Renee Zellweger is the talk of the nation. If her fondest wish was to be able to walk down the street again and not be recognized, she has succeeded. If she wanted to play roles that were written for women two decades her junior, she has probably not.
You see, it’s all about face. It’s about saving face and losing face. In the most literal sense.
Whatever the concept of face means in Chinese culture, by using the word face, the Chinese are referring, among other things, to the way we look to other people—above the neck.
Those who are obsessed with how they look below the neck should probably pay more attention to their face. People identify you by your face, not by your abs or your thigh gap.
I suspect that I have written more about the topic of “face” than nearly anyone who writes in English. See my book, Saving Face and my new book, The Last Psychoanalyst. Thus, I consider myself something of an authority on the topic.
If Western culture values the state of your soul, if today’s therapy culture cares primarily about how you feel and if psychologists believe that you have an identity because you are conscious of always being the same person, Chinese culture differs markedly by defining individual identity by the way you look to other people.
In Chinese culture the requirement to express yourself pales next to the requirement to look respectable to other people and to behave decorously. Chinese culture cares about social harmony. If that offers you individual fulfillment, well and good. If it does not, social harmony is more important.
No one will grasp the distinction between Western and Chinese cultures without understanding the difference between “face” in China and “soul” in the West.
Some Western scientists are studying face. They are drawing some interesting and important conclusions.
Alex Kuczynski writes in the New York Times:
Nancy Etcoff, an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard and author of “Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty,” said: “We have gotten used to seeing bad plastic surgery. Two big basketballs on the chest, fish lips, blown-up cheeks. But this is a little different. This is about a lot of subtle changes that add up to a person who no longer looks like our memory of them. She looks like a different person.” Instead of aging along with us, she jumped off the path directly into another identity.
Faces are tightly packed with important biological information, Dr. Etcoff said. “They tell people who we are, who our relatives are, how we feel,” she said. “We are face virtuosos. We can discern one face from thousands, even millions, of other faces. When someone does something to their face that renders them unrecognizable, when that impacts our ability to read their face, it really is a jolt.”
As for Ms. Zellweger… she is about to discover anonymity and will perhaps not find it to her liking.
Dare we say, it is slightly ironic to see that someone who has made a living pretending to be someone she’s not now appearing to be someone she is not. It’s as though her face has been replaced by a new mask. It’s decidedly disconcerting to witness it.
In the public debate over the Zellweger transformation, a couple of points stand out. Naturally, those who do not believe in free will and personal responsibility have absolved her of any agency for her decision to undergo so many cosmetic procedures. They have blamed it on the American cult of youth and on the American demand that women to look eternally young.
Of course, this is a moral cop out. I will not name all of the forty-something actresses who do fine work without having modified their faces, but the truth is that no woman is forced to alter her appearance.
It might be that we no longer respect the wisdom that comes from age, but the truth is, botox—to take the least of these procedures—makes faces look eerily masklike, to the point where the face’s role in communicating emotion is compromised.
Perhaps a botoxed face can pass in a still photo, but anyhone who spends some time conversing face-to-face with someone who has been botoxed will quickly feel the loss of face.
It is ironic to see so many women blame the Zellweger transformation on Hollywood. After all, cameras and makeup can be very forgiving. They can make you look younger or older, more or less beautiful. If it were just for career, one suspects that fewer Hollywood stars would be going under the knife.
The greater irony lies in the fact that four decades ago second-wave feminism burst on the scenes by insisting, among other things, that women had to be recognized for their minds not their bodies. How did it happen that this emphasis produced generations of women who are obsessed about the shape of their bodies and the look of their faces.
As Kuczynski wrote in her book, Beauty Junkies:
…looks are the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics. As vulgar and shallow as it sounds, looks matter more than they ever have — especially for women.
How did such a well-planned assault on the feminine mystique and the beauty myth come to grief?
If you accept that biology trumps ideology it is not very difficult to understand.
If women are naturally more attractive to men in their twenties—studies from the dating websites all arrive at this conclusion—and if feminism told women not to marry until they were firmly established in their careers, this policy has produced a wave of thirtysomething women competing for men with twentysomething women.
And, competing at a disadvantage. In truth the disadvantage lay in pheromones--in sexual attraction hormones--but modern liberated women denied reality and decided that the problem lay with their bodies and their faces. They even refused to accept that fertility had something to do with sexual attraction.
As if that were not sufficient, feminism produced even more single women by giving rise to a wave of divorces. Declaring marriage oppressive to women, feminists wanted to destigmatize divorce. Naturally, women suffered the most.
The newly single divorcees entered the marriage market, to compete with younger women. Thus, the market for aesthetic enhancements increased.
In consequence, women in their forties and fifties were competing for men against women who were considerably younger. Moreover, everyone woman knows—she may or may not want to tell you—that she dreads the day when she will become invisible to the male gaze. The male gaze is mostly drawn to young women, whether youth appears in the look on a face or in the shape of a figure.
But, when a woman who is in her mid-forties, like Zellweger, tries to make herself look ten or twenty years younger she will be engaged in what can politely be called deception.
And this is the problem with thinking that it’s all about aesthetics.
However young a woman appears, a moment of truth will inevitably arrive when her paramour realizes that he has been deceived. At times, he will not react well.
A woman who has spent considerable amounts of money enhancing her bodily and facial aesthetics will not understand why a man sees her at her true age, not her surgically enhanced age.
She might respond by becoming more desperate and by doing more surgery. She will ignore the fact that she will be more attractive if she uses fashion and cosmetics to enhance who she is rather than use surgery to look like someone she is not.