Do it like Buzzfeed, with helpful side-by-sides of photos of Zellweger from a week ago, a month ago, years ago. Do it like Gawker, with the plausible deniability that what you’re doing isn’t cruel at all, where you are just presenting the evidence: “Here Are Some Pictures of Renée Zellweger.” Do it like Fox, as if you’re playing detective, trying to uncover the source of her “mysterious facial changes.” Do it like The Telegraph, get right to the point: “What happened to your face?” Do it like CBS, with laughably awful (and confusing) grammar: I was unaware you could “stir up a buzz” or look “dramatically different than usual.”
Is this picture really so strange, so grotesque? Is the sight of a woman over 40 who appears to have had work done such a rarity?
If we’re going to perpetuate an entertainment industry that fetishes female youth and rejects everything else, we don’t get to trash talk women who choose to alter their looks through whatever means are at their disposal. We’re the ones who created a social and professional environment that is inhospitable to any other path.
We built that world, and now we also have to live in it. Over 11 million cosmetic procedures — both surgical and nonsurgical — were performed by board-certified plastic surgeons, dermatologists and otolaryngologists in the United States in 2013. That’s 12 billion dollars worth of nips, tucks and tweaks, the most money spent on these elective procedures since the recession hit in 2008. Women, with 10.3 million out of that 11 million, make up 90.6-percent of the total.
Maybe Zellweger had surgery and maybe she didn’t and maybe she used Botox and maybe she didn’t. If she did either, she is part of an ever-growing segment of the population. If she did, she isn’t some freak show; she’s an average American woman who is older now than she was the last time you looked at her or really gave her any thought. She is older than she was in Jerry Maguire, older than she was in all the Bridget Jones movies, older than she was in Empire Records, she is older than she was when you started reading this story. And soon, at the end of this sentence, she will be older still.
We punish women for aging badly (i.e. just aging on the regular). We punish women who “try too hard” (i.e. resorting to surgery, Botox). “Aging” is only acceptable if (a) you’re a celebrity we only discovered after the age of 30 anyway or (b) you have the magical, admittedly awe-inspiring genetics of someone like Diane Lane.
To be a woman in public is to always be in a bind. You are going to age; this is science. But you can’t take inventory of the pop cultural landscape, realize what lies in wait for you if you don’t live up to impossible standards of agelessness, and do anything about it. You cannot take matters into your own hands. Don’t try too hard; you’re embarrassing yourself. You have to lose the baby weight by “just chasing the kids around.” You have to house spaghetti and meatballs before your Vanity Fair interview. You have to chirp about the benefits of “wearing sunscreen every day and drinking tons of water.”
You have to look a certain way. You have to look that way forever. But if you aren’t born with it, don’t bother. Anything you do that is unnatural — anything cosmetic, be it makeup or surgery or some combination of the two — will be ridiculed. You have to live with your face, exactly as it is. Because if you do anything to change your face, to try to make us like you more, we will mock you.
Of course when you age, as you inevitably will, you’ll be mocked, too. It will be ugly, regardless.
Zellweger responded to the widespread commentary about her appearance in a statement to People: “I’m glad folks think I look different! I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows… My friends say that I look peaceful. I am healthy. For a long time I wasn’t doing such a good job with that. I took on a schedule that is not realistically sustainable and didn’t allow for taking care of myself… People don’t know me in my 40s.” Read her comments in full here.