Can Some Things Still Be Private?
In the age of overexposure, notions of privacy and secrets seem elusive
Illustration by Anne Bentley
Liquor stores in some small Southern towns used to have a privacy wall that allowed upstanding, churchgoing Rotarians to park and slip inside to buy a fifth of bourbon without the whole dang congregation knowing. People used to call that a “Baptist wall.”
I hadn’t thought of Baptist walls in decades, until I got a call from a woman who suggested that I write about the dermatology practice of Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi in Chevy Chase. I told the caller, diplomatically, that it didn’t sound like my kind of story. She mentioned that Capital Laser & Skin Care offers discreet, unmarked entrances for clients—some of whom arrive with Secret Service details—who wish to keep their visits for cosmetic procedures private. She had my attention at “private.”
In this age of overexposure, notions of “private” or “secret” seem as quaint as a Baptist wall. I feel overexposed to everything from Instagram photos of some stranger’s breakfast to the ubiquitous abundance of Kim Kardashian’s rump. Not much feels private anymore—not Hillary Clinton’s emails, not President-elect Donald Trump’s trash talk about grabbing women by what used to be known as their privates.
Seven years ago, in January 2010, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said at a conference that the rise of social networking meant that the expectation of privacy was no longer a “social norm.” I thought I knew, at the time, what that meant. But I was like the protagonist in the Jack London short story “To Build a Fire” who knew it was going to be freezing cold when he set out on a long journey by foot. He just couldn’t fathom how cold it would be until he froze to death.
Today, even our fleeting thoughts can be captured, encoded, capitalized upon. I know that Google knows I briefly considered buying some glamorous suede boots recently; an ad for those same boots keeps appearing on my computer screen, unbidden and unwelcome like a stalker.
Eager to explore what’s left of our notions of privacy, I asked for a tour of Capital Laser & Skin Care, located in an elegant and airy second-floor suite at 5471 Wisconsin Ave. “There aren’t a lot of people who come in saying, ‘I want to post photos on Facebook of my treatment,’ or ‘I want to Instagram you doing a procedure on me,’ ” says Tanzi, 47, who lives in Chevy Chase. “I have colleagues practicing in other areas of the country who have that happen all the time. Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with that.”
In fact, Tanzi designed her medical center to protect her clients’ privacy. They have the option of arriving at an unmarked door where they must be let in by a staff member.
They can be whisked to a private room to await their procedure, rather than sitting in a more public waiting room. Music plays over a network of Sonos speakers that are strategically placed so that no patient can overhear what is being said—and to whom—in the nearby rooms. After undergoing procedures, clients can check out and pay in their private room, then exit through back routes that avoid the waiting room.
Many of the center’s clients belong to the chattering class—politicians, journalists, experts, visiting activist actors—that regularly appears on TV. They know they will be judged harshly on how attractive, youthful and vibrant they look. They know they will be judged just as harshly if they appear to spend too much time, effort or money enhancing their looks. Clients, high-profile or not, say that Tanzi gives them fast-healing, natural-looking results—and thus plausible deniability.
A 46-year-old high-ranking official of an international organization says she tells no one of her regular visits to Tanzi because she wants people to think her lovely skin is the result of good genetics, not cosmetic procedures. “I don’t need anything taking away from the focus on my institution: where I’m shopping or whether I’ve had Botox,” she says. “The work my institution does is incredibly important across the world. It is a distraction to focus on items that are not important to that mission.”
Another client, a Chevy Chase mother of three, is so delighted that a procedure called CoolSculpting eliminated her post-baby muffin top that she tells other women, even strangers she meets at the pool, about the procedure. She views that disclosure as a kind of public service for fellow moms. Yet she tells no one—not even her husband—that she sometimes gets Botox injections. “I want him to think of me as naturally beautiful,” she says.
Tanzi is accustomed to the range of responses she encounters as clients work out for themselves what to keep private. She runs into clients in public all the time. She’s had a young client lift her shirt to show off her flat belly. She’s had patients catch her eye across a crowded room and walk away fast, as if they had never met her. “I don’t take it personally,” she says.
After I left her office, I walked around downtown Bethesda, thinking about privacy and stopping total strangers to ask about what they keep private. If a nosy neighbor or co-worker asks how much money they make, or how well their child scored on the SAT, do they answer?
Rachel Rollins, a millennial who moved to Bethesda last July, told me that she was shocked at how some people, eager to show off, just blurt out how much money they make. “There is no segue,” she says. Rollins, a contralto with a college degree in opera, doesn’t always tell people she’s just met that she’s now learning to be a dog trainer. In image-conscious Washington, D.C., some might make snap judgments about her that feel harsh and unfair, she says. In Orlando, Florida, where she comes from, “people think you are OK just as long as you’re not wearing clothes with the Disney logo on them.”
For as long as I’ve been a journalist, I’ve been stopping strangers on the street to ask all sorts of questions. Usually I come away cheered that most people are, just like Rollins, friendly and helpful. But on this day in November, most of the people I tried to talk to about privacy recoiled. A man with a foreign accent looked alarmed and rushed away as if I were doing advance work for the threatened deportation force. Another man waved me off, saying, “I work for the government. I shouldn’t even be talking to you.”
A young woman standing by a parking meter on Cordell Avenue and smoking a cigarette looked almost revolted as she listed the kinds of intimate details people post on Facebook: their food intakes, their relationship travails, their medical maladies. She has a Facebook account, she told me, but she doesn’t post anything on it. That’s because she works in a “research-related” field and knows how easy it is to ferret out the details of almost anyone’s life.
As she spoke, the taciturn young man with her eyed me narrowly. “Who did you say you were?” he asked me. “Who are you with?” I gave him my name again. He wrote it in ink on the palm of one hand as if he just might have to check me out.
These encounters left me wondering if I’d stumbled upon a convention of spies during their afternoon coffee break. Or maybe the bruising presidential election left plenty of us feeling wary and overexposed. I put my notebook away, happy to grant my fellow suburbanites one aspect of privacy: the right to be left alone.
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.