I WAS HALFWAY THROUGH a phone call with Cate Blanchett when things turned awkward.
She was taking calls from reporters to promote her new job as the spokesface for an expensive skincare line called SK-II. I was wrestling with the task of announcing this non-news to the world.
It should have been easy, this brief dance between writer and celebrity. I should have let her to tell me she adored these products long before SK-II offered her a job. Let her drop charming anecdotes about Brad Pitt using SK-II on his dreamy face as they rode in a limo to the set of Benjamin Button each morning. Then I should have written the breezy blurb people expect to read about this sort of thing, and gone about the rest of my day.
But I went off script. I’d spent too many years seeing behind the scenes, realizing that the beauty industry doesn’t sell better skin. It sells insecurity. It sells the dissatisfaction so many women feel when they look in the mirror before bed at night. It sells the false hope that we just haven’t found the right products yet or invested in the right facial or procedure or injectible. It sells that moment when someone posts a candid photo of you smiling, and all you can see are the flaws you’ve been taught to notice.
Far too many women go to parties and only use half their consciousness to connect with people, because the other half is busy stewing in the thought that they look fat in their dress. Or their hair isn’t right. Or people can see some pesky blemish on their face. At least I have, and whenever I confess it I hear a resounding chorus of other women telling me they’ve done the same thing.
All of us—me, my friends, my neighbors and every famous woman we admire and/or resent—have wasted time chasing perfection that doesn’t exist, and feeling like crap for failing. So I asked Cate Blanchett bluntly, trying to keep the intimidating image of her in full Queen Elizabeth regalia out of my mind: Will women who buy these products really end up with skin like yours?
She paused. Stepping delicately around the pitfall I’d dug, determined not to discredit the pricey serum she was being paid to help sell, she explained that so many factors contribute to good skin. She’s stayed out of the sun all her life, she said, because her mother drummed into her head how terribly important it was, and that’s probably a big part of why she’s got such great skin now. And her mother had been born with great skin, she mused, and genetics must play a role, mustn’t it?
I kept pushing. “When we see your skin in movies,” I said, “it’s so remarkable…”
Give her points for honesty.
She interrupted me. Movies are lit very carefully, she explained, searching for a way to tell me that even she doesn’t look flawless when she wakes up in the morning. But then something stopped her. Maybe it was a publicist frowning at her from across the room or maybe she just realized we’d strayed off topic. The curtain silently dropped back into place, she returned to discussing SK-II, and our conversation was over moments later.
I get it. She couldn’t come out and say that this company was using her genetically blessed, forever sun-protected skin, and her formidable celebrity, and a whole lot of carefully lit and probably expertly retouched photography, to sell wildly expensive little bottles of lotion that may or may not be any more effective than things you can buy at the drugstore.
The beauty business is too deeply entrenched in our culture, and we’ve been too fully indoctrinated. She plays her role, and the women of America play ours. We gamble on the promises of each new product, then blame ourselves as much as anybody when we don’t look like the beautiful woman in the beautiful advertisement. I see it each time the nation’s attention turns to analyzing a particular celebrity’s physical beauty and finding it wanting, a process that will begin again any day now.
It’s just over a week until we critique the faces and bodies on the Oscar red carpet down to the microscopic level. And clearly we’re due: It’s been months since we analyzed the surprise morphing of Renee Zellweger’s formerly cherubic face, then analyzed the merits of that analysis the following day. We paused only briefly in mid-December to question whether Britney Spears’ rock-hard abs and line-free face had been mildly or heavily Photoshopped on the cover of Women’s Health.
Any day now, some Professionally Beautiful Person will appear suddenly looking noticeably more beautiful than before. The digisphere will unleash its collective crime-solving skills to assess which type of work she had done, critique the before-and-after, and get outraged if she swears her beauty boost came simply from healthy living.
Then we’ll argue over whether anyone had right to be critiquing her at all.
For a day or two, this process may claim your time and energy. But I’m guessing, if you’re female, you may still find a few spare minutes to critique your own face and body far more brutally than you’d assess any celebrity.
Variations on this abound, and you’ve witnessed them: Some female celebrity, now in her 40s, shocks the world by showing up in public looking… like she really is in her 40s. That once-dewy face, the one we’ve known so well since she was a starlet, the one that was supposed to stay flawless forever, will have lines on it. The kind of lines your mom has. The same ones, maybe, that you have.
The world will not be pleased.
“Why doesn’t she DO something? How can she go out like that?” commenters will demand to know, as if federal laws have been broken.
Or the opposite will happen: Some famous woman will venture out in public looking physically not herself, obviously having failed at regaining her past beauty (how dare you, 81-year-old Kim Novak). She’ll look different, or weirdly waxy or distorted, like some amateur with a steak knife did some additional sculpting of the Venus de Milo and ruined it for all of us.
A large portion of America will be annoyed at having to see the awkward results written all over this woman’s once-envied face. Others will be thrilled to mock her, and that will leave the rest of us frustrated at the whole mess, and wishing the judgy people would just stop talking.
However our next cele-beauty eruption gets triggered, hours will be spent discussing whether this woman chose the right procedure, the right injectible, the right surgeon, and whether her face or body needed fixing to begin with, and how much fixing is too much, and how much just isn’t enough these days. If only Cate Blanchett had told her about SK-II, right?
Or if she’d only stayed in the shadows. Why didn’t she avoid the paparazzi by sending someone else to Whole Foods to buy her groceries? Then we’d never have to know that even the richest and prettiest among us can’t stop the clock.
And yet for all the noise and schadenfreude and overwrought analysis, this ritual will teach us nothing. It will bring us no closer to making sense of our collective obsession with youth and beauty. It will make women no less dissatisfied with themselves, no less critical of their own faces and bodies. So many words spilled and hours spent, and yet your daughters, if you’ve got them, will be no better off than any previous generation of women.
