it comes to softening frown lines. Administered correctly and very sparingly, it can subtly alter the contours of the face, so that you look less like the rather grumpy old bat you have become (I speak for myself, naturally) and more the carefree young thing you used to be.
Still, it’s not for everyone. Nor does it have to be. Because looking old is not just about wrinkles; it’s about a whole other set of factors, some of which are so subtle you don’t even realise they exist.
In particular, skin tone and tissue texture are very important. They are part of the visual signals that help the brain recognise what it is seeing. A pasty, pallid, congested or uneven complexion makes you look ill and worn out, but a clear, even, rosy one sends the opposite signal: young and healthy.
This, I’m afraid, is one area where the Botox needle is no use at all. There is, however, another type of needle that can really make a big difference: acupuncture.
Of all the so-called holistic treatments I have experienced, acupuncture is the one that consistently delivers the best results.
And while Botox is never a pleasant treatment, facial acupuncture has the advantage that as well as making you look better, it also makes you feel better. This may seem counter intuitive (how can having a face like a pin-cushion possibly be relaxing?) - but, trust me, it does.
Of course, lots of people think acupuncture is just hocus pocus. Mostly, that’s because they’ve never had it. In actual fact, it is widely recognised as having many benefits. In China, it’s used in mainstream hospitals.
Over here, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends it to treat chronic lower back pain, tension headaches and migraine.
There is also evidence that it can help relieve the side effects of chemotherapy, and improve long-term conditions such as osteoarthritis. And that’s just the scientific proof. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.
Facial acupuncture is a relatively new arrival to these shores, despite being common practice in China for millenia. It’s been available via a few choice practitioners in London for around a decade, but it’s only recently that it’s started to become more widely available.
I first experienced it around eight years ago, when I was having acupuncture for chronic back pain following a complicated birth. My therapist at the time, Chinese medical practitioner John Tsagaris, had just returned from training in Beijing, and suggested I try it.
The results were impressive for a tired, worn-out mother of small children. Tsagaris has gone on to become very successful and now runs a clinic in Chelsea, where treatments start at £275 (about R5 000) - sadly, a little too expensive for my pocket.
Many charge much less, including the excellent Kate Winstanley (£125 for an initial consultation, £95 thereafter) and the woman I see now, Mami Tsang, who costs £80 for 60 minutes.
It won’t make you look 20 years younger but, over time - and be aware this is not a silver bullet treatment, you need to have sessions regularly, say once a month, to see tangible benefits - it will make you look like a less exhausted, less grumpy and less time-ravaged version of yourself.
Acupuncturists believe that by inserting very fine needles into certain areas of the face - and also on the body - you can stimulate various energy points and encourage the body to heal itself from the inside.
There is some logic to this, many of the latest (rather brutal) rejuvenating techniques involve damaging the skin at a sub-dermal level - usually with heat - in order to encourage the body’s natural healing processes.
Produce small lesions, the thinking goes, and the body will send in the emergency services - increased blood flow and the production of collagen - which also, rather conveniently, happen to be the things that result in a firmer, plumper and more youthful complexion.
Acupuncture achieves a similar trick, just via a different stimulus.
Advocates will tell you that it also delivers a number of added benefits. The needles increase oxygenation of the tissues, release natural anti-inflammatories and eliminate toxins in the skin. They also reduce muscle tension, which can be a real factor in ageing.
“A lot of people who come to me have tried everything from Botox to facelifts and they’re keen to try something more natural,” says Tsagaris, who now does more beauty than health acupuncture.
“Acupuncture compeiments these other treatments by assisting the skin to rejuvenate and restructure itself, releasing all its healing potential.
“It increases oxygen flow, bringing vital nutrients to the skin. It also removes accumulative toxins and encourages new collagen and elastin production to create a youthful appearance.”
Less tangible, but no less important, is the almost magical effect those needles seem to have on the psyche. A kind of zen calm descends, producing a most pleasing sense of relaxation and well-being.
Where I find the treatment particularly effective is in improving the bags under my eyes and reducing puffiness in general.
Immediately, my skin colour and tone looks much better: pinker and healthier, as though I’ve just been for a brisk walk in the countryside.
But what I really like is that the two areas of tension that give me most trouble - my jaw and the frown line between my eyes - really do soften.
I am a terrible tooth-grinder, to the point where I sometimes wake up in the morning with a sore jaw. Acupuncture instantly relieves that tension. And that angry bunch of muscle between my brows relaxes - almost completely fading.
Afterwards, I sleep well and wake up feeling full of energy, My face has more definition, and my eyes look bright and clear.
For a few, fleeting days, I feel like my old self. And that, I’m increasingly discovering, is a rare and wonderful treat.