Beauty Works - Ageing is Not For Sissies - Part I
Digital artists are recruited in order to eliminate such “flaws” from actresses, keeping that face “bankable” and the illusion (and everyday women’s self-loathing) perpetually alive… All, for the sake of demonising maturity, and perpetuating unrealistic ideals of female beauty (and keeping the self esteem of everyday women, plunged into abysmal depths).
Art & Words by Fanitsa Petrou
In the words of the immortal Betty Davis: “Ageing is not for sissies!” Meaning, it takes guts and stamina and an uterus made of titanium, in order to look at your self in the mirror, and see that your looks are gone, or in any case are on their way, and not fall apart. (And then panic and start looking for plastic surgeons and gyms and a good carb-free diet).
We all age, but of course it is the only a woman’s ageing that’s a tragedy. It is only a woman’s age that diminishes her status and tarnishes her own sense of self with each passing year. It is only women who have much more to lose as they are forced to make the conforming to marketable standards of female beauty their life’s secret purpose, and their gender’s destiny.
Celebrities are faced with an even tougher deal of course, as their livelihood depends on their looks and age, even more than the rest of us. A telling example of that, is the singer Adele, singing at 27, “I’m so mad I'm getting old”! Critics have pointed out that she is too young to feel so old, but if you were born in a woman’s body, you know EXACTLY what she means. You already know that this is what being a woman is about: being made to feel old (or at least on your way), even when you are in your late twenties! Being made to feel like you are past that perfect “prime”. And that there’s already an “EXIT” sign in neon light, flashing ominously in front you. A woman’s age, being forever disadvantageously compared with her early twenties, (hers, and every other woman’s on Earth), “ageing”, being the most unpardonable of her sins. Even if she is hardly 30… It is no wonder for example, that two of the top selling female artists, both felt the need to let us know how young they are, in the title of their albums: Taylor Swift’s “1989”, is named after the year in which she was born; Adele’s own last album was “25”, her age when she started recording it (as were her first albums: “19” and “21”). Miley Cyrus, another young pop princess, did the same with her song “23” which was also coincidentally her then current age! It’s a common enough trend among female singers. The same thing was done back in 1998, by another, then very young female artist - Alanis Morissette - who after her first brilliant album, felt the need to let us know in her second one, that she was still very young: she actually sings somewhere “Do you realise guys that I was born in 1974?”(making sure we all knew she was just 24)
Isn’t it sad? Men in their twenties feel like they are immortal (hell, they feel that in their 70s too…) Women in their twenties, (talented, intelligent, highly accomplished and successful women at the top of their profession), are already panicking about ageing, and are forced to become painfully aware that a dreaded expiration date awaits a few steps down the way. That is why they want to let the world know: “Hey I’m still young”, (which means“I’m still legit”, which translates as "still fuckable") “Have you noticed?! Please, please, PLEAAAASE notice!!!”
Their fear that they will not be given a fair chance to continue working in their chosen profession for long, is actually, sadly, reality-based. The singer/songwriter Sia was in 2016 the true rarity of a female artist over 40 to have a song ("Cheap Thrills") at No.1! The last time this has happened was back in 2000, when Madonna (then 42) had a No1. (her 12th) with the song “Music”. A female artist topping the Billboard Hot 100 for the FIRST time (like in the case of Sia) while she is over 40, is an even rarer deal! The last time it happened, was back in 1989, when Bette Midler (then 43) scored this rare victory with “Wind Beneath My Wings.” It took 27 whole years for this to be repeated...
Ours is a cruel, unforgiving world, for any woman over 40… Which explains why so many women out there are so scared of being open about their age and especially, their ageing… Last year for example, when I turned fifty, I’ve written an article about what it means, what it feels like, how it gradually changes your body, your perspective (if not your life), and what I feel I’ve lost because of that. After I’ve posted it, friends were repeatedly telling me that 1) I was “very brave”, and 2) I must be “mad”. Because apparently you are not supposed to reveal how old you are (Not publicly! Not voluntarily!) and if you do, then you are most definitely not supposed to admit that you are “ageing”, as in having aches and pains, noticing changes in your face and body, or in the way you interact with men, and so on) And if you do any of that, then it is obviously an act of bravery or one of self-destructive madness…. Because you are not supposed to be honest about such things, right? Not if you are a woman. That’s just dangerous. Because it makes people take notice that you are indeed ageing. The world after all expects you to be perpetually stuck in your twenties: being perky, and sunny, and naive, and more importantly, sexually inexperienced, and looking (and thinking) like a teenager pretty much! The world has no place for middle aged women or god forbid women over 60! And it has no patience for the complexity they carry either.
