ON GETTY IMAGES, one can find no fewer than 29,419 archival photos of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Here he is shirtless, pulling a fish from the depths of a lake in Serbia, triumphantly displaying the specimen for the camera. There, in a black-and-white image from 1970, 22-year-old Putin is dancing, sullen-faced, with a classmate and sporting a Bieber-esque side-swoosh hairstyle. His predominant expression is one of solemnity. In just a few images, the public is treated to the sight of Putin’s teeth, though primarily in older photos, in seemingly happier years.
In a number of recent pictures, Putin looks barely 45 years old (he is 65). This wasn’t always the case: In an official portrait taken in 1999, he looks exhausted and gaunt—creases ring his eyes. During a visit to the French parliament in 2003, he looks like a rosy descendant of Saint Nicholas. But in newer photos, he appears to be attempting to imitate a Jersey Shore teenager: tanned, youthful, and filled out in the face. Is he getting younger? Looking weirder? The effect makes one do a double-take.
The role of physical appearance in the lives of male politicians is seldom discussed outright, but there's a long history, both at home and abroad. A new biography of Mikhail Gorbachev suggests that the former leader of the Soviet Union was at odds with his successor Boris Yeltsin because he saw in Yeltsin the same “arrogance, vanity, and pride” that he held within himself. Nikita Khrushchev was rumored to have survived the Great Purge of the 1930s because he did not overshadow Josef Stalin physically—Khrushchev was three inches shorter than the 5’6” leader. (Khrushchev didn’t get much of a break in the looks department: in their 1971 obit, the New York Times described him as “short, rotund, round-headed, gleamingly bald, baggy-suited man.”) Vanity has been in no short supply for Russian leaders over the years—but no leader has been more committed to a life of apparent youthfulness than Putin.
The Russian president has a reputation for perpetuating terrifying behavior, without any shame. This includes the reported ordered assassinations of political foes and journalists; the alleged abuse of and cheating on his former wife, Ludmilla Ocheretnaya; his early career as a KGB spy; allegedly stealingNew England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring; as well as a commitment to disseminating misinformation. Comparing Trump and Putin, journalist Masha Gessen said of the Russian president, “Putin creates a cacophony of his own, right? He just drowns people in numbers and figures and facts, most of them made up, but you feel like you’re in this morass of gray nothingness.” Over the years, he has comported himself in such a way as to underscore his reported malevolence, giving off a sense of threatening impenetrability and inscrutability, the kind that you might find in a wax figure or a brick wall.
But for someone so intent on appearing austere — and whose interests include his supposed inherent virility (“I am not a woman, so I don’t have bad days,” he said in June of 2017)—Putin's vanity and attention to aesthetics gives the game away. Images of the 65-year-old from 1960 until the present depict a man whose facial features have changed and suggest that behind the bravado and performance of testosterone-heavy masculinity and unflappability is a profoundly vulnerable, insecure individual. What Gessen called, in her bracing, 2013 biography on the Russian leader, “a man without a face.”
Experts in the field of cosmetic surgery have weighed in regularly over the past five or six years about what has been happening with Putin’s mutating visage. Patricia Wexler, a New York plastic surgeon, told W in August of this year that she believes Putin has had Botox, fillers, an eye lift and a fat draft, which would have done away with the sunkenness in his eye sockets that began to appear in the early 2000s. The injectable fillers act as a way to combat the gauntness men can get in their faces as they age—the thing that makes them look like they’re constantly sucking on a lemon. In theory, Putin might struggle more than most to fight off the lemon-sucking look as he gets older. With his strict fitness and health regimen—hours of swimming and allegedly no booze—he wouldn’t be able to stall the hollowing-out effect as readily as he aged. Fillers give him the freedom to stay fit without the risk of losing that youthful roundness in his face.
Michelle Villett, founder of all-time great plastic surgery transformation and beauty routine website BeautyEditor.ca, goes even further on the subject of Putin’s probable cheek fillers, ones that seemed to emerge right before the 2014 Sochi Olympics and after divorcing Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, his wife of thirty years.
“Dude. These even beat out Megan Fox's cheek fillers, which I thought were completely whacko,” she writes in an entry on BeautyEditor.ca from 2014. “Not only did he use a crazy, unnecessary amount of filler, but it's also sitting in this big horizontal mass. There's a distinct and obvious drop-off in plumpness under the eyes. Is it because they're actual cheek implants and not hyaluronic acid (which dissolves over time)? Either way, you'd think the president of Russia could afford a better doc.”
The theories about fillers go to the heart of Putin's paranoid psychology. New York City-based surgeon Dr. David Hidalgo told Vanity Fair in 2014 that he believes Putin would never consent to be put under. “I have not seen any good plastic surgery come out of Russia,” he says. “A lot of girls come over here with horrendous things we have to straighten out. [Putin] doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who’s gonna let somebody put him to sleep.”
