(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)

The Age of the Unrecognizable Face

I was at the salon having my nails done a few weeks back when I overheard a conversation between two women of a certain age. The impeccably dressed pair were poring over a series of glossy celebrity magazines while waiting for their nails to dry. They commented on the clothing and accessories and adorable babies but never quite mentioned any of the A-Listers by name. It was more of “The redhead who is blonde now and has a new face and was in the prostitute movie a few years back;” which received the response of “No. That’s not her. That’s the one from the talk show who got divorced again.” My curiosity was piqued.

I sidled up to them and asked if they had a favorite actress from the current crop, and both women looked at me blankly. “I don’t know who any of these people are,” said one. Her friend countered with, “Maybe I used to know who some of them were, but I don’t recognize any of them anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old.”

Or maybe it’s because they don’t have the same faces or features as they once did.

As I leafed through the discarded magazine, I realized that it wasn’t filled with new faces unknown to most moviegoers; it was quite literally filled with new faces attached to subtly nipped or tucked bodies. And to be honest, I had to rely on the captions to figure out whose tight, lineless face I’d been looking at.

I often think about the somewhat stale Japanese expression “Christmas Cake,” referring to women over 25 who remain unmarried. Is there really an expiration date on beauty?

I have a perverse hobby that starts with each new television season and goes through the each round of promotional talk show appearances. I wait with bated breath for the actors and actresses to appear on the first episode of each season, not to see how the latest cliffhanger has been resolved, but rather to see whether they’ve shown up with a brand new face or at least heavily altered features.

Years back when I was a celebrity makeup artist, I’d regularly sign NDAs promising never to reveal the surgical secrets of my clients – and I never did. But what was weirdest to me was the fact that they’d lie to my face about what they’d done with their own. Some would wince as I gently tried to cover up angry red facelift or acid peel scars and damage and then act oblivious when I questioned the freshness of the wounds. It was mind-blowing at times to have to pretend not to see the poufed up parts and sucked out parts and scars and redness and other remnants of extreme cosmetic surgery.

When I look in the mirror lately, I’m aware of my laugh lines. And I probably spend far too much time mulling over the cutesy names that cosmetic companies have given to offending wrinkles (Marionette lines) or wobbly bits (I happen to really like muffin tops.) But I don’t think that I’d ever put my face under a scalpel to quell my own societally enforced fear of aging.

During the summer, I visited a schmancy dermatologist while researching a story. As we talked about her business, she cooed over my near perfect skin (thanks, Mom!) and then told me that with just a little, teeny drop of Botox I’d look perfect. And while I’ve always balked at cosmetic procedures, I’ll admit to having been tempted. Because while I’m regularly mistaken for being a decade younger than I actually am, I worry that I’m bit too flattered to hear it. And because I am a woman of decades, I have lived and laughed and I no longer look dewy and like the ingénue that I once was. And while I chuckled at the Amy Schumer “Last Fuckable Day” skit, I do sometimes wonder.

I often think about the somewhat stale Japanese expression “Christmas Cake,” referring to women over 25 who remain unmarried. Is there really an expiration date on beauty? And I also think of Kim Novak, who was so cruelly mocked at the Academy Awards last year for caving into the cruel Hollywood ideal of beauty and giving in by having a bit too much work done. And I think about Renee Zellweger who gained weight to portray Bridget Jones and seems to have rendered her own face unrecognizable. And I think of 30-something Anne Hathaway worrying that she’s too old for the movies. And I cringe when I see magazine headlines that scream about so-called “revenge bodies” and actresses looking amazing only months after giving birth.

Hollywood and our deeply skewed beauty ideal have robbed us of our stages of life. Pregnant women are no longer permitted to revel in their newly motherly curves. Actresses who should be considered lush and ripe in their 40s are considered over the hill and paired with actors decades older than them in romantic roles; or worse, like Laura Dern, at 47 they’re hired to play the mother of actresses only nine years younger than they are.

With cosmetic procedures so incredibly accessible and the globalized ideal of beauty so limiting, it can be hard to hope that someday soon we’ll see women of every age reveling in their natural beauty. And until that point, I won’t be able to resist commenting on the unnatural beauty that graces most magazine covers.

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)

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One Response

  1. Sheryl

    I get what you’re saying, Rachel, and appreciate your message. And yet…I feel that Hollywood and celebrity places an incredibly perverse and unrealistic ideal of aging and beauty. But that doesn’t have to be the standard that the average woman strives for. I, for one, gladly utilize some aesthetic treatments that are available – but I do it with the aim of enhancing beauty – not in the interest of changing it, or making me look unlike myself…but instead, a better version of myself. I don’t go to extremes. I don’t do it for anyone’s approval. I do it for me. Somehow I think the women of Hollywood have a much more desperate and deliberate message.


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