Ageing may be “forbidden” to women but none of us (male or female) are of course immune to it. If you have ever binge watched any TV show that lasted like 7+ years (and was aired prior to 2014 when “Beauty Works” became common – see below), you get to see even actors and actresses (which is to say, pampered millionaires, who have access to exclusive beauty therapies and personal dieticians, and chefs and trainers and whatnot) age before your very eyes in the span of the few days your binge watching lasts. It is actually quite unnerving. They may get thinner and add on the muscle tone in the last seasons, as their panic about ageing increases with each passing year, and they may slowly (and predictably) become unrecognisable by botox and plastic surgery, but underneath it all, they change as much as the rest of us. Which goes to show you… For the same reason younger actors turn from kids to teenagers, and from teenagers to young people before our very eyes too. That's just how time works, and there's nothing more natural or more predictable than that: time passes, we grow up, we grow old, we age, which is to say, we change. Every single cells in our body will in seven years's time be replaced. Not one single cell will survive beyond that seven-year threshold. Everything continuously changes. And yet we are surprised, shocked, caught unprepared when we come face to face to it... And we fight manically to stop it. As if we can...
Actually the prematurely wrinkled face of middle aged (or even much younger) women - whether they are celebrities, or not - is the price they pay for excessive dieting. Never before in the history of humanity (outside of war and famine that is) was the emaciated female body so common, or seen as actually the norm. A thin one? Sure! Since the 70s at least. But never before was the almost anorexic female figure celebrated as the ideal (and only truly permissible) female form, and never before were wrinkles actually seen as a worthy price to be paid for it. Never before were that many women basing their sense of accomplishment so much on the fact that they are wearing children’s sizes. Never before were women thrilled to have “thigh gaps”, not because they were born that way, but because there’s hardly any flesh on their legs… Or be worthy of the latest trend, that of “Rib Cage bragging”, (the more rids a woman shows, the more she earns the right to “brag”... Yes, we have come to that!)
Wanting to be THIS thin, is frankly a sick development (yes, even if it IS often masked – ironically – as the “healthy choice” that keeps “obesity” at bay, as if these are the only two options available: anorexia or obesity) that actually goes against the natural course of life. Especially as we get older. The thing is, the minute most women turn 45, and their hormonal balance is starting to change, Nature brazenly steps in and says “OK, No worries. Here’s a few extra kilos. My gift to you. Dare refuse it, and your face will pay the price, OK?” She might as well have added “And you will be needing those weird face fillers in no time”. Who was the French diva who said something along those lines? (Was it Deneuve or Signoret?) Namely that after a certain age, you have to choose either "face or ass". You just can’t have both… And most women now-a-days do choose “ass” don’t they? Because they know it in the heart of hearts that within our porn culture, they are just bodies to the eyes of men. Faces don’t matter, as long as bodies are fuckable…There’s a pretty scary symbolism in that, actually…
But acting is a cruel profession for women especially isn’t it? Their presence in movies, being still largely a “decorative” one. The meaty roles, the complex roles are still after all, being given to men (as well as the high fees). Regardless of their talent, female stars are mostly in movies as sex objects. As distractions, or glorified cheerleaders of the hero’s journey.And then, (before they are old enough for it to be justifiable), as mothers and grandmothers. And it starts early: actresses in their twenties are routinely being paired off with actors in the forties. And by the time they are in their forties themselves, they become the love interest most of them are pushed off the screen so that freshed-faced younger actresses will be given the on screen chance to sleep with more ageing leading men. Actors well into their fifties or sixties on the contrary, can be seen as the love interest of young women in their early twenties, and while in their seventies can still take action-hero roles, but most actresses in their forties (or even mid thirties) are seen as well pass their “prime”. The actress Maggie Gyllenhaal for example, famously revealed that she was seen as “over the hill” at 37 (!) and told that she is “too old” to play the lover of a 55 year old man!!!
Of course it is a problem as old as Hollywood (or possibly, Time…) Men’s age doesn't matter after all. Only women’ s: Harrison Ford’s return as Han Solo at seventy-three, in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015) was celebrated as a cinematic event unrelated to his age. Yet the late Carrie Fisher’s own return in the iconic role of Princess Leia in the same film, was of course centred around her weight, her age and her ageing: at fifty-nine (that is, when she was FOURTEEN whole years younger than Ford!) she was body shamed, and publicly mocked for “ageing”. (How dare she not look EXACTLY like she did when she was twenty-one when the first Star Wars movie was out, right?!) She of course didn’t take it sitting down. Being her usual witty / brilliant / hilarious self, she tweeted: “My body hasn’t aged as well as I have. Blow us." Followed by, "Youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they’re the temporary happy by-products of time and/or DNA. Don’t hold your breath for either." And elsewhere: "I swear when I was shooting those films I never realized I was signing an invisible contract to stay looking the exact same way for the rest of my existence."
