When Renée Zellweger appeared at the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, she looked very different from the actress who won an Academy Award after rising to fame 20 years ago. And a lot of people didn't like it. They suggested that she'd become a monster, a sunken-cheeked, puffy-faced victim of Botox and a Hollywood culture that is obsessed with youth, be it real or nipped, tucked, and injected. But those attacks — whether in humor, disbelief, or outrage — did more to dehumanize her than any amount of plastic surgery ever could.
Within hours of Zellweger's appearance, media outlets from the Huffington Post to Buzzfeed to the Daily Mail were screaming that she was "unrecognizable." Even the mainstream press got in on it: CNN's headline asked, "Renée Zellweger, is that you?" and the Telegraph asked, "Renée Zellweger: what has happened to her face?"
Predictably, the comments on some of the articles were even worse. "It looks like she's on smack," wrote one reader. Another speculated that she must be "so empty inside, so lonely." And others simply made fun of her: in response to a piece on Buzzfeed that juxtaposed old photos of Zellweger and ones taken Monday night, one reader wrote, "I just don't understand why you posted a picture of Mickey Rourke."
The most troubling comments, however, were not those that made fun of or merely insulted Zellweger, but those that suggested that she had stripped herself of the very thing that made her who she was. "Why oh why do people whose entire career is built on their FACE insist on changing it, therefore defeating the one notable, hirable attribute they had," wrote one reader, while another wrote, "I loved her old face, and she was so unique. I don't even know this person… What is wrong with people?"
The implication in each of those comments is that Zellweger betrayed more than her fans, who want her to remain the cute, unconventionally pretty young woman they "met" almost 20 years ago when she squeaked, vulnerably, "You had me at hello," in the 1996 hit Jerry Maguire. They also imply that she betrayed herself, her own humanity.
"There's nothing as significant as the human face," wrote Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead. "Nor as eloquent. We can never really know another person, except by our first glance at him. Because, in that glance, we know everything."
Leaving her politics aside, Rand captured in those lines our fascination with faces, and our irrational belief that they embody a person's soul. But they do not — they are, by definition, a front. The word "face" shares the same root as the word "facade."
This Summer, an unnamed author wrote a piece for the UK-based website Philosopher's Mail about how looks can lead us to marry the "wrong people." Judging a person by their face alone, wrote the author, "is about as wise as thinking that a photograph of the outside of a power station can tell us everything we need to know about nuclear fission."
In other words, we don't know Renée Zellweger, and we never really did. She is an actress; we know only the parts she played. And now, she has reemerged at age 45, after five years out of the spotlight, with a new look — and people feel betrayed.
Meanwhile, in response to the negative attention she's gotten since Monday night, Zellweger announced last night that her new appearance is, in fact, evidence of her newfound inner peace. "Perhaps I look different," she said. "Who doesn't as they get older? But I am different. I'm happy."
And maybe that happiness, far more than her face, is what's so jarring, so foreign. "The weird part is that, side by side, all the features look the same," wrote a reader in response to Buzzfeed's then-and-now photos of Zellweger. "The ears, eye shape, nose, even the lips. So what the heck looks so different about her? I can't place my finger on it."
Of course you can't. Contentment doesn't "look like" anything. But you know it when you see it.
Check out more great stories from AskMen:
- Is Plastic Surgery Common Among Men?
- Fame Is a Disease
- Look Back at Renée Zellweger's Style Transformation