I recently asked if we are now a Botox Nation, preferring Barbie and Ken’s wrinkle-free faces, boobs of steel that say Hi! to the ceiling and six pack abs to a less glamorous reality. It was both surprising and encouraging that so many readers voiced their objections to the lack of value our society places on those who age “gracefully” – or at least naturally. Teacher Anika Paris commented that our youth obsession had even reached her profession, with women who “look their age” being discarded. “You’d better fix yourself or else you’ll get thrown away,” she said.
The frenzied discussion on aging was triggered last week by actresses Frances McDormand and Renee Zellweger who illustrated our dilemma viscerally. Zellweger, 45, appeared at an Elle Magazine red carpet event looking all but unrecognizable, so stark was her facial “adjustment.”
That same day, McDormand, 57, was interviewed to coincide with her new HBO project (playing an aging woman), creating an uproar when she said “I have not mutated myself in any way.”
Is that what we are doing when we use Botox, get a face lift or implants? Mutating ourselves?
Despite the relentless 24-hour news cycle, Zellweger’s “shocking” new appearance is still in the news a week later, which not only forces us to question what is acceptable for a woman’s looks but how preoccupied we are with externals. Per The New York Times, she has removed any quirkiness from her features and now looks like “a million other good looking people.” Is the trade-off worth it?
Apparently Zellweger’s “before” look generated criticism as well. Certainly, she will find no relief from our relentless grading system now.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best. How far to take “your best” is up to the individual. But the mounting pressure to emulate Barbie is exacerbated when people in all walks of life are on the receiving end of ageism in the workplace. This only adds to the perception that youth is good and that society is downright disgusted at reminders of our own slow march to the grave via an actor’s increasingly wrinkled visage.
Robert Redford saw his 1990 film Havana get panned. His reaction, “The audience couldn’t forgive me for getting old.” Esquire just featured an article on Redford’s accumulated life and career experiences by showcasing a picture of him circa 1965.
This serves as a painful reminder that we are focused not on what we are accomplishing, but how we look doing it. Do we really need to be at gyms encased in glass so everyone on the street can see us sweating on the treadmill? Achievement and the facing down of new challenges matters far more than the Kabuki theatre we are fed daily via news outlets or commercials that showcase actresses with digitally airbrushed skin that looks younger than theirs did when they were twelve.
We are living longer. Far from slowing down, some of us are starting second or third careers at age 65. Yet in 2012, TV network execs took ageism a step further, sending a chilling message to all of us when they cancelled a successful TV show because the audience was “too old.”
Oscar and Emmy winning actress Kathy Bates saw her legal drama, “Harry’s Law” cancelled even though the show was a modest hit because it didn’t score high enough with the coveted 18-49 demographic. Baby boomers are the ones with all the dough. Talk about pooping on the people with the most buying power!
Here’s what Ms. Bates had to say about it:
“I think [NBC] treated us like s—t. They kicked us to the curb. I think they disrespected us, I think they disrespected our 7 to 11 million viewers every week and I think they’re getting what they deserve. For me…it was astounding to feel that as an older person, you weren’t wanted, your audience wasn’t wanted on television.”
Networks continue to struggle, losing market share to cable and streaming options. In retrospect, perhaps rewarding more “mature” viewers would have been a good idea.
Netflix blockbuster hit “House of Cards” starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright features actors of a certain age in abundance – proving there is a huge market for good work, not youthful looks.
Writer/Producer Debbie Zipp, who works to awaken studio heads to the gold mine in programming featuring older women, shared:
“The Media has profound and far-reaching power in shaping the general views of society. The lack of portrayals of women over 40 in the film industry perpetuates the attitude that aging is not okay. … But the actresses in Hollywood are merely a microcosm of what happens in every aspect of this country. The answer lies in convincing studio moguls and networks that equal and realistic representation of women over that certain age is a necessary responsibility, makes good economic sense and is vitally important to changing the perception of women over 40 in society as a whole.”
Perception is power. The more we buy into the “over the hill” message, the more we take away any power we might otherwise have in achieving something past a pre-ordained “sell-by” date.
And if we deride those who show their age, is that perhaps a projection of upset with our own losing battle against sagging skin? Is it any wonder those in the public eye are running to the surgeon? Heck, we’re doing it too. Over 15 million cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in 2013. That number is growing.
More than ever in the age of social media, we have become critics. A cruel tweet commenting on the “ugly” appearance of another becomes a quick, painless and often anonymous way to project or relieve our own self-criticism onto a stranger in the public eye. By doing so, however, we are not only hurting the subject. We are hurting ourselves, making it impossible for us to like what we see in the mirror. We are also teaching our children to value artifice rather than accomplishment, character or experience.
Our political debate continues to create battles over left versus right or the 1% and everyone else. The larger battle is between those of us out here on the ground versus those who make money off of the manipulative messages they send us.
It was most encouraging to see thousands of loud and proud reactions by people in all walks of life who are sick and tired of being told that they don’t count if they’re not perfectly coifed or “pulled.” Rejecting plastic is step one.
I agree with Frances McDormand that age, experience, and the “card catalog of valuable information” accumulated over a lifetime are to be celebrated.
Only when we get loud enough and use our dollars (or withhold them) to send the message to advertisers, studio heads and politicians that we will not cooperate and become invisible to suit their timetable will we finally see programming or policy reflecting who we are, rather than the fake beings they urge us to emulate in the funhouse mirror.
Anita Finlay is the bestselling author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin. Sharing the untold story of Hillary’s 2008 campaign, Dirty Words exposes media sexism in a society not as evolved as advertised. “The book tells it like it is for women aspiring to power.” #1 on Amazon’s Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.
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