Public Image

10.22.14 9:00 AM ET

Renee Zellweger’s Fine, But We Need Some Work: The Toxic Pursuit of ‘Effortless’ Beauty

The Oscar winning actress has been torn to shreds by the media and public for her altered face. But she’s just a byproduct of the outrageous beauty standards placed on women.

Renee Zellweger, who catapulted to fame long enough ago that kids born in her heyday are now starting college, learned a very hard lesson this week when photos circulated of her 45-year-old face smiling at cameras at Elle’s Women in Hollywood awards Monday night. Of course, it wasn’t her age that lit up the blogs and social media, but her apparent plastic surgery that seems extensive enough that it’s changed the shape of her face to the point where some had trouble recognizing her. It didn’t look bad, really, but gone are the full upper eyelids and chipmunk cheeks that made her such an icon of feminine cuteness in the halcyon ‘90s.

Much of the response around the Internet was pretty cruel. Caity Weaver, without commentary, posted a number of Zellweger’s photos from the event up at Gawker, with a photo of Zellweger from 10 years ago. The post didn’t need commentary, as the implication—that Zellweger looks strikingly different than she did a decade ago—rang through loud and clear. (How many of us could really withstand a similar side-by-side comparison of our face now with what it looked like a decade ago?) Megan Garber of the Atlantic put up a post full of “questions” for Zellweger that were mostly mockery dressed up as mock concern, such as, “Could that help explain why your new look makes me feel sort of sad?”

Look, Zellweger’s probably had some work done. From what I gather, there’s a law in Hollywood disallowing anyone over the age of 40 from leaving their homes while female without having seen the sharp end of a scalpel. The only reason Zellweger’s face has gotten so much attention is because it’s so easy to tell that she got plastic surgery. “Zellweger would not have been praised for ‘aging gracefully’ had she showed up Monday night un-nipped,” writes Amanda Hess of Slate. “In Hollywood, ‘aging gracefully’ is a euphemism for ‘good plastic surgery,’ the kind that successfully skirts an unarticulated line between sagging and frozen.”

Zellweger broke the unwritten but universally understood rule of beauty for female celebrities: You must look forever young and perfect, but it must look effortless. Any reminder that you don’t roll out of bed looking #Flawless will be swiftly punished with a round of mockery or feigned concern for your well-being. The public does not like being reminded that beauty is hard work. Knowing about the plastic surgery and the hours at the gym and the constant gnawing hunger from forever underfeeding yourself and the hours spent in hair and make-up being picked at like you’re an object instead of a person? It makes us feel guilty and weird. So just pretend that stuff never happens, would you, ladies?

Sadly, it’s not just female celebrities that feel this pressure to look perfect all the time but also make it look totally effortless. This notion that the hard work of beauty shouldn’t ever look like it’s hard seeps into all corners of women’s lives. It’s the guy who declares he “hates” make-up and likes a “natural” look, without realizing that what he really likes is the woman who carefully applies make-up so that it doesn’t look like make-up, which often takes more time than some dramatic black eyeliner and red lipstick might. Go to Pinterest’s fashion page on any given day and see for yourself how the I woke up like this aesthetic reigns. Anyone who has worked on a college campus has seen girls show up to class wearing their PJs—along with an hour and a half of hair and make-up to convince people that’s just what they look like.

It’s hip clothing stores that sell “boyfriend” styles that are supposed to look like you just tossed this outfit on thoughtlessly, when in fact it only tends to look good if you’ve carefully cultivated just the right balance of clothing so you don’t actually look like you do when you just roll out of bed. It’s reaching obnoxious levels with the rise of “normcore”, an aesthetic where you’re somehow supposed to look perfect and fashionable despite wearing whatever you grabbed out of the sale bin at Old Navy. It’s a look that only really works on the very young and image-conscious people who spend endless hours dieting and exercising and futzing with their hair to make it look just so.

We live in a world where there’s make-up tips for how to wear make-up while you work out. It’s an epidemic—working hard to make it look like we’re hardly working.

As Ann Friedman at The Cut  recently argued, feminism may unfortunately play something of a role in this bewildering turn of events. “Women have internalized the feminist message that we’re beautiful just the way we are, and we accept that everyone’s life is imperfect, but still can’t stop judging each other — and ourselves,” she writes. “So we end up doing much of the same work our foremothers did to appear pretty and stylish and well-rounded, but we pretend it isn’t work. We pretend we aren’t even doing it.”

This is why Zellweger’s face puts us off, because it reminds us that she’s had work done and we’d prefer to think that somehow there’s a way to be 45 without looking 45 that doesn’t require work. She probably didn’t mean to do this to all of us, of course. Most plastic surgery patients would very much prefer it if no one noticed their work and instead thought they were blessed with good genes instead. But some, because of the shape of their face, just can’t get away with the trick of getting plastic surgery without it becoming glaringly obvious to everyone who is looking at them. It appears Zellweger is one of those people.

But instead of judging her or asking her a bunch of obnoxious questions, we should be asking ourselves why it is that we’ve fallen into this trap of wanting things to look “natural” while simultaneously hating what natural actually looks like. Perhaps this should be an invitation to everyone to stop pretending that effortless perfection is a thing that exists in the world.  

All of which is why it’s refreshing to see the positive response that Viola Davis got for a scene on her hit show How to Get Away With Murder where her character, Annalise Keating, sits down and removes her wig, false eyelashes, and make-up before confronting her husband. The moment was symbolic of “coming clean,” of course, but for women in the audience, it was something else: A reminder that it does, in fact, take a lot of work to look this fabulous. And there’s nothing wrong with it and we should admit out loud how much work it is, instead of pretending that we never pay any mind to our appearance.