The Hypocrisy of Plastic Surgery

We can pretend that we pity Renee Zellweger for falling prey to society's expectations about women and aging, and condemn her for being so vain, but studies show that more, not fewer, people are undergoing plastic surgery. Botox is up. Fillers are up. And women and men are starting younger, too, not even willing to wait and see how well or not they age, but encouraged by doctors who promise better results if such work is done "preventatively." In the best cases, the argument often goes, no one will even know you've done anything at all.

And that, of course, is key to the discussion about plastic surgery, Zellweger's or anyone else's. More than ever, as a culture we accept it. We just don't want to know about it.

Consider that the most obvious examples of plastic surgery are also the ones that land on the lists of the most egregious. Bruce Jenner. Melanie Griffith. Lara Flynn Boyle. Such examples often signify the end of a career. Dirty Dancing actress Jennifer Grey has been called out for years as the poster child for bad plastic surgery after undergoing a nose job that altered her appearance so drastically that it removed any sense of her character. (Indeed, nearly 30 years after the film that made her famous, she is still best known as "Dirty Dancing actress Jennifer Grey.") Every time a new example (or a new face) pops up, we lament society's expectations regarding aging and beauty, before condemning the celebrity in question for falling prey to those expectations.

But countless celebrities undergo plastic surgery and cosmetic enhancements every year. Certain who are praised for their good looks have likely had work done, if very good work -- Angelina Jolie, Blake Lively, Gwen Stefani, Kim Kardashian -- while others, like Jennifer Aniston and Seth Rogen, have altered their appearance through significant weight loss. They all look great, and are celebrated as such on magazine covers, fashion spreads, red carpet photos. When it's good -- that is, when we can't tell: Has she? Or hasn't she? -- we prefer to say that a celebrity "looks good for her age," "looks fit at 50," or some other half-truth that shades the real one.

Which, of course, is that it's the majority undergoing some sort of procedure. Not the minority. But because we're reluctant to talk about our own vanity-driven alterations, we tend to want to dismiss and condemn those of others. The real objection to Zellweger's new face isn't that she has one. The objection is that we can't pretend it didn't happen. Indeed, in a review of Diehard 4, praise of Bruce Willis included the fact that he had "no obviously discernible plastic surgery to mess up his face like Sly Stallone or Michael Douglas." It's hard to tell what author Nikki Finke found worse: the "messed up faces" or that such procedures were so obvious.

Here's the truth: Celebrities are vain. So are millions of the rest of us. This isn't even a particularly difficult truth, because there is nothing wrong with vanity. Vanity is healthy. It is natural. It doesn't signify a culture being overrun by superficiality. In fact, vanity is part of developing good self-esteem and, as we know, self-esteem is important.

And yet every time a celebrity, or perhaps even a friend, displays an overt sense of vanity, we lash out. Why did you do that to yourself? You looked great as you were. We pretend we're appalled. But if we're honest, it's more that we're judgmental, picking and choosing which sort of superficiality is acceptable to us on any given day. And we're scared of, well, looking vanity in the face. For example: Bruce Jenner is very definitely not celebrated, and I can't help but wonder: If the work he's plainly had done had made him better-looking, would someone like Jimmy Fallon comment on Jenner's "100 percent recyclable" goods?

Therein lies the hypocrisy of all the backlash directed at Zellweger -- or Jenner or Meg Ryan or Pamela Anderson -- and the real trouble with all the talk surrounding anyone's new or different appearance. We make it about them, when it's all about us. When we react to a celebrity's new face, we're reacting to its obviousness, its unavoidability. Changes that are "too obvious" make us uncomfortable in their display of vanity, because it's the exact sort of vanity we try to keep to ourselves. When someone like, say, Sandra Bullock turns up looking, at 50, remarkably refreshed, though, it's easier to turn the other cheek. But why? "Good" plastic surgery doesn't eliminate the vanity. It does, however, make it easier to ignore our own.