Pret-a-Reporter

What We Are Talking About When We Talk About Her Face, From Renee Zellweger to the Woman Next Door

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In a guest column for THR, actress and author Annabelle Gurwitch examines our obsession of “picking over, picking at and passing judgment on every feature” of a woman's suddenly younger-looking visage

The chatter has died down. There's been a deluge of damning admonitions, something I might term You Go Girl Feminism, diatribes against the demands that show business makes upon actresses and even insightful commentary, but will any of the any of the conversation be a prophylactic against future scrutiny of Her Face? 

Whether Her Face is the visage a famous actress or belongs to a friend you grew up who has had the temerity of suddenly looking younger than you, the semiotic study of the faces of women is one of our favorite national pastimes.

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This appears to be true whether we're privileged enough to occupy a front-row seat during fashion week or are straining for a gander from the stadium seats on one of the scores of websites devoted to this kind of mind-numbing distraction from the pressing issues of our days.

The first scrutiny comes with a kind of fascinated outrage, tinged with a bit of self-righteous indignation. Picking over, picking at and passing judgment on every feature.

"Changing her face lets us know that she doesn't like herself."

"Her face represents our inability to comes to terms with the aging process." 

True? Probably. At least to a certain extent. 

With a bit of time comes a deeper contemplation and a galvanizing battle cry: RESIST!

"We need to all have the courage to stand up and accept ourselves as we age."

"We need to stop submitting to this cutting. It encourages an impossible standard of youthful beauty."

It's also a slippery slope. Are nose jobs OK, but face-lifts unacceptable? Lasers good, knives bad?  Is the outcry a sign that we're caught in the gripe of collective facial dysmorphia? More truth, no doubt.

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It's also undeniable that we're confused. We can't be sure of what we are looking at with so many new offerings in the anti-aging marketplace. Cognitive psychologists have shown that we find listening to one half of a cell phone conversation particularly annoying but eminently engaging. Our brains appear to be hardwired to try and fill in the blanks in the presence of incomplete auditory information. Perhaps our fascination is merely a function of our brains straining to make sense of what we're seeing.

I have found it irresistible to not only study but to test drive the latest innovations to hit the market. Once or twice a year, I raid my savings to get my fix from a doctor in Beverly Hills who has clearly sized me up as the sucker that I am, though I'm uncertain of the outcome of any of these (no) cutting edge noninvasive procedures. Here is a short list of offerings I've sampled over the last 10 years and my one word assessments: Thermage — useless; Ulthera —torturous; Fraxel — dubious; photo facial — scabrous; Botox — monstrous; Juvaderm — voluminous; Restylane — capaciously voluminous. Ok, that was two words. I cheated.

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On one occasion a doctor said to me, "I have some extra filler. Let me put it in your chin — you need a bigger chin, like mine," and before I could say, "I don't want more chin. I don't like your chin!" he had done it. I hated that extra chinnage, which did fade with time, but still. I used to wonder who would let someone experiment on their face, and now I know—me. 

I also dye my hair. Is keeping the gray at bay another way we're doing ourselves a disservice? How about something that was hotly debated, receiving over 1,200 reader comments in The New York Times a few years back: whether long hair was acceptable after 50. It could be argued that all of the interventions that allow us to extend our fertile years are something akin to Botoxing your uterus.

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For me, these adventures in "maintenance," as it is often referred, are less motivated by my on-camera appearance as an actress and more primarily because I have seen the future, and by that I mean my mother's beautiful face. I love my mother, who I resemble more and more with each passing year, but I'm not all that crazy about the prospect of getting her gobbler. Not only am I uncertain as to the lengths I will go to stave off my turtleneck years, I'm also uncertain as to what I will be able to afford, and therein lies perhaps the heart of the matter. Money. Money gives you choices, though as Barry Schwartz writes in "The Paradox of Choice," too much choice isn't always a good thing.

So what are we talking about when we talk about Her Face? Wealth. Her Face, whoever that might be at any given moment, is another sign of the growing divide in America between rich and poor, and the proof is visible on our skin.

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If you see a woman in the media who looks extraordinarily fit, it's likely that she has paid a personal trainer. If you see someone in the media attired in a flattering manner, it's likely that they have hired a stylist. If you see someone extolling the virtues of veganism or locavorism, or how they cook only seasonal organic vegetables with artisinal olive oils, it's likely they aren't working a part-time gig for minimum wage. And if you see someone who seems to be aging very well, in a way that looks natural and effortless, but they don't have a gobbler, its likely I have sat next to them on a silk damask sofa in any number of marble floored, wood-paneled dermatologists' waiting rooms just off Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, California, 90210. 

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and New York Times best-selling author most recently of I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities and Survival Stories From the Edge of 50 (Blue Rider Press, March 2014).

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