The only lasting impact is that we’ll be distracted once again from the fact that it’s all been a scam. So in this brief lull between instances of beauty-related public outrage and fluffy announcements about amazing new products, I’m going to state that truth for the record:
- NONE OF IT WORKS AS ADVERTISED.
Despite the mind-blowing technology in your pocket that allows you to view Kylie Jenner’s face at extreme magnification and weigh in publicly on whether her lips have been artificially plumped, all humans still visibly age. We can stop looking for the solution and blaming ourselves for not having the unlimited beauty budget we’d need to buy it. The product we’re seeking doesn’t exist. There is nothing out there that can make 45-year-old You look just like 25-year-old You. Except Photoshop. Every woman on this earth will look older as she ages, no matter how many promises the beauty-industrial complex makes (you boys will age, too, though I don’t suppose this fact keeps most of you awake at night).
Most people can turn the clock back 10 years with healthy habits, a good cleanser and the right DNA. Many 35-year-olds now look 25 on a good day. You can probably look 35 as your 45th birthday approaches, assuming you’re willing to cover every strand of gray, drink lots of water, sleep eight hours per night and go to the gym. But 10 free years is all you get. Nothing out there will keep even the richest and prettiest among us from aging.
This was illustrated with shocking clarity last January when Diane Keaton appeared at the Golden Globes praising her (not so praiseworthy, depending on your opinion) friend Woody Allen. She looked stylish as ever, but she also looked more or less like the 68-year-old woman she happened to be. Her face wasn’t distorted by surgery, so that was a plus. But she had prominent wrinkles underneath her hipster glasses, especially when a smile lit up her aging face.
Moments later, TV coverage cut to a commercial for L’Oreal cosmetics starring… Diane Keaton. In this snippet of video, she seemed digitally blurred to give her skin a glowing surface. All those lines we’d just seen were magically gone. You would have thought such public proof that even this incredibly wealthy celebrity couldn’t actually keep from wrinkling would have blown the lid off the whole scam. But people spent a day discussing what a marketing fail it had been, how embarrassing it must have been for Keaton and L’Oreal, then went back to shopping for the ultimate cream or gel or serum that would keep them from wrinkling.
We’ve been taught to ignore the fact that…
- THOSE PEOPLE YOU WISH YOU LOOKED LIKE? They don’t really look that way either.
I spent a disturbingly educational year working at a celebrity tabloid, where I saw that even the “candid” photos showing celebrities in their “natural” state were Photoshopped before publication. Unless a photo was designed to shock people with the awful secret of just how bad someone beautiful now looks, every single image was adjusted. Whiter teeth, smoother skin, hair thickened with Photoshop’s cloning tool. “No one wants to see them the way they really look,” a graphic designer at my tabloid told me with a shrug.
Every now and then, a movie star points out the fakery. But the eventual pressure of aging can weaken the resolve of even strident Photoshop critics. Kate Winslet used to object publicly when magazines digitally slimmed and smoothed her. But lately she has quietly graced magazine covers with a flawless face that’s hard to reconcile with the one she wears in public. I’ve got to wonder if she thinks of those stunning cover photos as she peers into the mirror at night, and she feels crappy about the gulf between reality and marketing-driven fantasy.
The gossip magazines do it, the beauty magazines do it like crazy, and now we find that some celebrities even do it with their own home movies: This investigative piece from Mashable on the rise of “digital beauty” should be required reading for every adolescent girl who’s beginning to critique her face and body in the mirror each morning and find herself increasingly disappointing.
The perfection that we berate these women for attaining through surgical means, or for seeming to possess and then inevitably losing, doesn’t exist. Which is why…
- EVEN THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMEN IN THE WORLD RARELY FEEL BEAUTIFUL.
The beauty industrial-complex has done THAT GOOD a job at making women feel self-conscious. In the makeup rooms on the sets of soap operas (remember them?), I used to see remarkably beautiful women uncomfortably discuss the “flaws” they were desperate to have the makeup artists fix. They weren’t being modest, or trying to deflect the jealousy of other women. They were worried.
That discovery started me on a habit of asking conventionally pretty women how it feels to live in their skin. After nearly two decades, I have never come across a beautiful woman who didn’t see the curve of her belly or the shadows under her eyes or her fledgling laugh lines as disturbingly prominent, crowding out any sense that she might actually look nice today.
As I get into my forties, and my friends are raising teenage daughters, I ask them, too. I find the same depressing result: These radiant girls can only see the “problems” that beauty magazines and ads promise to fix. I can’t blame them. I was one of them. I was the young model at the photo shoot who felt like an imposter when other women said they wished they looked more like me. So much time wasted.
Fortunately, we do have a choice. We can stop berating ourselves for not getting closer to an ideal that even the world’s most beautiful, richest people can’t attain. We can stop this obsessive journey, because there is no destination.
Here’s a radical suggestion: What if, instead of being upset at the imperfect or weirdly perfected celebrity face that America is discussing online, or getting upset at the haters that pointed it out, next time we got upset at the companies that swear their products will do the impossible? Challenge the storyline of the conglomerates that work so hard to make us feel we need fixing and keep us so busy discussing the fixing of celebrities that we don’t even notice they’re conning us.
Everyone ages, and no one is perfect without digital assistance. So be nice to yourself when you look in the mirror tomorrow morning. Remind the women in your life to be kind to themselves. And be nice to the celebrity who is desperately trying to look the way society has decided she should. Save your ire for the companies who promise results they know they can’t begin to offer, smiling at you while suggesting you just didn’t buy enough of their snake oil to perfect yourself yet.