Hollywood demands homogeneity from its women (as our world does from all women). Diversity being more of a theoretical notion one uses as a way to promote a “positive” brand, or harvest Likes on social media, rather than an actual real-life goal. The movie industry, is still all about young, white, thin, busty blonds. Unless the cast has a place for more than one woman / side kick / love interest to the hero, that is. In which case, a black, or more often an Asian (very rarely a Hispanic) woman, or even a white one who is a few kilos “too fat” and therefore qualifying also as a “minority”), might be thrown in the mix, in order to fill the “social consciousness” quota of studios, and shut the politically “sensitive” bloggers up.
The movie industry demands an impossible standard of beauty and perpetual youthfulness from its actresses who are therefore pretty much forced to either take measures or else get used to the idea that they will gradually be pushed out of their chosen profession. That is why it is so common for them to attempt to hold onto their youth with expensive cosmetic surgeries. But even that can be problematic, as they are often ignored by casting directors for altering their appearances “too much”, and not being“themselves" anymore (never mind that being “themselves” was also being seen as inadequate…) That’s why so many stars of the 90s who are now in their fifties, are pretty much unrecognisable, and because of that, unemployable, ironically not because of how they’ve aged, but because of having gone under the knife so many times so that they wouldn’t look like they've aged(like it is in anybody’s hands…) On the other hand, actresses over 60 (or even much younger ones), who have exhausted all possibilities available by cosmetic surgery, are opting for “beauty work” (digital anti-ageing visual effects - VFX ) that can blur out their wrinkles, eliminating blemishes, sliming down upper arms, deleting jowls or dark circles under the eyes, etc.. giving them the kind of smooth face they had in their early twenties, and by that ensuring that they can continue to be considered for employment in their field. The illusion is usually shuttered of course, when you get to see them promoting the very same film on shows that can’t afford such VFX budgets.
Blurred camera work is an old trick that has been around ever since the 30’s, and there are modern versions of that (many actresses who are now in their 60s or 70s seem to have been slightly “out of focus” for years now…) Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, vaseline would be rubbed on the camera lens or a stocking would be placed on top of the lens, in order to provide a more flattering, blurred image. Now-a-days, the so-called “beauty work” / VFX industry has pushed the boundaries even further. No wrinkle, no ageing neck, no blemish, and no bloated tummy, or drooping eyelid will ever again be allowed to be seen on the screen it seems (unless they belong to a supporting actress that is. Or men of course!) Digital artists are being recruited in order to eliminate such “flaws”, keeping that face “bankable” and the illusion (and everyday women’s self-loathing) perpetually alive.
Nobody looks like themselves any more. It is a common knowledge, yes, but one that nobody is supposed to talk about, so when somebody does, it’s quite refreshing: A couple of years ago, the aforementioned Adele was asked (make that “fat-shamed”) by Anderson Cooper, whether or not she wishes she looked like “other pop stars and people in magazines”, to which she cheekily replied: “I’ve seen them upclose. Even THEY don’t look like that!” (Bless her for saying it!)