It’s a tricky balance between good and bad work. Often, for a celebrity looking for plausible deniability, it comes down to timing. “Whatever you do, don’t get anything done just before a big event in your life,” Diane Walder, a Miami surgeon, cautioned to W in 2014 about Putin’s plastic surgery. In 2010, Putin showed up to a meeting with Ukrainian leaders with bruises under his eyes and heavy makeup, sparking rumors in Russian and Ukrainian press that he had had plastic surgery. (His spokesperson denied it at the time.) Walder added that this was reportedly one of John Kerry’s cardinal sins in 2004. "That's the mistake John Kerry made when he got Botox and filler right before he hit the campaign trail when he ran for president. The point is for people to tell you that you never change, not for them to look at you and say, ‘What did you do?’”
Mandy Patinkin was born the same year as Vladimir Putin. David Hasselhoff was born the same year as Vladimir Putin. Bill Belichick was born the same year as Vladimir Putin. Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, looks like a 65-year-old man—worn, exhausted, a little too angry, all things considered. His face, if you wanted to browse through the 5,506 archival images that exist of Belichick on Getty Images, follows the natural path we know that is available to men over time.
It's a path strewn with wrinkles. According to the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, despite men’s skin being literally thicker than women’s, men develop signs of aging in the area surrounding their eyeballs much quicker than women do. They have much higher rates of hair loss. Their skulls either sprout grays or lose them; their faces sag; their necks look like IV bladders hanging from a head; a drab indeterminate color permeates their skin tone. Belichick may not be attractive to many, but he looks, well, appropriate for his age.
The ability for men to retain their sexual appeal and professional legitimacy besides (or because of) the deterioration of their looks means that not as many males as females feel compelled to subject themselves to plastic surgery. Which means that the public still doesn’t have a great amount of context for what male cosmetic surgeries and procedures can—or should—look like. But male plastic surgery is on the rise. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, plastic surgery for men accounted for 9.3 percent of all aesthetic surgery performed in 2016, and the number of cosmetic procedures on men has tripled since 1997.
Grant Stevens, chairman of the USC Division of Aesthetic Surgery, told the Hollywood Reporter in February 2017 that he’d seen a remarkable change in his office waiting room recently. “I looked around and all of a sudden there were a ton of men.” More than 40 percent of his clients are male, he said, and his new client base covers everyone from actors to athletes to entertainment executives, most who request anonymity at their visits.
In an interview with People in 2016, plastic surgeon Dr. Marc Mani said he suspects that the rise in cosmetic procedures performed on men is due to an influx of young hotshots infiltrating the spaces where men of a certain age feel most comfortable looking and acting exactly as themselves: the boardroom. Older men are beginning to realize that the look of seniority—graying hair, aging face, jowls—is not treated with the same respect and reverence as it used to be, he claimed. Youthfulness prevails now, and men are finally beginning to feel the woes that women have experienced for decades, if not centuries. The research backs this up, too: tall men are more likely to be promoted, “handsome” startup founders are more likely to get VC funding, conventionally attractive politicians are more likely to get votes. What’s a man to do when he ages?
Part of the fascination (or disgust) with the changes in Putin’s face, therefore, has as much to do with what we expect from male leaders as it does with what we expect from men. A 2016 study published in the journal Emotion, part of the American Psychological Association, found that leaders who smile more reflect the “affective states valued by their cultures.” So in America, where a premium is put on “excitement and other high arousal positive states,” our leaders tend to smile much more than in countries and cultures where value is placed on “low-arousal positive states.” In another paper from 2016,researchers found that in countries such as Russia, South Korea, Japan, and India, smiling indicated a lesser intelligence than a person who remained stone-faced.
Which brings us to the teeth. One thing you find when looking through the 29,419 aforementioned images of President Putin on Getty Images is that some point after the mid-2000s, he more or less stopped smiling with his teeth. Before then, Putin wasn’t exactly known for his smile, but when he was smiling, there were his teeth, front and center. Now, a flat, strained grin sits underneath Putin’s newly puffy cheeks. No muscle control means struggling to bare his teeth when he smiles. Villett has some thoughts about why the sudden change from a toothy grin to a solemn simper: “I think he’s had Botox around his mouth and most certainly around the eyes/brows and forehead. (Telltale Botox sign: ‘Spocking’, i.e. that one arching eyebrow.),” she wrote in 2014. “As for the lower half of his face, it could also be a surgical procedure (a neck tuck?), as his skin used to be much droopier around the mouth.”
Maybe, then, Putin’s plastic surgery is as much about forcibly maintaining an icy, 20th century, Soviet-era stare as it is about 21st century vanity. Putin knows as much as anyone else that we all eventually age: he just refuses to grin and bear it.
This article was originally published as part of our Off Topic newsletter, where you get an original story delivered to your inbox each and every week. Sign up now.