I don´t usually spend much time thinking about Renée Zellweger – or more precisely, her face – but this week, as for so many of us, all that changed when a deluge of “gosh, look at her face articles” flooded my Facebook and Twitter feeds.
After Gawker posted photographs of the 45-year-old Bridget Jones’s Diary star at the 2014 ELLE Women In Hollywood Awards, suddenly it felt like the world was more concerned about the fact that she looked “different,” than the fact that ISIS was yet again besieging Yazidis on Mount Sinjar.
What happened to Zellweger?, was the question on everyone’s lips, with the subtext being, what did Hollywood do to her?? What did she do to herself?????? – with a “wow she really does look bad” thrown in there for good measure. She didn´t look Michael Jackson different, but she definitley looked different different, and the internet was all over it.
But maybe a more appropriate question would have been, what did we do to her? Not directly of course, but when we see what Hollywood does to an actress’ face, we are also holding up a mirror to the western beauty standards that women live by, and the currency that is a woman’s looks. This is about much more than Zellweger’s face; it is about the society we live in.
A sympathetic article in Slate pointed out that an aging woman in Hollywood has little choice but to get plastic surgery and Botox to stay in the business. Other articles have pointed out that Zellweger reminds us what happens to women in the movie industry over the age of 40. But Hollywood is a mirror to western society. The lives of a Hollywood star may be an exageration far removed from the everyday lives of most, but the pressures faced by actresses come from the same place as those faced by ordinary women when it comes to their looks. We have come far since the Suffragettes got the vote, but women are still judged and valued according to how attractive they are, and this is something that the average women lives with and accepts, as if it were a law of nature.
Not only do we accept it, but we also participate in it. Women around the world looked at those pictures with pity, disdain or sympathy, the internet equivalent of seeing someone in the street and pointing, staring and muttering something snarky. It’s true that men in Hollywood face pressures on their looks, but don’t we judge the rather post-plastic surgery-odd-looking Mickey Rourke far less than we do a woman, like Zellweger?
Zellweger responded to the online furore with grace, after what was most likely a painful and humiliating experience. “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,” she said. “People don’t know me in my 40s. People don’t know me [as] healthy for a while. Perhaps I look different. Who doesn’t as they get older?! Ha. But I am different. I’m happy.”
If this story carries any importance at all, aside from being the pick of the week’s click-bait, it is as a reminder of how high a bar we set for women when it comes to beauty. As Sarah Kliff writes in an excellent article on Vox:
“Society delivers a constant and consistent message to women: You do not look right. You should look different.”
This week’s Zellweger story should give us pause for thought about the way that women are judged on their looks, and about how much other women take part in this judgement dynamic. If anything, it should be a wake-up call – maybe next time we will choose not to participate.