This branch of the VFX industry is one that has been at directors’ s disposal for some years now actually, and has many other uses: from making superheroes fly, or Hagrid look like a giant in “Harry Potter”, ageing (and youthifying) Brad Pitt in “Benjamin Button”, making Chris Evans’s figure look scrawny in the first half of “Captain America”, enhancing Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones in “Maleficent”, re-creating a young-again Princess Leia in that last scene of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,”“humanising” Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”, Toby the house elf in “Harry Potter”, the fighting bear in the “Golden Compass”, the green creature in “The Shape of Water”, the apes in “Planet of the Apes”, and all kinds of other mythical creatures in these, and other Fantasy stories, to making Claire Danes’s pregnancy disappear all together in “Homeland”. (It used to take an oversize coat and a strategically placed bag to hide an actress’s pregnancy, now it takes an army of digital artists). But it is also largely dedicated to dealing with “flaws” in actresses (eliminating signs of ageing, slimming them down, elongating their figure or giving them the kind of unrealistic hourglass figure found in comics). Or even (interestingly) undoing the disastrous results of excessive Botox or plastic surgery… (yeah, it has come to that) The practise is now so pervasive that any current show that is not using digital retouching (for example “Girls”, “Transparent”, “Sharp Objects”), stands out, and is seen as “gritty”, and as making a “brave” statement (namely: that human beings can age, have “blemishes” and are not comic-book “perfect” at all times and all ages, presumably)Diane Keaton for example, may be, at seventy-two, the pixie of the “senior rom-com” genre, but only because the camera seems to blur most signs of ageing from her face. And this is sad, not because it is a “deceit”, but because it defeats the point film makers are supposedly trying to make with her movies: that older women can still find love, and do indeed deserve to find love - not to mention that talented actresses can still (much like their male counterparts) get leading roles, regardless of their age... (Well apparently not unless some trickery is involved) Her considerable talent, her wit, her likability, her legendary comedic timing, her timeless good looks and her divine, and absolutely individual sense of style, are apparently not enough, is what we are being told… All that is negated by her age… How infuriating is that?!! Hellen Mirren, Mary Streenburger, even sadly Meryl Strip (in the latest “Mama Mia” at least) seem to have been re-touched as well. But even much younger actresses are making this choice now (it’s I guess, a bit like doping in sports: when everybody is doing it, then anyone who wants to stay in the game is “forced” to walk down the same treacherous path). Sutton Foster’s beautiful (and by no means aged) face for example, seems to be smoothed out in “Younger”, so that she can convincingly play the role of a forty year old woman who is passing for a twenty something one, in order to get a job. Ironically, this negates the supposedly anti-ageist message of the series, in a very telling manner, telling us that the only way a middle aged woman can be mistaken for a 20+ one, is when her face has been digitally altered.
“Beauty work” is a process that is now budgeted into most shows, films and music videos and has become quite commonplace, (as commonplace as heavily Photoshoped photos of celebrities for magazines, are). All, for the sake of demonising maturity, and perpetuating unrealistic ideas of female beauty (and keeping the self esteem of everyday women, plunged into abysmal depths, and by that placing into the hands of men a pretty considerable power...)
It’s a cruel double standard of course that does not touch men. Did anyone ever cared about or went into any kind of lengths to hide Clint Eastwood’s wrinkles for example? Did his ageing ever put a stop to his long career? Was he ever seen as less of an artist, (less talented, less worthy of respect, less commercial) or even less of a man, because of it? No! Actually his wrinkled face has always been seen as the reason for those famous “ragged good looks” of his… (Yeah, when you are a guy, even your old age becomes an actual asset…
Stars who refuse to go under the knife, (or who simply dare release on their social media, photos that have not been altered by Photoshop, for that matter), are being trashed by the gossip industry, and the hordes of commenters, for the fact that they have (like every single human being ever to be born), “aged”. A couple of years back, un-retouched photos of Julia Roberts at the beach (looking great by the way), were making the rounds on gossip websites which were passive-aggressively pointing out her age, baiting commenters (who of course took the bait...) An actress is equally criticised of course if she posts photos that HAVE been photoshopped. The same goes for plastic surgery: damn if you will, and damn if you don’t. Meg Ryan's undeniably changed appearance due to cosmetic surgery is seen for example, as the reason why she is no longer cast. Yet not going under the knife seems like a dead end too, since it can also lead to dramatic changes in a woman’s career. Often just posting photos without makeup (let alone botox!) is enough for an actress to find herself in the middle of heated social media debates and vicious criticism.
Any actress (like Renée Zellweger for example), who for whatever reason steps out of the limelight for a few years (which inevitably leave a mark on her, like on each and everyone of us), lives to see her return becoming the focus of speculation and criticism: if she had work done, she is told she no longer looks like “herself” and that’s a ‘”shame”. If she had not, she is told she has “changed” too much (meaning “aged”) A woman can’t really win this… Did anybody care about Michael Keaton looking visibly older in “Birdman” for example (his own kind of “comeback” in mainstream movies after some years have gone by)? The answer is a big, fat NO! Lauren Graham’s return as Lorelai in the Gilmore Girls revival (“Gilmore Girls: A year in the Life Of”) was also criticised by people on social media, not account of her abilities as an artist, but on account that at forty-nine (her age when the revival was filmed) she didn’t look EXACTLY like she did at thirty-three (when the first season of Gilmore Girls was aired…) Again, was anybody bothered if Scott Patterson (her co-star, who happens to be something like NINE whole years her senior and was wearing a toupee) aged or not? No! Even if she did age very, VERY well, the fact that she was no longer in her early thirties, was enough. And the fact that she did not go under the knife is somehow also seen as not what an actress is “supposed” to do.
