Renee Zellweger’s tragic beauty lesson

October 28, 2014

The first time I met her, I could not avert my eyes.

Renee Zellweger was leaning on a table in the middle of a grand, mahogany library, holding court as if she were the guest of honor at this agency Oscar party, at which there were many honored guests.

She must have been 42. She was wearing a little black dress, all leggy and luminescent, her smile sparkling from across the room like the perfect Hollywood actress. It was an unusual sight, if only because most everyone there was also radiantly handsome and radiantly famous, each face and figure clamoring for its own special attention. Still, as I recall, of all the exquisite faces that night, Zellweger’s stood out among stars.

She stood out again last week, when, on the red carpet before Elle magazine’s “Women in Hollywood” event in Los Angeles, Zellweger premiered what appeared to be her “new” face: Her eyes were wider, her skin smoother, her cheeks rounder. Whatever had been done to her face, instead of causing her to appear younger or prettier, she just looked different. In some sense, unrecognizable. Once again, I could not avert my eyes, but this time out of heartache.

Zellweger has denied having had plastic surgery, but she hasn’t denied a change. “I’m glad folks think I look different,” she told People magazine in response to the reactionary furor on the Internet. Zellweger added that her new look is the product of a “happy, more fulfilling life,” and God bless her for saying so, but I confess I don’t believe it. Truthfully, I find the whole episode — the change and the public response to it — very, very tragic.

How awful is it to age! How awful is it to feel the inevitable is unacceptable.

I should be clear: I do not know what it is like to be Renee Zellweger, a three-time Oscar-nominated actress and one-time winner any more than I know what it is like to be Renee Zellweger, a 40-something “woman in Hollywood” whose career’s best days may very likely be behind her. I do not know what it feels like to have been young and looking your best, and then wake up one day and feel those days are gone. But after watching the way the world responded to Zellweger — and I don’t mean the media alone, but the ordinary women and men of all ages who privately gasped and ridiculed her — I am now deeply dreading even more that day of reckoning with aging that will inevitably come for me, too. Will I wake that morning happy to be alive and happy with my lot, assured by insights and experiences accrued? Or will I project all that is missing from my life onto my crinkling, sagging skin?

In American culture more so than most others, aging is seen as a blight (pretty ironic, though, considering 70 million of us will reach age 65 or older in little more than a decade). And that attitude is sharpest for women, who are expected to be wrinkle-free well into their 70s (another irony, since we should always appear “natural,” and no one should admit to plastic surgery). But no matter what we do, the day of looking old (or odd), to say nothing of being old, will come for us all.

Though for most of us, it isn’t quite the same as the day that comes for an aging actress when she finds that the parts once written for her are going to 22-year-olds, and the parts still available to her are far, far fewer; and that the magazines whose covers she once graced are now full of photos of women in an entirely earlier, seemingly different era of life; and that a higher premium is placed on taut skin than talent. The day does come when a woman who once felt beautiful now feels invisible.

I am prematurely sad for that period of life. For all the women and men who feel deep inside that looks count for more than character, that appearance is more interesting than experience. I am sad for the amount of scrutiny women’s bodies are routinely subjected to — at home, at school, on the red carpet, even in an Orthodox shul’s mikveh! And I’m sad about being a creature conscripted to be looked at, desired, demeaned and derailed.  

“We are on red alert when it comes to how we are perceiving ourselves as a species,” the 57-year-old actress Frances McDormand recently told Frank Bruni of the New York Times. “There’s no desire to be an adult. Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift. Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45 — sartorially, cosmetically, attitudinally. Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair. Everybody is concerned about a smooth face.

“I’m so full of fear and rage about what [people have] done,” McDormand added, lambasting our cultural acquiescence to cosmetic alteration.

How we look as we age, she told Bruni, should be a reflection of a life fully lived, a declaration “that you are someone who, beneath that white hair, has a card catalog of valuable information.”

It’s a lovely ideal, and I’m sure that many people are content and proud that their outsides match their insides. But the fact is, with all that is available to us to augment our own images — images of God! — it has become an act of almost spiritual resistance to remain as you are.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that, “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive.” Prayer should be an act of defiance, of rebellion against that which should not be.

One of my prayers is that these pressures will change. That we will see aging as the fulfillment of blessing, as evidence of a well-lived life. For it is special to be young, and to be your most beautiful. And it is special to be old, and be your most accomplished, and be your most wise.

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