aging · body image · movies

Policing of Women’s Looks Is Alive and Well: Just Ask Renée Zellweger

renee-zellwegerThe celebrity newsreels were abuzz last week with the news that Renée Zellweger looks quite different from how she used to look.  People were shocked and demanded an explanation. Did she go under the knife? Why? And why won’t she fess up to it? The Telegraph asked it most bluntly:  Renée Zellweger: Why Does Her Face Look So Different? And of course, readers of People Magazine had strong reactions, ranging from “leave her alone” to “why doesn’t she just be honest about the work she’s had done?”

At least one article harkened back to what she’d said about cosmetic surgery in the past. Several retrospectives appeared (for example, this), as they so often did with Michael Jackson, tracing her transformation over the years as evidence of an evolving appearance that can only be attributed to surgery.

The whole thing spilled off of the celebrity pages and right into mainstream media. CBC Radio contacted me to ask if I would devote three hours on Thursday morning to make myself available to talk to eight different regional morning shows across Canada, each for 5-7 minutes. Topic: Renée Zellweger’s new look.

While I do have a few things to say about this, I reflected on my schedule.  It was packed that day from morning to night. Did I want to spend three hours, from 6-9 a.m., talking about Renée’s new look? Not really.  Pass.

What do I actually think about the whole thing? Mostly, the buzz she created by stepping out looking different than she used to is evidence of the prevalence of the policing of women’s appearance.

I agree with Leah MacLaren (who used to have Renée Zellweger as her celebrity lookalike until this week), who says:

Renée Zellweger’s face, just like her body, is entirely her own and what she does with it is none of our business. Given that she’s an actor, it should hardly be surprising (let alone galling) that she might wish to change her appearance to suit her craft. When she gained weight for the Bridget Jones series, after all, we collectively venerated her for it. So why the outcry over her face?

MacLaren thinks the real reason people are so upset is that we don’t recognize her anymore as the celebrity we have come to know. And that’s disturbing:

All the emotional baggage we projected onto her famous squinty-eyed smile is suddenly revealed for what it really is: A complete waste of time and energy. It’s our “Where’s my Renée? Give her back!” moment.

Rather than responding to the “did she or didn’t she?” question, Zellweger responded to the reaction to her appearance by saying:

“I’m glad folks think I look different!” she said.

“I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.”

She says that any aesthetic changes reflect her newfound inner positivity and contentment, after having readjusted her work-life balance.

“My friends say that I look peaceful. I am healthy,” Zellweger told People.

“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. Rather than stopping to recalibrate, I kept running until I was depleted and made bad choices about how to conceal the exhaustion.”

She eventually became aware of the “chaos” and “chose different things”, including a slower-paced, more fulfilling lifestyle.

“I did work that allows for being still, making a home, loving someone, learning new things, growing as a creative person and finally growing into myself,” she continued, noting that she chose to address the speculation because “it seems the folks who come digging around for some nefarious truth which doesn’t exist won’t get off my porch until I answer the door.”

Regardless of any judgemental criticism, Zellweger is more at peace with herself than ever.

“People don’t know me [as] healthy for a while,” says Zellweger. “Perhaps I look different. Who doesn’t as they get older?! Ha. But I am different. I’m happy.”

It’s great that she can have such a light-hearted attitude about it all.  Because really, it’s no one’s business. I know there are those detractors who say that celebrities have chosen to live in the spotlight, that being subject to public scrutiny is the price of fame. But no one seems to realize that it’s that same public scrutiny that enforces a standard of ageless youth and perfect beauty.

I agree with Rebecca Shaw, who says that “The Renée Zellweger Pile-On Proves, Once again, That Women Can’t Win”:

The pressure to stay looking a certain way is damaging enough for women who are not in the entertainment industry. It is unimaginable within that sphere. All you need to do is take a quick look at how leading men like Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford are allowed to age with no repercussion, to see what is different for women. All you need to do is to see how those leading men age into their 50s and 60s are still playing sexy leading men, while their romantic on-screen partners stay 25 and 30 years old, to understand what is unfair here. Have a look to see how many great parts are written for older women. Have a look to see what age actresses are when they stop being cast as the love interest, and start being cast as the mother of actors similarly aged or younger than them in real life (in Riding in Cars with Boys Drew Barrymore played the mother of Adam Garcia, despite being two years younger than him in real life).

Think about the value we place on women, and how easily discarded and replaced they are once their skin starts to sag in a way we find unpalatable. Then think about all those reactions to Renee Zellweger’s face you saw.

We demand that women look a certain way, and we discard them like garbage when they stop. We demand they stay the same, and then we judge them for choosing to use plastic surgery. We comment if they look fat, if they look thin, if they look old, if they look like they’ve had work done. When women try everything in their power to hold onto those brief moments where society found them appealing enough to look at on a screen, when they try to stay looking the same because they know we will discard them as soon as they are out of date, we turn on them then, as well.

Women can’t fucking win, because we won’t let them.

Sadly, that’s not news.

 

3 thoughts on “Policing of Women’s Looks Is Alive and Well: Just Ask Renée Zellweger

  1. It sounds like she had to make some significant changes to become a healthier and happier person. There is probably a lot more interesting story there than how she looks.

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  2. Terrific post, Tracy. I’m fully in support of your position here, and of the feminist analysis of the bigger picture you offer. I have to say, though, that when I saw the photos of Zellweger online on Wednesday morning my overwhelming reaction was sadness. The woman I remembered as her, the look I remembered, projected confidence in an unconventionally beautiful body. The woman who gained to be Bridget was willing to represent herself as a beautiful person who was not a conventional weight, nor conventionally healthy and happy. Sure, the “chick lit” formula has many serious problems (unhappy spinsters are us! – there’s a great piece in the weekend Guardian Review section about this, btw), but RZ’s Bridget was uplifting in her flawed physicality alongside her radiant smile. I found myself looking at the “new” woman on screen and missing that, feeling like the “new” her fit the Hollywood Generic Standard so much more, was so ordinary and forgettable in the way she ticks all the expected boxes. So as a woman and a feminist I’m thrilled if these changes really have been made for Zellweger’s own benefit, to make her feel happier and more at home in her skin and in her family life. But as a spectator/participant in our collective cultural soup, I feel like I have lost an attachment that to me was not a waste of time, as McLaren argues, but that was affectively quite real and significant.

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  3. I didn’t even know she had changed the way she looked. While I see that there is a big difference in the photos, I don’t care. I mean, would I care if it were the woman down the street? No. So, why would I care if she chose to do something different? It’s amazing to me the people who buy the magazines that support these stories.

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