Like I said, damn if you do, and damn if you don’t… “She looks tired” becomes the code for “She hasn’t had cosmetic surgery”, and “She looks fresh” the code for “she obviously has!” and “she looks different” can mean anything from “she has aged a LOT”, or “she has had too much work done” to “she put on a total of three kilos”. All are used as masked insults of course…
The same goes for the rest of us: everyday women who can’t afford actual plastic surgery, are using all kinds of blurring filters and special apps in order to knock off decades of their face or body on photos they post on social media. And much like celebrities, they don’t know where to stop: they keep on “blurring” their features, until they are practically a vague suggestion of themselves as seen through glass-less myopic eyes. And the new “etiquette” is of course to pretend that you haven’t noticed it and you don’t know how they really look in real life, (even if you’ve met them just yesterday for coffee…) You might even go as far as telling them they look “absolutely fantastic!” and that they “haven’t aged a day!” Because it is the kind thing to do, isn’t it? And because obviously, there is nothing they need more. Even as they are declaring to “love their age!” Well, especially then! And it is kind of symbolic: the ideal contemporary woman is a blurred, unidentified, skinny version of herself. A generic Other who looks vaguely like every other woman who either has used the same blurring social media apps, or has had the same kind of ‘work” done on her face. We are becoming homogenized so that we will fit in. So that we will offer an easy enough task for men to choose what is “familiar”, and “unthreatening” to them. Every characteristic that identifies us as a separate entity who has lived a specific life and has been marked by it in specific ways, needs to be assembly-lined, so that we won’t scare them away…(They do scare so easily after all! The mere hint of a personality, the mere suggestion of an individual, of a life that has been lived, of a more complicated or original package, and they panic) No wonder women are collectively turning into plastic dolls created with specific “quality” standards in mind.
And that’s the thing, right? The way women are being depicted in movies, TV shows, music videos, ads, magazines, comic books, video games, does matter! Because it affects our perception of what is “right’, what is acceptable, what is “normal” in our everyday lives. That is why celebrities have a certain amount of power to change all that. When they (out of a sense of professional self-preservation, if not insecurity or vanity) are opting to go for cosmetic surgery, botox, photoshoped photos, or anti-ageing visual effects, so that they can keep being employed in a sexist and cruel industry, we do get it that they are just simply trying to survive. And it is understandable. But when they go one step further, and smugly thank anyone who compliments them for “looking great” in a film (while they KNOW how come they look that “great”), or for “not looking their age at all!” or for “looking too good to be forty” (or fifty or sixty or seventy or whatever) they stop being victims of an ageist system and they become part of what has created it.
Celebrities being part of pop culture, are in a position to affect how women feel about themselves (and how men feel about women too), if not how the industry feels about them. That is why they need to start being honest about such things. Making pompous, self-congratulatory, self-helpy, so-called “empowering” and politically correct statements about “loving their age”, “being comfortable in their own skin” doesn’t cut it any more. They need to step up. So that change will eventually come for the next generations at least. By pretending and grasping onto that compliment with both hands, onto that specific sense of Self, they are amplifying the message that comes from everywhere, that women are not allowed to age (and men are!), and that being pre-occupied with, and defined by their looks, and being deeply (and secretly) ashamed for their ageing is OK.
I’m still expecting to hear one of these celebrities (other than the late Joan Rivers that is - and a handful of other female comedians) when she is being complimented for “looking great” in a film, to come out and say (even in the form of a self-deprecating joke, if not seriously): “Well that was not the real me, was it? That was a blurred / enhanced perception of me, created on a computer monitor by an entire team of experts”. Or when she is complimented for “still looking amazing for a fifty / sixty / seventy year old” she will dare to go: “Well, I’ve had a ton of work done, and have been hungry since the eighties, that’s why!”
Wouldn't’ t that change the conversation in one single stroke? Wouldn’ t that be something? (I’m still expecting it. But frankly I’m not holding my breath…)
The same goes for the rest of us. We do need to stop allowing our looks and age to define us! We need to step up and face the mirror! Ageing is a tough deal I get it. You do what you need to do to feel good, but remember:
if you have done things, (unnatural, scary things) to your face and body, involving fat sucking pumps, and one-foot long needles, and scalpels and botulism;
if you have spent every extra minute of your free time exercising as if you are a decathlete;
if you have willingly paralysed your face in order to stop being able to smile or show any emotion other than open-eyed bewilderment;