How many times do you have to hear something in order to believe it’s true? How often do you need to be told something about yourself before you internalize it and accept it part of your identity, part of your fundamental being?
After her appearance at the ELLE 2014 Women in Hollywood awards, everyone (well, everyone who hadn’t kicked it off the night before on Twitter) started talking about Renée Zellweger. The commentary was largely of the “that is NOT Renée Zellweger” variety, though some of it has finally veered into the “leave Renée Zellweger alone” territory.
There is one theory — that this “new look” (it’s not really new, reports of her face looking very different started cropping up last year though reports in general might be exaggerated: our own Jane saw her repeatedly in person and never noticed a difference) is down to the pressure placed on women (particularly famous women) to always present a youthful face. Plastic surgery is, the Washington Post posits, only a problem when people get caught having it but they are most assuredly having it. They seem to think Zellweger was fighting the onset of age, trying to look young and glam even as photos get more and more high def. The Guardian rightfully points out that there is nothing wrong with her face — there is only something wrong with a public who feels entitled to effortless beauty.
I am not entirely convinced by that, though.
Jerry Maguire came out in 1996 and was the ninth top-grossing film of the year. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, three Golden Globes and three Screen Actors Guild Awards. It was also Zellweger’s breakout role — and it was the first time a lot of people were totally smitten by her face.
Bridget Jones’s Diary came out in 2001. I was dragged to the movie by some friends who loved the book (I did not love the book) and I was surprised by how delightful Zellweger was — by how sympathetic I found her character to be. There was so much earnest good intention combined with bad decisions, and it was all there in that distinctive face.
Her face was distinctive then, yeah — and what people seem to be conveniently glossing over now is how often Zellweger was the subject of truly cruel commentary.
I could list a lot of things that people have said about Zellweger’s face. I suspect you’ve heard or read most of them though — possibly even said some of them yourself with varying degrees of appreciation. I’d rather not have this be one more place where those critical adjectives get applied.
It’s been 18 years since Jerry Maguire brought the world’s attention to Zellweger and her uncommon face (uncommon in Hollywood, at least). Maybe it really is, as the WP says, about a fear of aging. But what if it isn’t?
What if, for 18 years, millions of people have been insulting Zellweger’s face and telling her she ought to do something about that?
If that’s the case, then it’s basically the Internet’s fault that things have come to this. (And the extent of “this” probably isn’t even as severe as wild Internet speculation spread around. None of us actually know and guessing is just as insulting as all the current insults.)
The Atlantic ended their weirdly invasive questions to Zellweger with a quote from Bridget Jones’s Diary about liking her just the way she was. And obviously she is a movie star so her face had appeal to lots of people.
But as a mainstream American culture, we seem to lack any degree of empathy for our stars — we love to watch them fall, right? And I can’t help but think about the power of being told over and over and over again that some part of you is hideous, that some part of you is flawed.
When I was in high school, a nerdy kid fresh back from Thailand, I was pretty sure that I was fatter than my peers but I wasn’t really worried about it. My thighs rubbed together a little bit and my grandmother took me to shop at Cato’s and the plus-size department of K-Mart. But people kept telling me I was fat all the time — family members and a couple of boys at school and some “well-meaning” adults.
Even though no one came right out and said that I was going to die alone and unloved (mostly because there was no such thing as Internet trolls yet to fill that gaping need in my life), the subtext was clear. Why would I be encouraged to work so hard not to be fat if it weren’t going to ruin everything that was good in life?
It was confusing because I didn’t hate my body then — but I tried to be better and thinner and prettier because I wanted my family to be happier with me. I wanted them to feel like I was worth loving. And, slowly, they convinced me. Eventually, I felt like a monster.
I hated my body — and by extension, my self — because I learned that I was supposed to; there was no other option. No one was there to tell me that there were alternatives. Instead, everyone was there to reward me for hiding in baggy jeans and skipping meals.
There is some fairly basic psychology going on here: bad stuff almost always makes for a stronger memory than the good stuff. This is why negativity bias is a thing. If enough trusted people tell you that you’re a hideous beast who can’t be seen in the light of day, it’s really hard not to internalize that message.
Even if you manage to fight some of it off, you’ve used up a lot of your energy — you have put all of your efforts into defending yourself, and then there isn’t anything left for building yourself back up.
At the end of the day, Zellweger has the same body autonomy that anyone else does. She gets to make her choices for her own reasons. Anyone saying she made a mistake really ought to sit down — Zellweger is the only one who can judge that (and here is your obligatory Jennifer Grey link).
But the people offering constant commentary on her face (and also her body because she’s often been targeted by people who want to call her fat and make fun of her) have created the environment and atmosphere in which Zellweger made her choice.
No man is an island, no one lives in a vacuum, all that philosophical claptrap. We are all connected and there is no such thing as being completely unaffected by the weight of that much public commentary.
Every individual I know who is into snark (and there is no denying that has become part of our entertainment culture) defends it as being just for fun. It’s suggested that people simply ought to grow a thicker skin.
I disagree. I think snark, especially on a cultural level, is actively damaging. I think it tells people, over and over again, that they are monstrous — for whatever reason — until that idea is inescapable.
How many times do you have to hear something about yourself before you believe it? I look back at pictures of me in high school. I was, in fact, fatter than my peers. But the person I was taught to see in the mirror is not in the few photographs I have from that time period. There is no monster in those photos.
There’s just a body that I learned to hate because I believed what I was taught.
And, hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Zellweger’s wide-eyed gaze has nothing to do with the incessant caricaturing of her signature (adorable) grin. But even so, I hope that we, as the collective Internet, think for a moment about how responsible we are for teaching people what to see in the mirror.
And I hope Zellweger is happy with what she sees, no matter what.
Marianne Kirby is a Weekend Editor at xoJane.com.
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