Yes, Those Pictures of Renée Zellweger Are Disturbing. But Why?

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This morning, a series of photos surfaced, showing Renée Zellweger looking dramatically different—a bit like a stranger, a bit Sarah Jessica Parker or Robin Wright, and still a bit like herself, but only if one looks hard. “It’s always nice to meet new people, even if they’re old friends,” was Gawker’s only comment, and then the internet exploded with thoughts, horror and even anger at the star.

“How could she do this to herself?” the commentariat clucked. And immediately the inappropriate questions began. Had the Jerry McGuire and Bridget Jones star (oh, how she won me over as the normal-sized and big-mouthed Bridge) merely received way too much Botox? Was this massive plastic surgery? Or was she just no longer scrunching up her face as she once did? Was she ill or recovering from an accident? What was going on? How does one just remove adorable apple-shaped cheeks anyway? Shouldn’t we shut up and let her be?

I confess to not being above this kind of ogling at first, greedily scanning comments on social media while feeling as guilty as hell at the same time. When I read the profile of Frances McDormand in the New York Times last weekend I was rather pleased that the older actress feels the impulse to scold colleagues who get “work” done, and that she resists the urge to change herself at all. But I at the same time I was also glad she refrains (with encouragement from Joel Coen) from speaking up, because yelling at people for getting plastic surgery just seems rather, well, mean. Presumably, they were insecure enough to get plastic surgery.

I’ve already spent too many minutes of my life looking at those galleries of various celebrities’ changing faces over time, marveling at how a deft surgeon’s knife, combined with magic makeup like Kim Kardashian’s, can truly alter someone beyond recognition — so they no longer seem like themselves. Western society invests so much in faces, that when they change there’s an almost universal compulsion to stare, even if we know it’s really none of our damn business. We don’t own celebrities, their images, or their choices, but it sure feels like we do sometimes.

Overlying this “debate” about a famous woman’s face lies the question of beauty standards that we foist on women in the spotlight, and women aging in the spotlight. In some ways, this “look at the older actress after going under the knife!” is simply the logical extension of “look at the newly-sexualized Disney starlet!” As feminists, ought we to get mad because changing one’s body to fit social expectations is a concession to the patriarchy, or should we defend actresses for merely doing what they have to do to get by in an industry that commodifies looks and youth?

Sure, when women artificially change their features it creates unrealistic expectations for how other women look or age. That’s why women like McDormand have a right to feel frustrated and defensive. But on the other hand, people are already artificially changing their features because of those unrealistic expectations.

My theory is that if Renée Zellweger really did get work done (which isn’t confirmed), we’re not mad that she did it. We’re mad that we think we can see it so clearly. She’s broken the invisible pact that women are supposed to make: be beauty ducks, who look tranquil and eat hamburgers above the surface but are paddling beneath: working out, dieting, plucking, nipping tucking and buffing all the time just out of sight, so we can appear this perfect.

Zellweger’s transformation has done what the girl who orders only kale on dates has done: bared the ugly mechanics of “looking this good”: “Watching me order kale all the time isn’t the hard part, it is realizing every time I do that the alternative could be disastrous,” Alana Massey wrote this year, of her extreme eating habits and how they turned off dates. “They seek a more carefree woman who possesses either enviable genetics or professional expertise at disguising her weight-related diligence.”

This is not to deny that it’s upsetting when someone like Zellweger or the actress whose name has come up repeatedly today, Jennifer Grey (I still mourn the loss of Jennifer Grey’s nose, that beautiful schnauz) sand down their defining, unique, and less conventional characteristics. But if they were making subtle alternations to their appearances, or merely starving themselves, we’d just look at those party pictures and say, “Damn, she looks great.” Or in the case of previous Renée Zellweger, a thousand nasty bros on the internet would have gone on and on about how she looked strange and they didn’t like her face as it was, either. While searching for old Creative Commnons pics of the actress, I found a lot of mean jokes about her face and people posing in imitation of her.

I keep thinking how sad she must be if she changed all this to avoid criticism from one set of people only to land in a pile of hot judgment from another group of, well, gawkers.

Plastic surgery is an illogical choice in a vacuum, but a highly logical one in a patriarchy. That’s quite a damning contradiction — not damning of Renée Zellweger, but rather of her critics now and then.