It’s not that she got plastic surgery. It’s that she made it so obvious.
I just Googled “Renée Zellweger.”
“Is that really Renée Zellweger?”
“Renée Zellweger: What has happened to her face?”
“What HAS Renée Zellweger done to her face? Bridget actress looks utterly unrecognizable as she steps out with her boyfriend in L.A.”
These are just a few of the harsh headlines the Internet spit back at me. There are already countless articles criticizing the initial onslaught of shock and ridicule.
But the blowback isn’t just because another Hollywood actress got plastic surgery. It goes beyond the many gender-based critiques of how women’s aging is perceived and portrayed. It exceeds the double bind of a culture that demands perfection and agelessness then shames those who refuse the services of a cosmetic surgeon.
It all comes down to how we think we own Renée Zellweger’s face.
When you do a quick appraisal of the headlines and what people are saying online, it all seems to come back to shock on a personal level, as the actress we thought we knew has changed without our permission.
Regardless of how drastic her surgical transformation is or isn’t, regardless of how little she is purported to look like the “real” Renée or the old Renée (read: the younger Renée we want to memorialize forever in Empire Records and Jerry Maguire—films released almost 20 years ago), this is Renée’s face. It may look different than the one you are used to seeing, it may surprise you, but it is no less her and no less real.
It’s important to factor in the cultural landscape (so normal we often don’t even see it) that treats male and female celebrities’ aging differently, and that encourages women to “age well” and then reacts with shock and outrage when a woman attempts to maintain an appearance that will allow her younger self to live forever.
And since celebrity cosmetic surgery is hardly new and hardly a secret, why all the hoopla about Zellweger’s not-that-surprising decision to participate?
Simple: It’s because her surgery is obvious.
It’s not so much an issue with cosmetic surgery and seeking to attain certain standards of physical beauty that makes the critics uncomfortable. Rather, what’s unsettling is that it could be done so brazenly.
The unspoken *wink wink* course of action for celebrity cosmetic surgery is to stealthily change, but not enough that we, the consuming public, get thrown off. We don’t want to be confused, and we want to believe that an ingénue who had her breakout roles in her mid-20s is still flawless at age 45.
As Amanda Hess writes at Slate “Let’s be clear: Zellweger would not have been praised for ‘aging gracefully’ had she showed up Monday night un-nipped. In Hollywood, ‘aging gracefully’ is a euphemism for ‘good plastic surgery.’”
It’s the socially mandated cocktail of feminine coyness: Look good enough to look like you’ve had the work done, but make sure it’s subtle enough that everyone passively beholds the new face as though it was there all along.
I don’t know why Renée Zellweger made the decision to change her face. I don’t know if it turned out the way she wanted or not. I certainly can’t blame her for seeking physical changes in this cutthroat culture. But I’m glad she decided to go out and showcase herself—her face—proudly, alleged “puffiness” and all. Let ’em talk.
Zaren Healey White is a St. John’s, Newfoundland based journalist, web editor, and blogger. She is completing her Master of Gender Studies degree at Memorial University in St. John’s, having already completed a Master of Arts in English at McGill University in Montreal. Zaren blogs at Of Sugar-Baited Words.