Amazing how the face of one beautiful woman can set off a firestorm, igniting a torrent of emotions far beyond simply "has she or hasn't she?" Welcome to what I call the "Beauty Paradox."
Ashley Judd's recent response to the media frenzy regarding her "puffy face" was as intriguing to me as the thousands of comments that her allegedly altered appearance provoked. As a psychologist who writes about women in contemporary culture, I heard her very public angry reaction (as well as the "nasty, vitriolic" comments that started it all)—as more complicated than meets the eye.
In an interview on NBC's Rock Center, Judd attributed her puffiness to steroids, prescribed to treat an unyielding sinus infection. She described how women like her can't win; they are accused of having 'work' done when they look good and criticized when they don't. She said she had enough of what she called a "pointedly nasty, gendered and misogynistic" conversation about femininity in our culture. Exasperated by what she described as "incessant," and "physical objectification," she pleaded with women to stop being their own worst enemies.
But was her outrage just about being misperceived? Doth she protest too much—is she possibly ashamed? If not of herself, then of her peers? Maybe even afraid of being caught? As for those rising to judgment, what do women really feel when celebs today get 'work' done—or choose not to? Curiosity? Disappointment? How do women feel when they don't have the same cosmetic choices as celebs do? Longing? Envy? Perhaps we also protest too much?
This is not the first time a female celebrity has been outspoken about the negativity provoked by being in the public eye. Kate Winslet, Rachel Weisz and Emma Thompson took a stand against their images being overly photoshopped. Eager to separate themselves from those more than willing to have their wrinkles and age spots airbrushed away, they started a movement called the "Anti-Cosmetic Surgery League." While many supporters agreed—digital alteration had gone too far—it created strong and mixed reactions. Some said that only young and beautiful women could afford to take such a stand. Cynics were convinced these celebs would have a change of heart as they aged in front of the camera. And there were many on the other side of the camera who were not convinced that people used to seeing beauty as perfection in the media would be receptive to the idea.
Remember how the blogosphere was filled with mixed emotions when Jane Fonda confessed to another round of plastic surgery a couple of years ago? That ambivalence was felt by the actress as well. On her own blog she wrote, "I got tired of not looking like how I feel," and admitted, "I wish I'd been brave enough not to do anything." Fonda had sworn off more such alterations, but clearly her resolve wore down as she exclaimed "Jowels Away!" Far from feeling victorious, Fonda's means of dealing with looking older seemed to evoke feelings of failure. In her biography, "The Private Life of a Public Woman," her five decades of struggle for success are described as a mirror for the complicated feelings facing a generation of women.
Anger, surprise and more were felt when Rush Limbaugh once touched on the topic of Hillary Clinton's looks on his radio show. During her run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Limbaugh asked, "Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?" The comment incensed those who questioned how far we had really come if being fit for office required a youthful appearance. On the other hand, many wondered if Limbaugh had a point. Would our media-driven political world be more focused on her aging process than her policies? We saw how things worked in the opposite direction when Sarah Palin was nominated—some believing her youthful good looks kept her in the race longer than many believed was deserved.
And how comfortable would Clinton have been had she actually made it to presidency? Many wonder how she deals with that scrutiny now. Not even the Secretary of State is immune to the feelings provoked by constantly being in the public eye. Comments about her face, hair and clothes are non-stop. In "Waiting for Dr. Hoffman" a play by Michele Willens, a character awaiting a face lift says, "Every time I see Hillary, I think how much better she would look if she had some work done. Only then do I think what a great job she's done." Hearts go out to Clinton as she bears not only the burden of wars waged against unfriendly nations, but the one she wages against our beauty obsessed society.
Yet, how would we really feel if Hillary decided to experiment with a nip and tuck during a break from her worldly duties? Or if we found out that Michelle Obama routinely used botox to keep her skin looking smooth. What if Meryl Streep revealed that she had her eyes lifted—the surgical procedure her character fled from in "It's Complicated." Would we be disappointed? Surprised? Angry? Or resigned, as in "sure, just like the home runs hit by those men on steroids." Being in the public eye means these complicated questions will be raised.
Take the admission by British actress Helen Mirren, who openly shared her thoughts about going under the knife. She said, "if I wasn't on camera, I would have done it years ago, I'd think about it even more if I was in a different profession... it's the full-on for me. Suck it all up, tie it up and cut it all off." Women all around the world had strong emotional responses. Some were relieved—even Helen thinks about cosmetic surgery! Some were disappointed—no, not her too! Many thought that her very consideration had let down an entire generation of women hoping she would be one of the last holdouts.
So this is my point. If you choose to be in the public eye, as does Judd, you chose to reflect the complicated feelings that lie behind those many eyes. Judd called it a double bind. I call it the "Beauty Paradox" and it is wreaking havoc not just among celebrities, but with everyday women as well.
We are a generation brought up to be true to ourselves and to be proud of our accumulated years of experience. Yet we're encouraged to hide those years when they show up on our faces. On one hand, we criticize those who choose surgical intervention, often dismissing them as weak and inauthentic, as if they have personally betrayed the lofty goals we worked so hard to achieve. As a culture, we have begun to applaud those who go 'au-natural,' even root for them as they struggle against pressures to look young and perfect. On the other hand, it's this very same culture that sends the opposite message; be authentic and you risk losing your job, your mate or even worse, you may become invisible! It's a catch 22.
The fact is, being a woman in today's youth and beauty obsessed culture is challenging. We need to allow ourselves—as well as those in the public eye—to come to terms with it all in our own way. With a little less criticism, judgment, shame and disappointment, we could make the journey easier on us all, turning a no-win situation, into one where we feel victorious simply for dealing openly and honestly with a complicated cultural phenomenon.
What do you think about the double bind women face today? Do you see a way out of it?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.