November 9, 2011

AUSTRALIA: Ageing and the 'beauty paradox'

SYDNEY, NSW / The Sydney Morning Herald / Life & Style / Beauty / November 9, 2011

Easier for some ... Rachel Weisz is a vocal opponent of cosmetic surgery.

From Sunday Life

Attractive actresses rallying against plastic surgery may be doing as much harm as good, argues Vivian Diller.

News about the formation of an "anti-cosmetic surgery league" in the UK earlier this year probably made most women of a certain age smile - at least those whose un-Botoxed faces still allowed them that expression.

How inspiring it was to read that Kate Winslet had enlisted her British pals Emma Thompson and Rachel Weisz to the cause. Winslet told the UK's Daily Telegraph, "[Cosmetic surgery] goes against my morals, the way that my parents brought me up and what I consider to be natural beauty." Weisz agreed, saying, "People who look too perfect don't look sexy or particularly beautiful." Thompson, the eldest of the three, added, "We're in this awful youth-driven thing now where everybody needs to look 30 at 60."

Following this proclamation, women around the world have been called upon to join in by taking "the pledge" against plastic surgery. Author Christie Mellow wrote on The Huffington Post website, "I will solemnly pledge to not have chunks of plastic inserted under the skin of my cheekbones and my chin."

Three cheers! Hip, hip, hooray for these three brave British actresses and the women they are rallying in protest against plastic surgery! But the more I think about it, the less positive I feel about the whole idea of an anti-cosmetic surgery league, especially one promoted by this trio of famous women. While I applaud them for raising awareness of the problems created by our culture's obsession with youth, beauty and perfection, and using their celebrity position to make their point of view clear, the impact on everyday women could have unexpected and undesirable results.

Women like Winslet, Weisz and Thompson can afford - financially and otherwise - to oppose surgery. They were blessed with good genes as well as limitless opportunities to care for their physical selves. Furthermore, they probably haven't yet experienced their true "uh-oh" moment in the ageing process - that gut-felt time when the mirror says things are headed south and are never turning back. Maybe Thompson, at 52, has had a glimpse of hers, but 36-year-old Winslet? Or 41-year-old Weisz? Besides, with their personal trainers, stylists, and fashion and beauty consultants available for constant upkeep, can they really know what everyday women in their 50s and 60s are feeling and thinking?

With women being so self-critical anyway, they just do not need more to feel bad about. "Immoral" is a strong word, and women who choose to improve their appearance already feel conflicted. They hear "50 is the new 40", and if they don't look and feel that way, they are told to "reinvent, revitalise and rejuvenate". What follows for most women is ambivalence, a collision of values I call the "beauty paradox". Do we focus on our bodies and faces because it will make us feel better or because we are victims of the anti-ageing craze? Are we choosing to look younger than our years to stay competitive - professionally and personally - or have we no other choice in this youth-obsessed culture? Should we even care at all, when there are so many other more important things to worry about? We have worked too hard and come too far to be so confused by superficial vanity, right?

Well, not exactly. The way I see it, women today are in the throes of an anthropological experiment. We are living longer than ever before, expecting to feel attractive and vital well into our 80s and 90s - with few role models to lead the way. We hear that "age is just a number" or "it's mind over matter", and that our goal is to age with grace and dignity, but what does that really mean? Let ourselves go "au naturel"? Become grandmothers and dismiss the importance of how we look, dress and care for ourselves? I don't think so; it's more complicated.

Plastic surgery and non-invasive cosmetic procedures arose because they promised "simple" solutions to women's complicated fears of ageing. They were viewed as hope in a jar, magic in a needle, transformation by scalpel, especially as they became more refined and easily accessible. But as we watched their rise in popularity, we also witnessed the start of a slippery slope: increasing overuse, too often provided by non-licensed practitioners, and offered to women who gave little thought to the long-term consequences. Then came the botched jobs, the frozen faces and the Joan Rivers disasters.

But is an anti-cosmetic surgery league the best antidote to a youth-obsessed culture gone wild? Need we condemn women who opt for dermatological or cosmetic procedures if they chose them to feel better about themselves? Do these famous - and gorgeous - celebrities need be so sanctimonious about it all?

Instead, how about we all join together to become clearer about the choices we have - surgical or otherwise - while we challenge the unrealistic images created by the media and the dangers they present for women trying to achieve them. Isn't working together against the narrowing definition of beauty - rather than narrowing of women's choices - our ultimate goal?

Surely this anti-cosmetic surgery movement is related to larger issues that go beyond film stars, celebrities and the morality of altering their images in life or on the screen. This is not just about Hollywood but about all women who feel enormous pressure to maintain their youth and beauty in unrealistic ways. It's about how they can deal with these pressures and find viable means to feel good about themselves at any age.

Women are starting to view extreme and radical transformations through cosmetic surgery as a trend to rebel against. The desire for authenticity is beginning to gain momentum - among celebrities and everyday women alike.

Let's support this important movement and all that it stands for. But, most of all, let's support women who stand for the freedom to choose.

Vivian Diller is a psychologist and co-author of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change.

This article first appeared on The Huffington Post.

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